Asking for legal advice in a public forum is generally not against the law, but it is usually very foolish, and can lead to unexpected and unfortunate consequences – both for the ones asking and for the ones answering. The SDMB does not go far enough in discouraging it, IMO. When you are suing someone or thinking about suing someone, or especially if you are getting sued, the wisest course is seeking prompt and confidential advice from a qualified lawyer who practices in your jurisdiction. The lawyer will know the law, can render competent advice, and can do so under the protection of the attorney-client privilege.
Asking a general or hypothetical question about the law is fine, and seldom dangerous. But asking for particular advice about specific facts can be very dangerous. It can be dangerous for the member asking the question because, if the case does get litigated, the opposing party’s attorney will usually ask whom else (other than his or her attorney) the member has discussed the case with. The member must then disclose the SDMB thread, in which case a good opposing attorney can have a field day. Whatever the member said may reveal knowledge or strategy that the opposing attorney can use against the member in litigation – and no matter how harmless the comments may seem on the boards, a good attorney will use them in litigation in whatever way helps his or her client’s case. The member will presumably have read the thread that he or she started, and will thus be burdened with notice of every wild-ass guess or theory posted in the thread, so that the opposing attorney can inquire into why the member did or did not act in accordance with the suggestion once it was posted. If some answering post suggests the legally correct course, and the asking member did not immediately adopt it, then a court can easily infer that the member was acting with reckless or willful disregard for the law from that point forward. Even if the information posted on the board was not inherently harmful, the mere act of posting it in a public forum probably waives any claim of confidentiality that the member may otherwise have enjoyed, and may even void the attorney-client privilege with respect to any subject in the litigation that was the subject of the public disclosure. The opposing attorney can then invade even otherwise privileged conversations between the member and his or her attorney.
Answering a question asking for particular legal advice about a specific case can also be dangerous. If the member answering the question ventures a guess about the law, but is not a lawyer, then he or she may be practicing law without a license – a crime in most jurisdictions. And while prosecutors and bar associations are probably not scouring the SDMB looking for potential defendants, a disgruntled opponent who learns about the thread can wreak havoc for the SDMB and for the Chicago Reader, Inc., by simply bringing it to the attention of a prosecutor – because even if no prosecution results, an investigation will. I am surprised that it hasn’t happened yet (assuming that it hasn’t).
If the member answering the question is a lawyer, but is not licensed in the member’s jurisdiction, then he or she may still be practicing law without a license – in which case a prosecution is much more likely if the opposing party instigates a complaint, since a lawyer should know better. And if the lawyer is properly licensed in the member’s jurisdiction, then simply answering the question may establish an attorney-client relationship – hence the disclaimers that so many lawyers post in their answers that “I am not your lawyer and you are not my client” as a result of posting an answer. Whether such a disclaimer is effective is debatable: some jurisdictions are extremely liberal about finding an attorney-client relationship from even casual communication between an attorney and someone seeking legal advice. And if an attorney-client relationship is established, then rendering legal advice in a public forum – thereby waiving the attorney-client privilege – is almost certainly malpractice.
To put it another way: The SDMB is a great forum for asking (or debating) general or even hypothetical questions seeking factual information about what the law says, where it came from, what it means, and how it works in practice. It is a bad place for asking questions seeking legal advice about particular cases. For actual legal advice, the wisest course is seeking prompt and confidential advice from a qualified lawyer who practices in your jurisdiction.