It’s been an unusually inspiring day on the lawbrarian interwebz. This afternoon, Robert Richards retweeted an article of Connie Crosby‘s on Slaw that I had missed: “Legal Research Services for the Public: Looking for a Solution.” The premise is simple, but the implications are huge: how exactly do non-lawyers get legal information? There are plenty of obvious restrictions (don’t give legal advice, don’t expose yourself to uninsured risk, cost and availability of resources), but not as many obvious solutions.
As part of my job, I answer Ask A Librarian questions that come in through our online form. Content of these questions ranges from pro se litigants looking for help to legal academics to non-law academics, students, and of course, somewhat off beat but still legally related issues like who said “there’s a sucker born every minute,” and did they say it in a courtroom? I help where I can, and not where I can’t.
Where can’t I? This afternoon’s brief Twitter convo between Connie, Sarah Glassmeyer and myself has certainly made me think twice, ethically, about what’s giving legal advice and what isn’t. But, one solution I suggested was using a government’s own published resources on a specific subject manner to avoid the legal advice conundrum. For example, on more than one occasion I’ve received questions about old people in Florida, for Florida is full of old people. The Florida Dept. of Elder Affairs has a pretty good website, abundant contact info, and hyper localized information that I can direct people to from our form (because they have to fill out their address). Of course, all this comes after I say, “Regrettably, we cannot offer legal advice or solutions to specific legal problems. However, here are a few local resources that I hope will be of use to you…”
I’m going to put it out there that a percentage of folks that come to law libraries for help don’t necessarily need legal assistance as much as governmental guidance. In the U.S. at least, between multiple levels of government with overlapping responsibilities, it’s tough work being the governed. Rah rah federalism, but seriously: when someone is sending in an Ask A Librarian question to my Library of Last Resort about how to take care of their grandmama in Florida, something is amiss.
Connie talked about whether public legal help could become a viable business model with independent researchers. I wonder if it can be a viable business model as a website that helps people navigate the resources that are already present? Could the people running the site then market their services to state and local governments? “Let us index you, let us build you a better product, look at how great everyone will think Florida is.” I’m all for free Law (that’s capital L, serious law), and I think all that stuff needs to be made available–but I also think there are lots of folks who won’t be able to read it or use it once it’s out there. I see this public legal research thing as a combination of proper laws, cases, etc. and administrative websites.
People have web businesses all the time. Not even the craziest idea I’ve had today.