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How Can I Find an Answer to My Legal Question?

If you have a legal question, finding the answer can sometimes be more difficult and overwhelming than the question itself.

If the question is very simple, or motivated by curiosity more than a direct interest in its answer, conducting your own research may be a viable option. The law school at Cornell University maintains a free online law library. It can be found here. While not comprehensive, it provides access to the United States Code, and many federal administrative codes (such as the rules of civil procedure, and the rules of evidence). It also has a great deal of state law, including most state statutes. It also has opinions from many state courts, though they are not archived very far back.

Database services such as WestLaw and LexisNexis are more comprehensive, but can be quite expensive.

Your state probably also has online resources which allow you to access all state statutes and administrative rules, and possibly some judicial opinions. If you live near a large university, it is likely that they have a passable, if not comprehensive, law library, even if the university does not have a law school. You should ask an employee at the university’s library about their policies regarding access to materials by the general public.

If your question is more complex or urgent, to the point that you do not feel comfortable conducting research on the matter yourself, there are many other free resources. Websites such as LawHelp.org provide a list of organizations that can provide legal aid for free, in a variety of different legal areas. If you require legal information, but not legal advice, one of these organizations should be able to answer your legal question for free, or at a very small cost.

If your legal question is extremely complex, or answering it requires the dispensation of legal advice, your only real option is to contact a lawyer. A lawyer, in addition to being able to give legal information, can give you legal advice. Legal advice is an application of the lawyer’s expertise to your specific factual situation. A lawyer is the only person who is qualified to give legal advice. While anyone with knowledge of the law is qualified to give legal information (a statement of what the law is, without applying it to your situation, or telling you how you should proceed), you should decline any offer of legal advice from a non-lawyer, and if they give you legal advice, you should disregard it.

If you don’t know have any specific lawyer in mind, your state bar may maintain a searchable list of licensed attorneys in your state. Such lists are usually subdivided by practice area, making it quite easy to find the right lawyer to answer your legal question.

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Last Modified: 12-06-2013 04:25 PM PST

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