Legal research can be a complicated process. Although there is a lot of free legal information on the Internet, the information may not all be accurate or detailed enough to answer all of your questions. If you are serious about handling your own legal problems, it's a good idea to go to a law library and seek research advice from a law librarian. Below is some information and tips for getting the most out of your relationship with these professionals.
- Librarians are not attorneys. Librarians may assist you with locating legal resources and with guiding you in the use of those resources. They must not give you legal advice. The line can be fuzzy, but generally, legal advice includes analyzing the facts of your situation, giving opinions on what a statute means, doing case research, identifying specific statutes that apply in a specific legal situation, or providing assistance with filling out court and other legal forms.
Although it is frustrating to hear, "I'm sorry, I can't tell you what that word means. You'll have to look it up," you should keep in mind that a librarian who does give you legal advice is not doing you any favors. Usually, the librarian will not have any formal legal education, meaning there's a good chance that he or she doesn't know the answer to your question. While they can be extremely helpful in researching your issue, librarians are limited to helping you use the resources in the law library.
- Librarians can help you find books and databases on your topic and explain how to use those materials. They can usually point you to the general area of statutes that may apply, but you will need to read and interpret this information on your own. For example, if you want to find out about the law on discrimination at your workplace, the librarian may give you the titles of a few legal texts on workplace discrimination, point out the state code sections where labor laws are generally covered, and show you how to use a legal encyclopedia to look for cases.
- The librarian cannot help you write a complaint to file at the courthouse, and will not tell you which cases you should read. You will need to read the books yourself and make your own choices.
- Answer the librarian's questions, but avoid giving too much personal detail. Librarians won't be able to tell you where to begin your research if you don't tell them at least a little about your legal problem. On the other hand, it's probably best not to give personally identifying information. For example, if your legal problem is that you are being sexually harassed at work, you don't need to tell the librarian the name of your employer or your harasser.
- Librarians serve many people. Many law libraries that are open to the public are part of a larger institution such as a university or court. These law libraries’ primary mission is to serve those institutions. The librarians are happy to help all customers, but keep in mind that they have a large population to serve. They may need to divide their time among several people at the same time.
- Be ready to listen and even take notes. Legal research tools are often very complicated to use, and therefore the instruction can take a significant amount of time. Be patient and listen to the librarian’s instructions so that you will be able to use the tools effectively. It may be a good idea to take notes on the librarian’s instructions as you deem necessary.