Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Helpouts by Google--A New Resource for Legal Research?

A new Google product just showed up on my radar: Helpouts. Helpouts is a platform to give and receive help over live video. Google has combined Hangouts, Google Wallet, and Google+ to create a system where users can seek help by connecting via live video with self-proclaimed experts, often for a fee.

Google's goal is to supplement its search by connecting users with people who will answer the users' questions. I, like most people, depend on the Internet as a source of answers to all sorts of questions. If I need a recipe for French onion soup, I search for french onion soup recipe on Google. When I wanted to replace the stereo in my car on my own, I looked up a video with step by step instructions on YouTube. If I used Helpouts, I could instead ask a restaurant chef how he makes French onion soup, or have an experienced mechanic talk me through the car stereo install.

As Google describes Helpouts, "With Helpouts you can get help anytime from people with expertise across a range of topics - teachers, counselors, doctors, home repair specialists, personal trainers, hobby enthusiasts, and more. You can choose who to get help from based on qualifications, availability, ratings and reviews. Also, you can choose to get help right away or schedule a Helpout for later."

Google released Helpouts with more than a thousand companies and individuals already enrolled to provide help to users, so there is plenty of content. For instances, Home Depot offers free home improvement help through Helpouts. Rosetta Stone offers 30 minute language tutoring session for $30.00. Weight Watchers offers free menu reviews.

Helpouts may be useful for help retouching a photo, learning the guitar, or applying makeup (if you believe Google's marketing), but is it the new answer to legal research? Can you save time finding a form for a commercial ground lease by asking a real estate attorney? Or locate a case by talking to a law clerk instead of searching Westlaw or Lexis on your own?

To find out, I tried searching Helpouts for legal topics. I did not find much. I found a social studies teacher offering tutoring to high school students on the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. Several people offer LSAT tutoring. My favorite result is a former law professor who offers half hour sessions on which law school, if any, a prospective student should attend. But nothing I found would be of much use for legal research.

I discovered the reason for the lack of legal research help when I went to the Helpouts policies page. Google lists legal services as restricted content. The policies page states that "At this time, Helpouts does not allow the promotion of legal services." Google naturally prohibits giving legal advice as a legal service. But it also prohibits any "informational services" related to legal topics. So help conducting legal research would be a violation of Google's current Helpouts policies. Even law school tutoring is prohibited. When it comes to the practice of law, Google is not taking any chances with its new platform.

Helpouts might someday become a resource for legal research. While lawyers may not line up to help you with your research, I can imagine law librarians offering to help formulate search strategies and evaluate sources via Helpouts. So Helpouts is worth watching for the time when Google re-evaluates its content policies. Until then, maybe I can finally master making souffles.

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