If you work in legal aid, something that you have no control over and you may not even be aware of is impacting both the quality of advice your client base receives and the reputation of your organization. It has the innocuous name “Questions” and for most local businesses, it’s used to share information about the hours the business is open. For legal aid, it’s a dangerous opening into misleading and harmful information being attributed to your organization.

The other day, for some reason, I landed on Greater Boston Legal Service’s search results page in Google. I can’t remember why; maybe I typed in GBLS without the .org in the address bar. I noticed a little “Ask a Question” button and that there were about 30 questions that had already been asked and answered (I have since reported and removed the most egregious ones).

What’s going on here? People searching for legal help have started using this “Ask a question” button to send in their legal questions. The messages are sent to people who have visited GBLS in the past who are looking for the thrill of imaginary Internet points in the Google Guides program.

I myself am a “Google Guide” having added a star rating for a few local businesses. I even answered a question about a businesses’ hours when Google prompted me with an alert on my phone. It’s kind of fun; it feels like you’re doing something that helps other people in your city. The points add a gamification aspect to it that keeps you contributing.

What happens when you present this button to legal aid, which can have long wait times to speak to an attorney on the phone? People think they have a direct channel to the law firm. But in fact, what they have a direct channel is to anybody with the Google Maps application installed on their phone.

For Greater Boston Legal Services, some of the questions I reported and which have already been removed contained incorrect advice about topics as diverse as housing, immigration, family law and disability law.

The problem isn’t limited to Greater Boston Legal Services. Google Maps is very popular, and pages for legal aids across the country contain this question and answer series.

Many of the questions are unanswered, leading to the impression that your organization just doesn’t care to answer the questions of its users. Others have a decent response that just says to contact the organization and ask. But this Google Maps “page” was created without consent or notice to the legal aid organization in question. You can affirmatively take ownership of it, but your options to remove misleading information are limited to clicking a “report” button and waiting for a Google employee to take action. The 8 questions that still show on the Greater Boston Legal Services’ site have sat there for weeks after I reported them.

I contacted Google about this problem and got a quick response on the phone, which I hadn’t expected. Unfortunately, all that the Google employee could tell me to do was to ask my friends and family to also use the report button to increase the chance that Google will respond. Right now there’s no way to turn off the “Questions” feature, even if you claim ownership of the Google Maps page. We don’t want to add a new whac-a-mol responsibility for our business, clicking the report button one question at a time. So, I’m inviting you to make the feature request to Google to turn it off completely.

Here’s a link with instructions to submit a feature request. Please suggest that Google Maps allow business disable the Questions feature, especially where it can lead to unauthorized practice of law or other regulatory problems (I’m sure legal aid isn’t the only business where this type of Q&A that appears to come from the business can cause problems!).

What does this all mean?

Of course Google’s Question feature has exposed a problem for legal aid. Our client base want a different way to get advice. I know sometimes clients can sit on the phone for hours to speak with ERLI, the organization that handles intake for Greater Boston Legal Services. Most legal aids have limited intake hours–for ERLI, it’s between 9 AM-12 PM. There’s no online intake yet, although it is in the works.

We need to reach these clients at a time that’s convenient for them, and in a way that meets their needs. One piece of this is websites like Mass Legal Answers Online, a vetted source for questions and answers where volunteer lawyers respond (created in partnership with Massachusetts Law Reform Institute). But existing legal aid agencies need to respond as well, to better engage with our clients. It just needs to include some screening and basic conflict checking where it’s appropriate.

Unfortunately, Google’s unwanted and intrusive solution that lists unvetted answers directly on our search results page is not the solution.


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