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Online Legal Advice: Let the Browser Beware

by Patricia Gima
Copyright © 1995 Nolo Press

  1. Consider the Source
  2. Check That the Information Is Up-to-Date
  3. Be Sure the Information Is Valid in Your State
  4. Get a Reference
  5. Don't Use a Legal Form Unless You Understand It and Know How to Fill It Out
  6. Go to the Right Place for the Right Kind of Help

Log on to any major online service (like America Online, CompuServe or eWorld) or the Internet and you will find a brave new world of legal information. You can read court cases, statutes and advice from helpful folks. Questions and answers about legal issues--divorce, landlord-tenant problems, copyright, family law--fly back and forth on electronic bulletin boards and forums devoted to legal issues.

But not all online legal information is created equal, and there's nothing to keep people from giving incorrect or poor guidance. In other words, the electronic world is just like the real world: It's up to you to evaluate the advice you're given.

Probably the best way to think about online legal information is as a place to start. It may give you valuable reassurance or warnings, and point you in the right direction. But you're unlikely to get a significant legal problem totally solved. For example, you may find useful tips about divorce from lawyers or from people who've recently gone through the process in your state. But chances are you're not going to find step-by-step instructions for filling out, signing and filing divorce papers. For that, you need a lawyer, a divorce typing service or a self-help book.

Here are some tips for evaluating online legal information:

1. Consider the Source

Is the person giving you detailed advice about a specific problem a lawyer, or even someone who's been through the same kind of problem? A law degree is no guarantee of competence--for example, a probate lawyer may know next to nothing about criminal law. But since you're not in a lawyer's office, just at home in front of your monitor, there's no reason to be intimidated. It's just all words. So ask away until you get some advice that seems solid and sensible.

2. Check That the Information Is Up-to-Date

Law changes rapidly. If you find some legal information online that answers your question, don't rely on it until you know it is up to date. If it isn't or you can't tell whether it is or not, you will have to do some research of your own to update it.

3. Be Sure the Information Is Valid in Your State

An important litmus test for legal information is whether or not it accounts for variations in state law. If your question or problem is a landlord/tenant, divorce, living will or probate matter, it is probably controlled by state law. If you find legal information that covers one of these matters, don't assume it is valid in your state unless is says so specifically.

4. Get a Reference

Don't accept legal information on face value. If someone states that in your state, you only need to give the landlord two weeks' notice before moving out, don't start packing your bags. Ask for the number of the statute or the citation to the court case that makes this rule the law of your state. The next best thing is a reference to an article or a self-help law book. You can then look up the law yourself and check to see whether it's valid in your state and says what your online source claims it does.

5. Don't Use a Legal Form Unless You Understand It and Know How to Fill It Out

Many types of downloadable forms, from buy-and-sell contracts to leases, are available online. But some of these forms are wretched, full of legal jargon. If you don't understand every clause, look up unfamiliar terms in a legal dictionary or wait for a better form, written in plain English. Always try to download forms that come with instructions on how to fill them out. Some forms may not need instructions, but most do.

6. Go to the Right Place for the Right Kind of Help

Some legal forums are run by lawyers, and others by people who want to promote self-help law. Don't waste your time in a lawyers' forum if all you really want is some information that will let you help yourself. For example, on the World Wide Web on the Internet, lots of lawyers have home pages to sell their specialized services. They don't give out information for free. But you can find free general legal information many places--including Nolo's Self-Help Law enters on the Internet and eWorld.

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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.

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