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At Avvo, we think everyone should be able to get good legal advice. Our content, services, and products are designed to help you learn about your legal issues, and make the legal process easier to navigate and a little less scary.
It’s tough to know where to start when you’re researching legal questions. Lawyers have a language of their own, which can make finding–and understanding–the information you need difficult.
With this guide, we’ll help you define your legal issue, research it, and get the help you need.
First you need to determine whether you have a legal issue or simply a problem. Maybe you don’t like your downstairs neighbor playing loud music during the day. But, if they’re not breaking any laws, what you have is a personal matter, not a legal one. Although, you could try talking to your neighbor about it.
A legal problem is one that you can use the law to help solve because the issue is addressed within federal, state, or municipal laws and regulations.
If you have determined that your problem is a legal one, you might be wondering if you can sue. While in theory you can pretty much sue anyone for anything, the reality is that doing so is often a waste of time and money. Consider mediation or arbitration before going directly to court.
The question should not be “Can I sue?” but “Should I sue?” It’s tough to answer without speaking to an attorney first, but consider the following:
The question should not be "Can I sue?" but, "Should I sue?"
While in theory you can sue anyone for anything, the reality is that doing so without a firm legal standing can be difficult, and it’s always a good idea to consult with an attorney to determine whether you can take your suit to court. Outside of a lawsuit, you should also consider mediation or arbitration to solve your issue.
There are two main types of legal issues: criminal matters and civil matters. In criminal cases, the government prosecutes the case; while in civil cases, the person bringing the suit hires an attorney to prosecute. If you have been arrested, then you are looking at a criminal matter and possibly also a civil matter.
There are two main types of legal issues: criminal matters and civil matters.
Civil lawsuits are easier to win, because the burden of proof is lower. And it’s not necessarily one or the other: there can be a criminal case and a civil case for the same matter. If you’re considering whether or not to sue someone, or you have been sued, you’re looking at a civil matter.
Federal, state, and local governments each have their own sets of laws. Your legal issue will likely fall under one of these three categories, and depending on your issue, you may want to research all three.
For any legal issue, you need to make sure you do it in the correct court and consult with an attorney to figure out which court to file in so you get it right.
The best way to start researching your legal issue is to first figure out what broad category it falls under. You may have noticed that lawyers almost always have “practice areas” – those are the areas they have particular experience and knowledge in. These include areas like corporate law, criminal law, estate planning, employment law, personal injury, and business law. You probably wouldn’t want to talk to a heart surgeon about a sprained ankle, and similarly you probably don’t want an attorney focused on criminal law to handle a divorce.
Overlapping areas can make the task of figuring out the relevant practice area tricky. For instance, you know that your issue is about medical malpractice, but you may not know that’s considered a subcategory of personal injury law. Or if your landlord won’t add a handicapped parking spot to your complex’s parking lot, you’ll be looking into at least three separate topics: tenant/landlord laws, discrimination, and civil rights.
If you still aren’t sure what category your issue falls into, or you want some reassurance, post a question on Avvo's Q&A forums, where you can get fast advice from attorneys for free.
When researching a legal issue, many attorneys get to the facts of the case by using a common legal research method called TARP, which stands for Thing, Cause of Action, Relief Sought, Person/Parties Involved. You can do the same.
Cause of Action
Start with the Thing. What’s the subject matter? It could be one thing (divorce) or several things (divorce and child custody).
Next is Relief Sought. Relief could be monetary compensation, to cover costs associated with the issue or for pain and suffering, or it could be to prevent the defendant from engaging in certain behavior again.
Finally, Person/Parties involved. Who are the players? What are their roles? What are their relationships to each other? For example: employer-employee; father-son; or neighbor-neighbor.
Now that you know what kind of issue you have, what category it falls under and what the basic facts are, you’ve got a solid start in learning how you can solve your legal puzzle.
It used to be that for any research, you had to head to your local library and break out the microfiche. But now you can start the legal research process right away with great legal advice online:
If you get stuck, you can quickly check with an attorney to explain what you’ve found in plain English. See what others are asking
It is your right to represent yourself in legal matters. This is called pro se legal representation, from the Latin meaning “for oneself.” It’s fairly common in uncontested divorces and in small claims courts (especially in states that prohibit lawyers in small claims court).
But in certain matters, attorneys are required by law, whether you want one or not, and in most other cases, it’s still a good idea to get some input from a lawyer to help you understand what you’re getting yourself into.
The fact is, you don’t know what you don’t know, and that is ok! Speaking with an attorney--even for 15 minutes --could give you insight and peace of mind you wouldn’t have had otherwise.
If you do want to forge ahead and handle your legal issue yourself, do the research using the resources above and come up with a plan.
When you hire a lawyer, you’re hiring someone to represent you and your interests. Depending on your issue, your lawyer may represent you in litigation (that is, in court) or in mediation/arbitration proceedings, or may create, review, process or file documents.
Even more importantly, your lawyer will give you advice, proactively work for your interests, and anticipate problems that you couldn’t see coming as a non-lawyer.
Many attorneys provide free consultations to new clients to see if there’s a good fit between need and expertise.
When you decide to hire an attorney, do your due diligence and take a look Avvo’s guide to finding and hiring a great lawyer before researching the professionals you’re considering working with.
This may all sound overwhelming, but with a little bit of work you'll have a better understanding of what to do and how to take action. You've got this!