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It's tough to know where to start when you're researching legal questions. With this guide, you'll be able to define your legal issue, research it, and get the help you need.
When you're just getting started, there are a few things to figure out about your legal issue—like, is it a criminal or civil case? Which laws apply—municipal, state, federal? And, what area of the law represents your issue? Once you have answers to these questions, you can start researching and learning about possible outcomes and next steps.
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.
A legal problem is one that can be solved by using the law. It's an issue that's addressed within federal, state, or municipal laws and regulations.
If you've 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. It's always a good idea to consult with an attorney to determine whether you can take your suit to court. You might consider mediation or arbitration first.
The question should not be “Can I sue?” but “Should I sue?”
Consider the following:
There are two main types of legal issues: criminal matters and civil matters. In criminal cases, the government prosecutes the case. In civil cases, the person bringing the suit hires an attorney to prosecute. If you've been arrested, you're looking at a criminal matter, but depending on the circumstances, it could be a civil matter as well.
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.
There are two main types of legal issues: criminal matters and civil matters.
Federal, state, and local governments each have their own sets of laws. Your legal issue will likely fall under one of these three categories. Depending on your issue, you may want to research all three.
For any legal issue, make sure you do it in the correct court and consult with an attorney to figure out which court to file in.
The best way to research your legal issue is to start by identifying the broad category that it falls under. You may have noticed that lawyers almost always associate themselves with “practice areas.” These are the areas they have particular experience and knowledge in. Common practice areas include, but are not limited to, 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 in criminal law to handle a divorce.
Finding the most relevant practice area can be tricky. For instance, you know that your issue is about medical malpractice, but you may not know that it falls under the category of personal injury law. Or maybe you're in the middle of a situation—like, you've asked your landlord to add a disabled parking spot outside your building, and your landlord has refused. You could be looking into three separate topics: tenant/landlord laws, discrimination, and civil rights.
Once you've defined your legal issue, you can start researching online. It's helpful to begin by breaking down all the facts—this process will help you identify some important keywords that you can use to kick off your research.
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
Now that you know what kind of issue you have, what category it falls under, and what the basic facts are, you're ready to begin solving your legal puzzle.
Here are step-by-step instructions to researching online.
If you get stuck, you can quickly check with an attorney to explain what you've found.
Resolution can come in many forms—after doing your research, you may decide to handle it yourself or decide that it's not worth pursuing. Or, you may seek additional clarification or legal advice before making a move. Or, you may be convinced that you need to hire a lawyer right away. The main thing to know is that you have options.
If you want to do it yourself (DIY), it's your right to be your own representative 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).
In certain matters, attorneys are required by law, whether you want one or not. In most cases, it's a good idea to get some input from a lawyer regardless.
The fact is, you don't know what you don't know, and that's ok. Speaking with an attorney—even just for a quick consultation—could give you insight into how to move forward and peace of mind.
If you want to forge ahead and handle your legal issue yourself, do your research and come up with a plan. If you want to talk to an attorney, some offer free consultations, but these sessions are usually used as a way to get to know each other and talk about whether you have a case.
When you hire a lawyer, you're hiring someone to represent you. Depending on your issue, your lawyer may represent you in litigation (in court) or in mediation/arbitration proceedings. Or they 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 may not see coming.
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 at Avvo's guide to finding and hiring a great lawyer.
This may all sound overwhelming, but with a little work you'll have a better understanding of what to do and how to take action. You've got this!