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.”