What Else Can I Do for a Patron with a Legal Question?

Updated Jan. 14, 2009.
Prepared by Peggy Jarrett.

Librarians in non-law public, academic, and special library settings may be asked to provide legal reference service to patrons without the benefit of a comprehensive law collection or commercial online sources. When asked a question, a good starting point for both librarian and patron is the Gallagher Law Library's Internet Legal Resources, a list of free websites that provide or link to Washington State and U.S. primary law (legislation, court opinions, regulations). But what else can a non-law librarian do for a patron with a legal reference question?

Use Secondary Sources & Self-Help Books & Websites

Secondary sources include books, encyclopedias, periodicals, and practice materials. They explain or analyze legal issues and cite to primary sources (the law itself). Researchers often look at secondary sources to get a framework of the area of law in which they are interested.

Practice materials are specifically written for lawyers, but can be very helpful to the public. There are a variety of federal and state practice materials. Federal practice materials can range from complicated multi-volume looseleaf services on highly regulated topics (such as tax, labor, or environmental law) to a single volume meant for an attorney’s quick desk reference. Washington State has two general multi-volume sets: Washington Practice Series

  1. the Washington Lawyers Practice Manual
  2. Washington Practice

The Washington State Bar Association publishes a series of topical deskbooks. For more information, see the Gallagher guide on Washington Practice Materials and "Chapter 4, Washington Practice Materials," in the Washington Legal Researcher's Deskbook 3d.

Common practice topics include: family law, property, wills and estate planning, and forming a corporation.

Self-help law books are meant for people doing their own legal work without the assistance of a lawyer. Self-help Nolo Logo books are written in plain language and often include sample forms. Nolo is the largest self-help law publisher in the country. Its website has a legal encyclopedia, law dictionary, and topical "law centers." Self-Counsel Press publishes several Washington State specific titles. See also the Gallagher guide on Books Written for Nonlawyers in the Gallagher Law Library.

The UW Gallagher Law Library has put together a list of Sources of Free Legal Information on Washington State Law that identifies sources of legal information available on the Internet. Other good sources for the public are:

Forms may be available online and in sample formbooks. Stationary stores and bookstores sometimes sell blank forms. See the forms section of the Guide to Using the Gallagher Law Library for Members of the Public: Forms and the Gallagher guide to Drafting Contracts: Formbooks and Drafting Resources.

Law reviews are scholarly journals published by law schools. They are excellent sources of information on new or evolving areas of the law. The University Law Review Project lists law reviews offering abstracts or full-text of articles on the Internet. LexisNexis provides a free list of law reviews and other scholarly legal journals published by law schools, organizations, and commercial publishers. The Legal Scholarship Network provides working papers and discussion drafts of articles, many of which are later published in law reviews.

FDLP LogoGovernment documents in your collection or on agency websites may contain practical information for those with legal problems. Look for information from the agency that regulates the area of law in which the patron is interested. Start with Finding Federal Government Publications on the Internet or go directly to a meta-site such as the University of Michigan Documents Center, Government Resources on the Web.


Suggest a Legal Research Guide

The process of legal research can be confusing. A basic introduction for the public is How to Research a Legal Problem: A Guide for Non-Lawyers. This guide was prepared by Legal Information Service to the Public, a special interest section of the American Association of Law Libraries.

A Guide to Using the Gallagher Law Library for Members of the Public is a good starting point. Although it contains information specific to the Law Library, many of the questions and answers are general in nature. For more in-depth questions, try our collection of Legal Research Guides. The guides are arranged in categories and there is a keyword/subject index. Categories include Basic Legal Research, Advanced & Subject Specific Legal Research, International & Foreign Legal Research, and Research Guides for the Public.

Other public law libraries have a research guides and informational brochures on their websites:

A good comprehensive state-specific print source is the Washington Legal Researcher’s Deskbook 3d, written by several of the UW Gallagher Law Library staff. For a list of general legal research texts, search the Gallagher Law Library's online catalog by subject: legal research--united states.

Tutorials meant for law students may help a more general audience. Try Georgetown Law Library's Legal Research Tutorials. Topics include secondary sources, statutory research, cases and digests, and administrative law.


Refer Patrons to a Law Library

Several law libraries around the State will assist the public with legal research. The size and scope of publicly accessible law libraries varies greatly, but the larger ones will have complete sets of federal and Washington State primary law, plus collections of secondary sources, including formbooks, treatises, looseleaf services, and periodicals.

Law librarians will:

  • help patrons find and use legal materials
  • assist with library catalogs and indexes
  • help decipher legal citations and abbreviations
  • give directory information
  • suggest sources, strategies, and starting points
  • refer to other libraries and institutions

Law library staff will not perform legal research; give legal advice; assist with filling out legal forms; or read statutes, cases, court rules, or definitions over the phone.

The Washington State Law Library in Olympia serves employees of all three branches of state government and provides some services to local governments. It is open to the public and is a selective federal depository. The Library provides an email reference service for the public, including a live chat option.

The University of Washington Gallagher Law Library supports the curricular and research needs of the University of Washington School of Law. It is open to the public and is a selective federal depository. Users may submit questions via email using the Ask Us link.

Gonzaga University Law Library in Spokane supports the educational, instructional, and research needs of the Law School and University communities. It is open to the public and is a selective federal depository.

King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Spokane County law libraries have good basic legal collections and are staffed with full-time librarians. The King County Law Library operates an email and live chat reference service. Clallam, Clark, Skagit, and Whatcom County law libraries are staffed with at least a part-time librarian. County law libraries are listed in Washington Libraries On-Line. For all but the largest county law libraries, it is best to have patrons call ahead to arrange access to the collection. The Gallagher guide on Law Libraries in Washington State and the U.S. is a directory that also describes other directories and links to other sources.


Suggest an Attorney or Advocacy Group

Sometimes a patron with a legal question needs to consult an attorney. The Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory is the leading biographical directory, with a web version called the Lawyer Locator. Findlaw's Find a Lawyer is another web-searchable attorney finder. The Washington Bar Directory is a database of lawyers currently licensed to practice in Washington State. For more sources, see the section on locating lawyers in the Gallagher guide on People-Finding.

Washington LawHelpLow-income patrons in King County with civil legal problems can be referred to Washington LawHelp, which provides information about subject-specific legal service providers. Low-income patrons outside of King County with civil legal problems can call the Northwest Justice Project's CLEAR intake toll-free line at 1-888-201-1014 to receive a referral for legal assistance in their communities.

Advocacy groups such as the ACLU, AARP, and labor unions often have non-technical print and web publications dealing with common legal problems. Specialty legal associations may also have practical publications. For lists of specialty legal associations, see Findlaw's list of Legal Associations & Organizations.


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