How to Perform Legal Research Online
It can be difficult to know where to begin when you're researching a legal challenge that you may be facing. Using this guide, you should be able to define your legal issue, research it, and find the help you need.
Define Your Issue
The first step for researching the answer to your legal questions is to start by fully understanding the issue that you're having. Some questions you should be able to answer are:
- Is it a true legal issue?
- Is it a civil or criminal case?
- Do federal, state, or municipal laws apply?
- What is the practice area your case falls into?
Naturally, you need to first determine whether you actually have a legal case or whether what you're facing is simply a problem. For example, if the person who's causing you a problem isn't actually breaking any laws, then you don't have a legal issue.
Do You Have the Right to Sue?
If you've confirmed that you do have a true legal issue, your next question may be whether you have the right to sue to resolve the problem. While you can generally sue anyone for just about anything, the truth is that filing a lawsuit can often be a waste of time and money. It's usually a good idea to consult with a lawyer and determine whether mediation would be a better choice or whether you should take your case to court with a lawsuit.
Criminal vs. Civil Case
In general, there are two different kinds of legal issues: civil and criminal. In criminal cases, the case is prosecuted by the government. In a civil case, the person who is filing the lawsuit retains the help of a lawyer to prosecute. If you've been arrested for a crime, then the case is a criminal matter. However, it could potentially be a civil matter as well, depending on the situation.
Federal, State, and Municipal Laws
Local, state, and federal governments all have their own laws, and the legal issue that you're dealing with will fall under one of those categories. You may want to search all three, depending on the legal issue you're facing. It may be helpful for you to speak with a lawyer to find out which court is most appropriate to file in.
Common practice areas that many cases fall into include:
- Criminal law
- Corporate law
- Employment law
- Estate planning
- Personal injury
- Business law
By understanding the practice area that your case falls into, you can get a better idea of where you should go for free legal advice.
Research the Legal Problem
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When you're researching any legal issue, you can uncover the basic facts using the acronym TARP, which stands for:
- Thing: Start by understanding the subject matter of the issue, or the thing that's causing your problem.
- Cause of action: Next, you need to identify how you were wronged legally. For example, was the issue negligence, fraud, slander, or breach of contract?
- Relief sought: Then, you need to understand the type of relief you're looking for to resolve the issue. For example, it could be monetary compensation, or it could be for the other party to cease engaging in a specific type of behavior.
- Parties involved: Finally, you need to identify which key parties are involved and what their roles are.
Once you have clearly identified the legal problem that you're having, have determined the category of the law that it best falls into, and have articulated the basic facts of the case, you can begin looking for the answer to the problem.
How to Research Your Legal Issue
Here are some places where you can get free legal advice to research your issue:
- Free legal consultations with attorneys: Many lawyers offer free consultations before asking you to retain their services. You may be able to get enough information during a brief consultation to at least gain a better understanding of your options.
- Reach out to legal aid societies: Legal aid societies are nonprofit organizations that offer free legal advice to people who have low incomes.
- Contact your state's bar association: Many state bar associations offer programs that allow people to get free legal advice, even if only on specific days within a set time frame.
- Visit a law school that's in your area: Many law schools offer programs through which the law students can give free legal guidance. If there is a law school in your local area, this is a good option to consider.
- Look up your own court system: Perform an online search for "[your city] court" to get information about the court system in your area.
- Look into the laws directly: The Legal Information Institute at Cornell provides laws organized by topic and location. You can also search "[your state] laws" for state resources.
Resolving Your Legal Issue
Resolution to your legal issue could come in different forms. After doing your research, you may decide that you can handle the problem yourself or that the matter isn't worth pursuing any further. You may also want to seek additional legal guidance before you choose how you want to handle the situation. Or, it may be in your best interest to retain the services of a lawyer immediately. By doing your own research, you'll better understand your options.
Can I Represent Myself?
You have a right to represent yourself in legal matters . This is referred to as pro se legal representation, and it is actually a common practice in uncontested divorces or in small claims courts. There are certain matters where a lawyer is required by the law, regardless of whether you want one. The reality is that you don't know what you don't know, so getting some input from a lawyer can at least give you the insight you need to know how to move forward.
Free and Low-Cost Legal Services
- Upsolve : This service offers free legal advice for people who want information on filing for bankruptcy.
- Legal Services Corporation: This organization offers free legal aid for families and individuals with low income.
- LawHelp.org: This site helps people who need to find legal aid programs in their own community to help with divorce, child support, debt collection, and affordable housing.
- Free Legal Answers: This site allows you to submit questions about civil law to the American Bar Association if you have a low income and qualify for the program.
- AVVO.com's 'Ask a Lawyer' Service: Post a question and get free responses from multiple lawyers, often within 12 hours or less.
- Rocket Lawyer: There is some free advice available on the site, although to ask a question of a lawyer, you are required to pay a small fee.
What Can I Expect If I Hire a Lawyer?
When you retain the services of a lawyer, you're hiring someone to protect your interests and represent you with regard to that issue. Depending on the situation, your attorney may represent you in court or mediation. They may also handle the process of creating, reviewing, processing, or filing court documents. Ultimately, when you hire a lawyer, you know that there is someone who is proactively working for your interests, who can offer you legal guidance and anticipate problems you may never have seen coming.
Good advice can be hard to find, and good free advice can be even more challenging to come by online. However, there are a lot of free resources available that, even if they can't provide an exact solution to your issue, may be able to help you get closer to a solution. If the problem you're facing involves business law, then Contracts Counsel may be able to help. You can get free proposals for your project from vetted lawyers within our marketplace. Contact us today.