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Circuit Riders: Legal Reference v. Advice

Basic Legal Research Guide

Legal Reference and the Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL)

Library patrons research the law for many reasons. Some are simply curious about legal issues and their legal rights. Students of all ages research the law for school reports and papers. However, it becomes more complicated for the librarian when a patron is researching the law to draft her own will or start her own business or represent herself in a divorce or other court proceeding.

The term “pro se” refers to individuals who are planning to represent themselves in a legal matter without an attorney.  The last few decades have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of pro se or self-represented litigants (SRLs).  And, because people naturally turn to libraries as sources of information, there has also been a dramatic increase in the number of library patrons seeking assistance with legal information and materials. 

This presents a challenge for law librarians and non-law librarians alike—How do we provide legal reference assistance without giving legal advice?  In South Carolina, if a non-lawyer gives legal advice, it is considered the unauthorized practice of law, which is a felony punishable by a fine of up to five thousand dollars or up to five years in prison, or both (See S.C. Code Ann. § 40-5-310). The following sections on What is the Practice of Law? and Best Practices for Legal Reference provide basic guidelines for avoiding any such dilemma.

The following books are excellent resources for any public library collection. All address how to avoid the unauthorized practice of law.