It's not every law student who's willing to put himself up to work for $15 an hour. But Sam Michaels has a very specific mission in mind.
A student at York University's Osgoode law school, Mr. Michaels was troubled by the question of access to law: How can people connect with information about the laws and regulations that govern everyday life, without necessarily walking into a lawyer's office and opening their chequebook? Or, if they do need a lawyer, how can they find the right one?
"There's a prevailing idea that legal service is either on the high end, $500-an-hour for your million-dollar cases, or free, charitable helping-people-at-the-bottom," says Mr. Michaels. But in the middle, he argues, are a large body of people who have day-to-day legal needs that are going unserved.
So instead of getting a job after his first year of law school, he recruited a classmate, set to coding, and hung out his shingle as the Legal Information Network of Canada, or LINC, offering to answer basic questions about the law within 24 hours, for $15 a pop.
This means acting as something of a legal concierge: Mr. Michaels' aim is to answer questions – but not, pointedly, provide legal advice. This means looking up statutes, referring question-askers to online resources like regulations or government programs, or pointing them in the direction of lawyers who specialize in their needs.
Since he launched three weeks ago, online advertising is netting him three or four questions a day. The topics have ranged from contract queries and a good number of questions about estate law ("that one was a surprise to me") to concerns about disability-access laws and small-business liabilities. How much he's been able to help in cases like these depends on the services offered from province to province. Along the way, he and his colleagues have been compiling a database of questions and answers, with an aim to knocking the response time down to half-an-hour per question.
The distinction between answering questions about law and offering legal advice – something only lawyers can do – can be a fine one. The Law Society Act, which governs Ontario's lawyers, defines legal advice broadly:
Mr. Michaels says he discussed his project with the Law Society of Upper Canada, Ontario lawyers' governing body, which he says was broadly encouraging of his effort. A Law Society spokesperson wouldn't comment on Mr. Michael's endeavours specifically, but noted that access to law is a concern that online services could help with.
"Our research shows that there are a significant number of Ontarians who have a legal need they can't pursue because they can't afford it, or find part of the justice system too confusing or intimidating," says Roy Thomas.
Mr. Michaels acknowledges that LINC will probably always be a student-staffed venture, at the rates it charges. But for all that, he's adamant that his purpose is to run a business, not a charity.
"There's nothing I'm providing that would take away from the work of a lawyer," he says. "I hope that what comes from this project, if nothing else, is that people see that there are options, that you can help larger percentages of the pop without being a non-profit."