Nolo on TenantNet

Return to: Nolo on TenantNet Index

When There's No Nolo Book--Research It Yourself

by Stephen Elias
Copyright © 1992 Nolo Press

Taking on a legal task such as filing for divorce or writing a will can be intimidating even if you have a book or computer program to guide you through every step. It's even worse if there's no good self-help resource, as happens all too often.

The good news is that in most cases, you can still do it yourself--it just takes more work. You'll have to do some basic legal research, usually in a law library. Scary as it may sound, you can learn how to find the information you need--and it can even be fun.

Side Bar--Common Court-Related Tasks You Can Research Yourself

  • establishing a guardianship or conservatorship
  • changing your name
  • adopting your stepchild
  • fighting a traffic ticket
  • modifying a child support or custody order
  • making a worker's compensation claim
  • suing for damages in a regular court (as opposed to small claims court, where simplified procedures already exist)
  • collecting a court judgment after you win a lawsuit.

Understand that some work on your part will be involved, and obstacles may crop up where you least expect them. The court system is geared to attorneys and barely deigns to recognize people doing their own legal work. Attorneys, who as judges control the courts, often see people handling their own legal matters (pro per litigants) as rebels against the attorney monopoly. And court clerks find it easier to deal with lawyers than with citizens who aren't as familiar with procedures and rules.

If you run into trouble while doing your own case, be assertive and proud. Remember that you are a taxpaying citizen who has a constitutional right to use the court without first bribing an "officer of the court" (as attorneys are known) to grease the way. Clerks and judges are your servants, not vice versa.

Here are the basic steps that you should take to handle a routine legal task yourself, without a lawyer and without a good self-help guide.

Step 1: Get the Court's Rules

If you know what court will handle your task, visit the clerk's office and ask whether or not the court has written guidelines or rules for the task and, if so, where you can get a copy. Study whatever you get from the court carefully, to make sure you understand the proper format for your papers and any time limits that the court imposes on you. Also ask whether or not the clerks are authorized to help you. For instance, a number of states allow court clerks to help people who seek court orders to stop domestic abuse.

If you don't know which court is involved, keep going and come back to this step when you identify the correct court.

Step 2: Find the Nearest Law Library

Law libraries available to the public are usually found in courthouses and publicly funded law schools. There is usually at least one in every major city.

Step 3: Look for a Paralegal's or Legal Secretary's Guide That Covers Your Task

If you find a guide written for legal secretaries or paralegals in your state, you will be well on your way to completing your task. These books contain forms and step-by-step instructions.

The best way to find out if such a book exists is to ask someone who would know--a lawyer, paralegal or a legal secretary. Or contact a local paralegal or legal assistant program, often offered in junior or community colleges. If you strike out, visit the law library and ask the law librarian or look in the card catalog (electronic or manual).

Step 4: Look for a Self-Help Book Written for a Different State

A book written for another state will give you a broad outline of the issues you need to bone up on. The details may be different from state to state for a particular type of legal task, but the basic choices and procedures tend to be similar.

For instance, in all states, you cannot establish a child's guardianship without providing written notice in a certain form to all interested parties (such as the andle your task, visit the clerk's office and ask whether or not the court has written guidelines or rules for the task and, if so, where you can get a copy. Study whatever you get from the court carefully, to make sure you understand the proper format for your papers and any time limits that the court imposes on you. Also ask whether or not the clerks are authorized to help you. For instance, a number of states allow court clerks to help people who seek court orders to stop domestic abuse.

If you don't know which court is involved, keep going and come back to this step when you identify the correct court.

Step 6. Make a Checklist

Based on the information you've collected so far, prepare a checklist of the steps you need to take, including where the case will be filed, what documents will be filed, who must be given notice, how notice must be given, what hearings if necessary need to be set, and when.

Step 7. Call the Court Clerk's Office to Confirm Procedure

To make sure you know you're getting everything right, you can call the court clerk and ask if you've got everything correctly. Don't call and ask for general advice--just confirm any details you may still be unsure about, such as how many copies of a document to file. Remember to be assertive. Yes, court clerks are reluctant to give advice, but if you appear to know what you're talking about, you may get the answer you need with little ado. If the clerk won't help you, visit the law library and either reread the book you used as a guide or seek the answers from another book.

Step 8. Do More Legal Research If You Need To

If you need more information about what the law is--that is, about your rights or responsibilities--you can usually find the information in the law library, in statutes, court decisions and discussions by experts. But you will definitely need to sharpen your legal research skills. See "Resources" for two Nolo resources that teach legal research skills.

Nolo Resources: Legal Research

Legal Research: How To Find and Understand the Law by Stephen Elias and Susan Levinkind. This book is itself available in most law libraries. It's a thorough guide to researching a legal question, written for non-lawyers.

Legal Research Made Easy by Robert Berring, a 2 and 1/2 hour videotape that teaches basic legal research techniques and a six-step method to finding the answer to your legal questions.

Related Products:

Books

The above links are connected to Nolo's on-line store where you will find a detailed description of each product.

The selected articles originally appeared in the Nolo News and are Copyright © Nolo Press 1996 and reproduced here with permission. If you find them of value, we encourage you to visit Nolo Press at their web site http://www.nolo.com. If you wish to post them on-line or otherwise distribute them, first read Nolo's copyright policy.

TenantNet Home | TenantNet Forum | New York Tenant Information
DHCR Information | DHCR Decisions | Housing Court Decisions | New York Rent Laws
Disclaimer | Privacy Policy | Contact Us

Subscribe to our Mailing List!
Your Email      Full Name