Tips for helping the law librarian help you.

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Here are some suggestions on how to make your trip to the law library for effective and more efficient.

Bring the paperwork with you.

Patrons often come to the library to seek help because they’ve been sued or charged with a crime.  When a statute is involved, we really need to know what statute in order to help you.  Even if no statute is involved, we need to know what the cause of action is.  If you have paperwork, bring it with you.  We won’t read every word but it will help if we see precisely what statute or issue is involved.

Spare us the intimate details.

Please don’t launch into a detailed story about what someone did to you and why they did it.  Just give us the gist of the matter and if we need more information, we’ll ask for it.  This is partly to save time but it is also because people tell us some pretty intimate things that we don’t need to know in order to help.  I really don’t want to know more about your personal life than I do about my best friend’s!

For example, just tell me that your ex-wife won’t let you see your kids and you want to know what to do about it.  I don’t need to know all the details about what a horrible mother your ex-wife is and how nasty her new boyfriend is, and how your ex-mother-in-law hates you.

Also, please try to stay calm while relating your problem.  We know these issues can be emotional, but remember that we didn’t have anything to do with the creation of your problem.  If you start getting angry or agitated, we will take a step further into professional detachment and probably be less effective in helping you.  If you really go over the top, we will have to call for security.

Understand that we can’t give legal advice, even if we’re lawyers.

I’m licensed in Maryland and Tennessee, but I work as an academic law librarian in California.  I didn’t study California law in my Pennsylvania law school, and I’ve never even taken the California bar, let alone passed it.  I haven’t practiced since 1988 and unless you’re dealing with a construction law problem, a real estate development issue, or a matter involving a cable TV franchise contract, your issue is probably something I’ve never handled before.

Most law librarians probably have a history like mine.  Some have law degrees; some don’t.  Some who have law degrees took and passed a bar exam and were admitted to practice; others did not.  Some have experience in practice; some don’t.  Our expertise is legal research, not any particular area of the law of the state where we work.

When you ask us a question that we’re not permitted to answer, we will tell you, “I’m sorry, but I can’t give you legal advice.”  Your response should not be, “I don’t want legal advice; I just want to know X.”  Trust us, we’ve already evaluated your question, and to tell you X would require us to give legal advice.

We can’t tell you what the statute of limitations is for your matter.  We can show you how to use the resources so you can try to determine for yourself.  We can’t tell you whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to your situation.  We can get you the Act and help you find secondary sources that might enable you to answer your question.  We can’t tell you what document or pleading you need, or tell you which form to use.  We can’t tell you how to fill-out a form.

Realize that the court clerk isn’t always right.

Patrons frequently tell us that the court clerk’s office told them they could get forms at the law library.  That’s both true and not true.

Patrons usually think of a form as something like their tax return.  All they have to do is fill in the blanks.  Some libraries will have forms like this because they’ve been created by the state court system or some other organization such as legal aid.  There might be forms like this for some matters but not for others.  We usually won’t have copies of the forms you can take with you.  We might have a book with these forms and you can make photocopies.  If an outside organization has created forms and helpful information, we might have a packet you can take.  (I’m thinking of the useful “simple divorce” packets that we had at the University of Nebraska law library, but they were prepared by a task force that included legal aid and the state court system, if I remember correctly.)

More likely, what we have is “form books.”  These are books for lawyers which contain samples of language used in different types of documents.  Lawyers use them to piece together a completed document.  They have to determine which pieces to use and how to use them.  They’re not intended to be used blindly without adjustment.  They can get you started and give you a framework that you can work with.  I can’t help you pick out the pieces you need and revise them to fit your circumstances.

Please don’t get angry with us because the court clerk told you we would have something that we don’t.

Remember that you might not be our priority.

If you go to an academic law library (one that is part of a law school), please remember that our priority is our students and faculty.  We often teach, so we might have to leave for class and hand you off to another librarian if one is available.  We might have to leave your side while we help students.  We’ll give you as much time as we can, but our students, faculty, and preparing for classes are our priorities.

And lastly, some advice from the best law librarian I know, Sharon Blackburn at Texas Tech University School of Law:

Understand that it isn’t easy and it’s going to take some time.

Lawyers get college degrees and then spend three years in law school learning substantive and procedural law.  Don’t expect to master your problem in mere hours.

Sharon tells the story of a patron who wanted to research federal income tax laws regarding charitable giving.  And he wanted it all in 30 minutes!

Don’t wait until the day before your answer is due or the criminal trial is scheduled to come to the law library.  If you know what you’re doing, expect to spend hours, if not days, preparing.  If you don’t know what you’re doing, plan to spend weeks, if not months.

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