Google Helpouts for Legal Advice?

In it’s continued mission to organize the world’s useful information, Google has recently announced a new product: Helpouts.

From Google’s Official Blog:

What if getting help for a computer glitch, a leaky pipe, or a homework problem was as easy as clicking a button? What if you could connect via real-time video to a music teacher or a yoga instructor from the comfort of your home? What if you could get someone knowledgeable to get you “unstuck” when you really need it?

Today, we’re announcing Helpouts—a new way to get and give help over live video. Our goal is simple: help people help each other. We want to use the convenience and efficiency of the web to enable everyone, no matter where they are or what time it is, to easily connect with someone who can help.

Helpouts provide information-seekers the ability to parse through helpers based on qualifications, availability, price, ratings and reviews.

Hmmm… Haven’t we seen this before?

Helpouts for Lawyers?

At launch, Google is only rolling out Helpouts in a few categories. But don’t be surprised to see Helpouts for just about everything, including legal advice.

This will undoubtedly set many lawyers into a frenzy.

“Legal advice online? That’s insane! People will get hurt.”

But will Helpouts really revolutionize the legal industry? Attorney Jeffrey Taylor doesn’t think so:

“Signing up was a novelty, “let me see what this is like.” However, my real problem with the Helpouts program is that I’m not quite ready to try to explain to the disciplinary counsel at the Bar Association why a paid legal Helpout is more akin to using a credit card processor than fee sharing.

That is, paid Helpouts, which are the only kind I’d offer, require that you split your profits — 20% to be exact — with Google. Since most bar associations forbid non-lawyer fee sharing, the Associations will likely forbid Helpouts because of the high “platform fee.” I could be wrong, but I’d like you to test the theory first, please.

Of course, you can do a free Helpout, but I doubt there will be very many legal issues that are 1) localized to a jurisdiction (UPL concerns); and 2) easy enough to answer in a Helpouts session (malpractice concerns). I suspect that perhaps the best Helpout might be a contract review, or something similar, which would only take minutes to review, require no in-depth legal research, and could be completing in 30 to 60 minutes.”

(You should also check out the discussion in the comments on Taylor’s post)

No one wants to be a guinea pig. And knowing how bar associations and lawyers typically respond to new stuff, it will probably be some time before Helpouts become a common way for clients to hire lawyers.

On the other hand, offering free Helpouts seems like the type of legal knowledge-sharing that’s already rampant online.

However, as Taylor recognizes, free Helpouts are not without ethics issues.

Sam points out another potential Helpouts ethics problem related to recordings.

But even if lawyers are able to navigate the ethics issues of free Helpouts, do they really offer any value to lawyers and clients?

Value to Lawyers

Many lawyers still don’t think that offering free advice leads to paying clients. And there can be no doubt, a lot of it doesn’t. This is nothing new.

The difference today is a matter of the expectations of legal services consumers. Today, people expect to have access to information.

They expect to be able to do research on their legal issues and their prospective lawyers.

Lawyers might not like this, but there’s little they can do to stop it.

There is, of course, a delicate dance of what, how and to whom, knowledge should be shared for free.

But if you think that you are the holder of some secret information, chances are that you’re just plain wrong.

Sharing knowledge and information online has been proven over and over again to attract potential clients and demonstrate a lawyer’s knowledge and experience.

That case is simply closed.

Whether Google Helpouts will become a useful and ethical platform for lawyers is yet to be seen. But platforms like this will continue to emerge.

And while you might not see it yet, lawyers who completely ignore the web will be at a significant disadvantage to those who engage it.

Value to Clients?

If you’ve ever participated in an online forum or question and answer site, you already know that the quality of information online ranges from sewage to extremely helpful.

And online legal advice is no exception. Most is pretty useless. Some is dangerous. And yes, some can be helpful. Especially for people who are very unsophisticated or don’t know a lawyer or have people they trust who know lawyers (yes, even in this hyper-saturated legal market, these people exist).

The truth is, it’s really irrelevant. People will continue to demand information. Other people will supply it. Some will be good. Most will be horrible.

But it can’t be stopped.