If you want to gaze into the stupidity practiced by Americans on a day-to-day basis, Reddit’s r/legaladvice is a goldmine. Over 460,000 people subscribe to the eight-year-old subreddit, which consists of beleaguered average citizens asking for legal advice about situations that are sometimes horrific and sometimes blackly comic—like the guy stealing ketamine from a veterinarian and then wondering if he can sue the vet for it being “tainted,” or the person repeatedly filing complaints with his condo building for “pet birds chirping” in response to birds outside his window. The best—or worst, depending on your outlook—posts wind up on r/bestoflegaladvice or the Twitter account @legaladvice_txt, where they are inevitably gawked at and mocked.
But it doesn’t take long to find examples of people who have actually gotten good advice, like an all-time top post about a woman who was taken to small claims court for sitting on someone’s laptop at a party. The OP (original poster) described breaking the laptop screen and offering to pay $2,200 (the cost of the whole laptop), before the laptop owner insisted she had to pay for the price of an upgrade. Commenters told her she would only need to pay the costs of repairs or the price of the depreciated original laptop. As a result, the OP told the forum in a later update, she fought the laptop owner in small claims court and wound up paying less than $300.
Reddit isn’t exactly known as a wellspring of wisdom, and r/legaladvice includes a disclaimer that any comment “is for informational purposes only and should not be considered final or official advice.” It’s advice for people who might need legal advice, but it’s not legal advice. All posts are anonymous, no one is practicing law without a license, and no one is taking any money. That said, the subreddit is one of the more tightly moderated on the Reddit network. The first thing you notice on r/legaladvice is how many comments are deleted for being off-topic, abusive, or for offering illegal advice. OPs are to give specific details about their problems, including which city and state they are in, without anything that could be potentially identifying, like “news articles, photographs, license plate numbers,” according to the posting rules.
The mod team consists of 21 people, most of whom are lawyers themselves, they say. “It’s about 60-40 in favor of attorneys,” Shane, a moderator and an attorney in the state of Washington, told me over the phone. (I agreed not to publish the last names or usernames of the moderators who spoke to me, though I did verify their identities.) “But not all of the moderators are attorneys," Shane added. "Some of them are what I would characterize as subject matter experts. It’s an open secret that Cypher_Blue, for example, is a police officer. We have a couple of law enforcement moderators, and then one or two out of the child protective services world.”
Not every comment on every thread can be hand-checked by a specialist to ensure accuracy, even when you factor in the extended network of “quality contributors”—commenters who have participated for an extensive period of time and have been recognized by mods for giving good answers. That being said, most people in need of advice can’t afford an attorney, no matter how desperately they need one. What other resources are there to turn to?
The Legal Services Corporation noted in its 2017 Justice Gap Report that “86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help,” even though “71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem in the last year.” A 2015-2016 US Consumer Law Survey Report noted that the national hourly rate average for even an attorney of just one to three years of experience is $241. Prices go up from there. Databases of lawyers that attempt to help people seeking help—Avvo Legal Services, Rocket Lawyer, and LegalZoom—have all met major backlash. Avvo, for example, had to deal with numerous class action lawsuits from lawyers who felt the ratings system hurt their businesses. And bar associations decried the service as unethical due to its use of legal fees to pay for things like the app’s marketing and referral fees.
"We’ve reached a point where the courts are fundamentally out of reach for the middle class in the United States.”
But one of the world’s leading experts in legal ethics agrees that state bar associations are currently ill-equipped to deal with unmet legal needs. “The bar needs to get on board with these online systems, because they’ve priced legal services out of range for so many consumers,” Deborah L. Rhode, a Stanford law professor, told me over the phone. "In an era in which people are used to getting information online, there’s just no way to shut these sites down. The bar has to both acknowledge its own contribution to the problem of unmet legal needs, and figure out a way that it can be helpful in these contexts and educating people about the risks of incorrect advice."
“If you look at the cost of even smaller legal matters, we’ve reached a point where the courts are fundamentally out of reach for the middle class in the United States,” Shane told me. “We fill a gap that exists, which isn’t as good as a real attorney-client relationship, but it fills an absolute need.”
This also leads to a preponderance of posts from minors, who can be seen frequently posting about matters ranging from school grievances to hostage scenarios. Though extreme cases can’t be verified, Jonathan, a labor organizer and r/legaladvice moderator, told me that they err on the side of these posts being true: “If a kid is in fact being held hostage by a step-parent or something like that, I’m not about ready to take the chance of not giving them advice.”
The specialization of r/legaladvice’s moderation team can be an asset, because knowledge areas are so specific that hiring an attorney doesn’t necessarily guarantee good answers to all your legal questions. “There’s a ton of evidence that suggests that it’s the experience much more than the legal credential that makes a difference in whether you get quality services,” Rhode said. “In countries where specialists are allowed to give legal advice, studies find that they do better than lawyers. They do it in a very defined practice area and they don’t stray out of their specialty. They often have much more knowledge about that limited set of problems.”
Think of it this way: You wouldn’t trust your divorce lawyer to help you deal with your eviction, but you might turn to your housing rights activist friend for advice that could save you your apartment. You wouldn’t ask a contract lawyer to help you get a green card, but you might get some advice on how to start the process through a social worker. The only advantage to an attorney, in these cases, is that you’d be able to sue them for malpractice if things went south. “The risk is always that they’re not going to get qualified advice,” Rhode added. “But in an era of increasing specialization, many of them would not do better with a licensed attorney half the time.”
Another gap filled by r/legaladvice is telling people when they need a lawyer—which is often the most important advice of all. In a forthcoming paper, Rhode wrote about a survey from the American Bar Association that found that two-thirds of Americans surveyed in 2013 reported having a “civil justice situation” in the previous year and a half. Only 9 percent of them described these situations as “legal,” however, suggesting they simply didn’t know what a lawyer could do for them. Here’s the kicker: Cost was critical in only 17 percent of cases. The most common reason these people didn’t get a lawyer was that they didn’t know they even needed one.
Many of the best, most helpful threads on r/legaladvice simply answer that question of whether someone needs an attorney or whether legal action is merited. There are a lot of people who are wondering if they can sue someone else, usually for very dumb reasons—like the person who wondered if they can sue McDonald’s for messing up their order periodically. A delightfully staggering number of people wonder if they can sue their exes—the most upvoted comment on that post is “hurting your feelings is not illegal.” (Reddit’s best work falls between r/legaladvice and r/relationships).
“In a situation where you might need an attorney, our role is to step in,” Jonathan said. “We try to make sure you’re equipped to know whether it’s the kind of situation you should be looking into it. What kind of attorney you should be looking for, what types of questions you should be asking when you have that initial meeting.”
The more you dig into the subreddit, the less frivolous it seems, especially as you get into megathreads and wikis that include links to numerous external legal sources, like emancipation laws, revenge porn laws, and labor laws sorted by state. I'm sure the people who have turned to r/legaladvice for legal help, or even just to learn, would agree.
“We have much more people who are passive readers than are active participants,” Shane said. “The fact that those random people can learn something useful is sort of great.”
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Nicole Clark on Twitter.