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How to Handle Misinformation

Attorneys Appearing in Court

I love browsing the Legal Advice subreddit. Sometimes the advice is pretty sound; more often than not it’s “get a lawyer”. At least one time, Legal Advice probably saved a life; in a strange case where mysterious Post-It notes kept popping up in a user’s house, another user recognized that he might have been inhaling carbon monoxide. He was, the leak was fixed, and the problem went away. There are other cases, though, of more dubious advice being given; bed bugs causing short-term memory loss and disputes by non-lawyers over how the law actually works. The Internet is a wild place, and we see its dystopian and utopian elements rubbing shoulders; misinformation is everywhere online.

For professionals, it can be tricky to dissuade clients from going online to find solutions to problems. Doctors know this problem all too well; patients go on WebMD, decide that they have a condition, and report that condition to their doctor, insisting it’s what they must be sick with. The doctor can explain to them in countless different ways why they suspect the patient doesn’t have a particular illness, but when some people get an idea in their heads, it’s hard to dislodge it. The same can hold true for attorneys and their clients; the client goes online, sees a story similar to theirs (or posts their own), and gets advice that is either incomplete or just plain wrong. As an attorney, it’s your duty to try to explain the the client the errors they’re making, but what do you do when the client is just too stubborn?

There’s a few different ways to approach the problem, each depending on the type of client you’re dealing with. The easiest type of client is the rationalist; a problem-solver who wants to find the best, most logical solution. These clients can be talked out of bad ideas by exposing the flaws in their reasoning, gently. Go through their proposed legal solution with them step-by-step, even if it’s evident to you that the reasoning is flawed. Once this is done, confirm your understanding of what they want, then explain why your solution is better, or their solution is implausible. If you see the reasoning in it, they will too.

The second type you might encounter is the gambler; they’re enthusiastic about a particular approach because they believe it will net them more in the end. A solution might be impractical, implausible, or completely infeasible, but they want to use it because they think there will be bigger payoff in the end. For these types, show them why your endgame is better than theirs; explain how the payoff, while not bigger, is more certain, and focus on the consequences of using the wrong approach. By honing in on value, and the endgame, you’ll appeal to the client’s core desire to get results.

There’s a lot of other people who might go online for advice, and each bit of misinformation will require earnest patience on your part. Sometimes, all the effort it takes to inform clients can leave you running behind schedule for an appearance; qualified court appearance attorneys are available to help reduce that burden.