Getting (and giving) better answers to legal questions on Facebook

Matthew Henry / Burst / Licensed under Creative Commons ZeroFacebook is a great resource for gathering information. Often, and for the right reasons, we turn to social media in hopes of gathering information we need in a short period of time and with little effort. But for therapists going to social media with legal questions, that convenience may not be worth it. Many of the answers therapists give peers for legal questions on Facebook are incorrect.

We reviewed 20 recent posts that included legal questions in therapist groups on Facebook. We looked strictly at legal questions where there was a clear correct answer that we could easily reference. So anything requiring interpretation of law was purposefully left out. Our review was by no means comprehensive — it falls more closely in bar-napkin-math territory. But we still think this quick review offers some valuable information.

Discussion data

On average, the posts we reviewed had 14 comments. In all 20 posts, the correct answer was eventually provided by someone, which actually bodes well. Facebook may have its dangers for therapists and their clients, but there is benefit to having so many colleagues at close reach. The correct answer, on average, was the third or fourth comment. One post took 11 comments before the correct answer was given, the longest delay among the posts we reviewed.

Six of the 20 correct answers provided were then debated in follow-up comments. By “debated,” we mean either that the right answer was actively questioned or challenged, or other (incorrect) answers were presented as correct. There was less follow-up debate when sources of information were cited. Nine of the 20 posts (45%) did have a cited correct answer among the comments. Those posts resulted in fewer average follow-up comments (3.7 versus 4.7).

Posts required an average of 7.5 comments before an answer was cited. What’s distressing is that more than 30% of those cited correct answers were still further debated in follow up comments. Although such debates can be helpful and often welcomed as bringing clarity to why a particular answer is correct, they also can make things confusing for readers, who may be left unsure of whether to trust even a correct and referenced answer.

Making it better

It can be frustrating to recognize that we are not great at answering legal questions for our peers. All of us who take part in Facebook groups for therapists share a vested interest in having those groups be useful. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to make the process work better for everyone.

1. Cite your sources. All of California law is searchable online, and most other states have similar online databases. Providing a direct link to the section of law that answers someone’s question helps to cut down on comments by providing an authoritative source people can check on their own. Citing your source is especially useful if you are expressing disagreement with an existing response.

2. Avoid unnecessary comments. 70% of the posts reviewed had the correct answer repeated in follow-up comments. Two questions even had the correct answer repeated more than 10 times. It can feel great to know the answer to a question and to be able to contribute to group discussions, but sometimes simply liking a comment can have the same effect. This applies on the questioning side, too: Before posting your legal question to a group, search that group to see whether it has been asked and answered before.

3. Be specific. Simply put, specific legal questions are usually easier to answer than more general ones. And specific answers are often more useful (and easier to cite) than general ones. With child abuse reporting as an example, asking about specific conduct with a child of a specific age can lead to a specific section of law that defines that conduct as abuse. A general question (or answer) about reporting responsibilities might touch on many, many more sections of law, making it difficult for folks to know what’s actually being addressed.

While we all do our best to answer questions for one another, it’s worth adding that of course therapists aren’t in a position to offer legal advice, either to our peers or to anyone else. That would be beyond our scope of practice. So including encouragement to consult with a lawyer can be useful, too.