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Circuit Riders: Best Practices for Legal Reference

Basic Legal Research Guide

Best Practices for Legal Reference

Legal Research Library Scenarios

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.

Do What You Do Best

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. 


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, the Spartanburg County Public Libraries system maintains a "Law Collection" on the upper floor of its headquarter library in downtown Spartanburg. On its website, the library provides a list of its materials, describes the services it provides, and directs patrons to the "Legal Research Disclaimer" below:

Legal Research Disclaimer

While the library is committed to serving the information needs of its patrons, the ethical principles of the American Association of Law Libraries prohibits us from practicing law:

“We acknowledge the limits on service imposed by our institutions and by the duty to avoid the unauthorized practice of law.” (AALL Ethical Principles, 1999.

Therefore, SCPL staff assistance is limited to providing instruction on the use of materials in the library. Please note that the library staff is prohibited from interpreting law, offering legal advice or opinions, providing advice on how to fill out forms or take legal action, and completing forms for patrons.

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.

Collaborate and Form Partnerships

Law librarians are committed to promoting open and effective access to legal and law related information and enjoy sharing their legal research expertise while serving their communities. This makes law librarians great partners for both training library employees and patrons and resource referrals. 

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 from your research guides or webpages. For example, the UofSC School of 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 like 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).

Refer to the Legal Experts

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 talk to a lawyer for free over the phone or online. 

South Carolina Legal Services offers free civil legal services in certain areas of the law to SC citizens who qualify. It also offers informational brochures on legal topics, maintains a website for free legal information and interactive forms at, and offers free legal clinics across the state on specific legal topics. For more legal services information, see the our Self-Help & Legal Services page.