There’s an odd thing I noticed whenever the discussion gets around to laws or issues even remotely associated with the law. Inevitably, someone or more than one someones will give an opinion, and immediately follow the opinion with the acronym: IANAL. I Am Not A Lawyer.

I even use this myself whenever I talk about arbitration, copyright, or anything along these lines. It makes no sense, though, to use this term.

We give opinions on politics, but we don’t write IANAP (I Am Not A Politician). We also don’t specifically highlight our lack of professional association when discussing photography (IANAPP); cooking (IANAC); finances (IANAA); journalism (IANAJ); squid (IANAMB); or technology (IANAG). Especially technology–mention anything on technology, and everyone is an expert, everyone has an opinion.

For some reason, though, perhaps we’re intimidated by law or lawyers, when we give an opinion on law, legal decisions, legal issues, or anything even remotely associated with the law, normally bold and opinionated people are overwhelmed with a strong urg to self-deprecate: IANAL.

Some would say we use the term to ensure that people don’t mistake us for lawyers, and assume we know more than we do. Here’s a clue: How you can tell who is or is not a lawyer in a discussion thread? The people offering legal advice are not lawyers. The people going, “Wow. Man, that sucks. You should get a lawyer”, are.

Lawyers have to be especially careful with their online interactions because there are some very rigid rules surrounding the profession–more so than many professions. Lawyers also have to be careful because they never know when their words might come back to bite them, in court or other proceedings. Of course, the same could be said for people in any profession.

Identifying whether you’re a lawyer or not to an online discussion really doesn’t add that much to the quality of the discussion. If an opinion given is bad or silly, that fact will soon be made apparent by others in the thread; it will get torn apart by those more knowledgeable. If the opinion is good, or interesting, does is really matter if the person is a lawyer? Consider people like Seth, who has made a passionate study of DMCA and censorware–should we value his opinion less because he’s not a lawyer?

When it comes to discussing legal topics, we shouldn’t feel that we have to attach a disclaimer to our opinion. Anyone who misconstrues a lively debate for a course of action in court really doesn’t deserve our sympathy. The same for anyone following advice given in forums and comment threads by people they don’t know. I marvel all the time how we’ll download software or modify our computers based on the advice of total strangers.

Think of comments with legal advice from unknown people as being the equivalent of a store coupon: valuable only if what’s being offered is really what we need; otherwise, they’re only worth $0.0002 cents, each.

Still, some in the legal profession may be uncomfortable with not establishing their professional affiliation during a legal discussion. Instead of IANAL, what the lawyers should do is use an acronym of their own: IAAL–I Am A Lawyer. Perhaps they can use Esq. after their names (“SexyKitten Esq”).

Or stick with, “Wow. Man, that sucks. You should get a lawyer.”

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9 Responses to IANAL: Not!

  1. IANAL is frequently followed by TINLA (This Is Not Legal Advice). Depending on the list in question though, you can also see the combination ‘IAAL, but TINLA’, sometimes extended with ‘for legal advice, you should consult an attorney in your jurisdiction.’

    Hmm. Preview seems broken.

    UPDATE: preview seems broken for the first comment only.

  2. Scott Reynen says:

    “or technology (IANAG)”

    I Am Not A Gasbag?

  3. Doug Alder says:

    It’s more for legalities I would presume as in most jurisdictions it is illegal to impersonate an officer of the court. If you give the impression that you are dispensing legal advice then you could, theoretically at least, find yourself in need of a real lawyer.

  4. Charles says:

    We have a similar expression in our foreign language study group, “BIANANS,” But I Am Not A Native Speaker. This usually comes up when someone needs an assessment of their grammar, preferably by a native speaker, whose judgement is assumed to be correct. Ironically, this disclaimer was created by a PhD linguist who wrote several grammar books, he is far more accurate than most native speakers. Many second-language learners have a far better grasp of the rules than native speakers, although they may not apply them with the intuitive ease of a native speaker.

  5. Shelley says:

    Hmm, I’ll check it out Michael.

    Scott, Geek. Geek. IANA Geek! Though Gasbag kind of works, too.

    Doug, I can see that. I checked about that and giving advice, and that seems more in line with, if you’re setting yourself up as an alternative to a lawyer, or even faking being a lawyer. But the days of trying to prevent layman from not giving each other advice about legal issues are long gone. There’s probably dozens, maybe even hundreds of forums helping people on arbitration.

    Charles, I think I’m going to change my tag line to BIANANS. Our acronyms are helpful.

    What I’d like to see is forums or weblog threads where you can discuss aspects of the law, and everyone can participate without worry of getting busted or losing your law license. Discussions of law, especially those pending in Congress, should not be kept a ‘secret’ ritual, available only for arcane wizards.

    Maybe the whole forum should get a label: no advice is given here, and then that’s enough.

  6. Frankly, it’s not just legal, medical, or accounting advice we’re constrained from giving. For example, it is probably not a good idea to have discussions about consulting rates or other pricing within a community. See this venerable HTML Writers Guild FAQ.

  7. Scott Reynen says:

    Shelley, I regularly see lawyers talk about new or proposed laws or court decisions (though not legal advice) on MetaFilter. (Also, geek! Of course.)

    Michael, as I understand it, talk of rates is only risky within the context of an industry-specific community. We can talk about rates pretty much anywhere else without risk of being accused of price-fixing. Lawyers, on the other hand, seem hesitant to give legal advice anywhere at all.

  8. I just wish the trolls at Inside Higher Ed had to post IANAP, I am not a professor, after their tired cliche-riddled rants against academics.

  9. IANYL (I Am Not Your Lawyer)