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Online Legal Advice: Let the Browser Beware
by Patricia Gima
Copyright © 1995 Nolo Press
- Consider the Source
- Check That the Information Is Up-to-Date
- Be Sure the Information Is Valid in Your State
- Get a Reference
- Don't Use a Legal Form Unless You Understand It and Know How to Fill It Out
- 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
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
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.
The above link is 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.
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