As a columnist, expert and blogger on legal and tax issues affecting small businesses and entrepreneurial companies, you can bet your bottom dollar I get a ton of emails, phone calls and text messages asking me for my opinion on various matters — just about every day.
Whenever I receive a question — either from a reader’s email or from the audience at one of my live events throughout the country — that I think will be a worthy subject for this column, I write about it. Most of the time, however, I can’t respond to someone’s message because:
— The question was answered in a previous column.
— The question isn’t of enough general interest to write about.
— The question is so fact-specific that it would take up the entire column just to describe the reader’s problem, with no room for the answer.
One message, though, always gives me the heebie-jeebies: a message from someone requesting actual legal, tax or financial advice.
If you question that the internet has changed our lives forever, consider this: Twenty years ago, people paid professionals such as lawyers, accountants and investment advisers for advice. The idea of someone walking into a lawyer’s office and demanding he or she give free advice on a complicated legal or tax matter was absurd. No one even thought of such a thing. Anyone who tried it was promptly shown the door or given an introduction to the local police.
Enter the internet, the billions of pages of information available there and the people without law, accounting or financial degrees who are routinely dispensing free advice on all sorts of matters they are simply not competent to talk about.
Now, please don’t get me wrong: I’m all for free speech, on the internet and everywhere else. And there’s no law saying you can’t express your opinion on something — especially political or social matters — even though you have a third-grade education and have difficulty reciting the letters of the alphabet without a smartphone prompt. (Don’t laugh — I’m sure there are people out there who think the first five letters of the English alphabet are Q, W, E, R and T.)
But the easy availability of free information on the internet is leading millions of people to the wrongheaded idea that advice from professionals should also be free.
There is a big difference, legally and otherwise, between giving out information (“Here’s what the law says about X”) and giving out advice (“Here’s what you should do in thus-and-such a situation”). The former can be given out by just about anybody, as long as they take care to make sure what they are saying is accurate. The latter requires knowledge, experience, judgment and familiarity with the specific client and his or her situation.
No lawyer, accountant or professional can give advice blindly to someone they don’t know. No two situations are exactly alike, and it takes time to familiarize yourself with the facts of a particular client’s situation, personality (What is his or her tolerance for risk? How combative will he or she be in defending his or her interests?), and other factors that are part of the “calculus” involved in telling a client what to do. If the matter is particularly tricky, some research of the law may be necessary. This is why lawyers and accountants charge for giving advice, and it’s entirely justified.
If someone emails me asking for advice on a particular problem, and I don’t already have a lawyer-client relationship with that person, I will usually send a response message that will look something like this:
“Hi, (insert name) —
Thanks for your email message. This is an interesting topic, and I may address it in a future ‘Succeeding in Your Business’ column.
This is a column of general marketing, financial, legal and tax information for small-business owners and entrepreneurs. It is no substitute for advice you would get from a local attorney, accountant, consultant or tax adviser. Should you need specific, one-on-one advice on how to effectively run your business, please consult with a local attorney, accountant, consultant or tax adviser. It will be well worth the money you pay these folks.
Thanks for supporting ‘Succeeding in Your Business,’ and good luck with your business!”
Also, if a professional gives someone advice that turns out to be wrong, he or she is liable to be sued for malpractice. Nothing — I mean nothing — is dumber than getting sued for bad advice you didn’t get paid for.
So if it’s just general information you want, please send me a message and I’ll be only too happy to do a column on your problem if I think it’s of interest to my readers. If it’s advice you need, please consult a local lawyer, accountant or financial professional, and be prepared to pay their price. It’s worth it.
And remember: Legal, tax and financial advice is tax deductible.
Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series “Money Hunt.” This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.