The video below by the LA Law Library provides several examples of how to respond in a positive fashion to legal reference questions from patrons without giving legal advice. One scenario in particular involves responding to a request for assistance with completing legal forms. The bottom line is that we direct patrons to helpful resources. We do not interpret those resources or advise patrons how to proceed in a legal action. We can direct patrons to court-approved forms and form books, but we cannot choose a particular form or help them complete that form.
This video aptly demonstrates that the best strategy for helping patrons with legal information without giving legal advice is to know the resources available to your patrons and how they can best access them.
This video is short and to the point and could serve as a helpful training tool for library employees.
As demonstrated in the legal reference scenarios above, and as Paul Healey points out in his book Legal Reference for Librarians, if librarians (law and non-law) simply do what they do best—help patrons find information and resources rather than offering substantive advice or personal opinion—they will avoid accusations that they provided incorrect information or practiced law without a license(see p. 15).
Creating handouts or online research guides on suggested print and online resources for frequently researched topics can both provide a starting point for patrons and save time for the librarians conducting the reference interviews. As would any specialized or new collection, this requires training, which may be easily obtained by contacting your local public or academic law library.
As librarians, we focus on the services we can provide and are uncomfortable saying "no." With legal reference services, we must do both.
Displaying a written policy or disclaimer that explains what you can do and what you cannot do to help a patron research a legal problem can be an effective first step toward drawing that line.
For example, on its website beneath the list of the many services the H. Carlisle Bean Law Library in Spartanburg County does provide, is the following disclaimer:
You may also find it necessary to orally tell a patron that you are not allowed to give legal advice. The best way to do this is to explain that although you are not qualified or permitted to give legal advice, you can recommend resources that might be helpful.
Law librarians are committed to promoting "open and effective access to legal and related information" (see AALL Ethical Principles) and enjoy sharing their legal research expertise while serving their communities. This makes them great partners for both training library employees and patrons and resource referrals. You should be generally familiar with their collections and have their contact information handy to refer patrons that you cannot fully serve (with the caveat that they also cannot give legal advice).
All law libraries today have websites that provide research guides on how to find and use specific legal research materials. You can learn from these guides, share information from them with your patrons, or even link to them in your research guides or webpages. For example, the USC School of Law's Coleman Karesh Law Library maintains a research webpage with topical guides on subjects such as South Carolina Legal Resources and Free Internet Legal Resources, and how-to guides such as this Circuit Riders guide to legal research for non-lawyers.
Both our Free Internet Legal Resources and this Circuit Riders guides include pages devoted to self help resources.
Of course, a patron may quickly learn that she needs a lawyer, which is why you should have lawyer referral and legal service provider information readily available (see below).
Although you should never recommend a particular lawyer to a patron, the South Carolina Bar has a Lawyer Referral Service and conducts free legal clinics across the state on various legal topics. Patrons who cannot afford a lawyer may qualify for services through the SC Bar's Pro Bono Program or its Legal Assistance for Military Personnel (LAMP) program or have their legal questions answered through the SC Bar's Ask-a-Lawyer phone bank/web chat program. The South Carolina Bar's Pro Bono Program also allows qualified clients to post legal questions to their private messaging system called S.C. Law Answers, where volunteer lawyers answer legal questions for free.
South Carolina Legal Services offers free civil legal services to SC citizens who qualify, maintains a website for free legal information and interactive forms at LawHelp.org/SC, and offers free legal clinics on topics such as consumer issues, divorce, bankruptcy, and expungement. For more legal services information, see the Self-Help & Legal Services page within this guide.
Below is a PowerPoint presentation that includes all of the points addressed above regarding the ethical duty of librarians to assist patrons who are seeking legal information while avoiding the unauthorized practice of law.