While it’s not the most common abbreviation on the internet, IANAL is occasionally used on websites like Twitter, Quora, and Reddit. But what does IANAL mean, and why do people say it?
I Am Not a Lawyer
IANAL is an internet initialism that stands for “I am not a lawyer.” It’s usually used by non-lawyers who want to clarify that their legal opinions aren’t legal advice. This kind of clarification is important online, as you can face lawsuits or prosecution for giving legal advice (or working as a lawyer) without a law license. (That said, it’s rare for non-lawyers to face actual consequences for giving casual legal advice.)
In some cases, IANAL is used by actual lawyers who want to give away pro-bono legal opinions without forming an attorney-client relationship. Falling into an online attorney-client relationship isn’t just an inconvenience, but it can also be illegal, as a lawyer may not have jurisdiction to practice law outside of their state.
IANYL and TINLA
“IANYL” is similar. It stands for “I am not your lawyer.” This and might be used by someone who wants to clarify that they are a lawyer but they aren’t giving professional legal advice or entering into an attorney-client relationship with you.
Similarly, “TINLA” means “This is not legal advice.” People use these expressions to clarify that they aren’t giving professional legal advice online.
Do People Actually Say IANAL?
IANAL is an incredibly unpopular piece of internet slang. Most people have never heard of it, and it doesn’t have much use outside of Quora or Reddit’s /r/legaladvice forum. So why is IANAL a thing?
As weird as it sounds, IANAL has been around since the late ’80s. It was a semi-popular phrase on Usenet and ARPANET, two of the internet’s forebears. As the story goes, pre-internet lawyers coined IANAL to clarify that, although they were giving legal opinions online, they weren’t engaging in an attorney-client relationship or operating outside of their jurisdiction. (It might also be a loose reference to the “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” proto-meme.)
Over time, the non-lawyers on Usenet and ARPANET caught the IANAL bug. It proved to be a useful phrase while having heated discussions about landlords, car wrecks, or politics. IANAL could be used while introducing a discussion (“IANAL, but shouldn’t homeopathy be illegal?”) or while giving your opinion on a legal subject (“IANAL, but you should sue for libel”).
It’s hard to see how IANAL could be a useful initialism. After all, it only takes a second to type out, “I am not a lawyer.” So should you even bother using IANAL? And if you do, will anyone know what you’re talking about?
Should You Use IANAL?
You should always clarify that you aren’t a lawyer while giving legal opinions online. People can be pretty impressionable (or stupid) online, and it would be a shame if they read your casual opinions about divorce as professional legal advice. Misrepresenting yourself as a lawyer is illegal, after all.
But should you say IANAL? Will people really understand what you’re talking about, and will they bother looking up your weird internet lingo on Google?
In most situations, we suggest you clarify your non-lawyer status with words anybody can understand. You could say, “I am not a lawyer,” or “You should talk to a lawyer” before giving your casual legal opinion. These phrases only take a second to type out, and they’re a lot easier to understand than IANAL.
There are some situations where IANAL might be useful, but they’re pretty specific. You could use IANAL in the header of a Reddit thread, for instance, or in a Tweet that’s pushing toward the character limit. But even in these situations, you could clarify that you’re not a lawyer in the body of your Reddit thread or in a reply to your own Tweet.
You won’t get nearly as much use out of IANAL as you might get out of TLDR or FWIW, but it’s a classic piece of internet slang that’s worth understanding. That said, we suggest you avoid using IANAL because most people have no idea what it means. If you want to say that you’re not a lawyer, then you should probably do it in plain English.
By the way, IANAL. I’m just a tech writer and a card-carrying IANAL expert.