Greetings, fans, all three of you! As you might remember, I had words of wisdom for those of you who wanted to go pro se (roughly translated as “I like to lose without knowing why”) here-
If you’re too lazy to read it, I can sum it up this simply- don’t. But that said, there are many people that ignore my advice on issues, including, more often than not, me.
So if you read my last post on decoding citations, you might remember that there was a time when legal research was all conducted by going to libraries and reading through musty old books. And, judging by the backdrop of books in EVERY ATTORNEYS’ ADVERTISEMENT, EVER, that’s how it’s still done. Except ... it isn’t.
Legal research, today, is primarily conducted through two giant services- Westlaw and Lexis (Lexis/Nexis). These massive companies charge attorneys through the nose for their use ... but don’t worry about your attorney’s bank account, because they will pass those charges on to you, one way or another. As your attorney is fond of saying, “Heads I win, tails you lose.” Unfortunately, these services just aren’t very effective for most people because of the cost. So what are you to do?
If the internet age has taught us anything, it’s that in almost all cases, there is a not-quite-as-good, free alternative. And so it is here.
Most law-like substances consists of three components-
So, how do you find them?
There are a number of websites that provide you with the cases (the “opinions”) of the Courts. Probably the best is google scholar-
Make sure you select “case law” and then ... search, just like you do in google! You can narrow it to particular courts (jurisdictions) and between federal and state courts. For example, let’s say you type in “intercourse with a cow” (all in quotes) ... you’ll find People v. PT, 599 NE 2d 79 (Ill. App. Ct. 1992). Do not read the opinion. It’s not funny. Really.
Did you ignore me? Did you read it? Yeah, that won’t wash off. Anyway, the point is that sometimes google scholar will turn up just a single result, and it will be ... not what you want (in this case, something funny ... *sigh*).
Other times, it returns too much. Let’s say you want to research, oh, “pleading standards.” So you type in “pleading standard” and you get ... 26,300 results. Oh my. The good news is that google is kinda sorta good at giving you good results, sometimes. So you see Twombly and Iqbal and Gibson on the first page. The bad news is that if you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know why this is important. And this brings us up to a very important point. If you read my post on pro se lawyering, you realize that not all cases are created equal. One thing that Westlaw and Lexis tell you is whether, in a general sense, a case is still “good law” or “bad law.” There’s no free service for that (the fancy term is “shepherdize”).
In addition to cases, there are rules. Rules of Procedure for the Courts (both state and federal) and internal operating procedures for the courts (both state and federal). In addition, there are Rules of Evidence (again, both state and federal) as well as other rules that might come into play (administrative orders for the court, etc.). Good news is that these are almost always available on-line. Let’s take a hypothetical example- You have a federal case in the Central District of California. That’s a federal case.
The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are available at many cites, including the US Government and Cornell’s Legal Information Institute.
The Local Rules of the Court are available on the Court’s website. All of these things are available to you!
Finally, there are the applicable “laws.” These can be state, federal, or local codes, laws, ordinances or constitutions. Again, the vast majority of these are now available on-line and you can find them.
So, using California as an example again, you would google it, and find this website-
So what does it all mean?
The law has never been more accessible to the average person. It’s almost all out there, and more gets put out for free and public access every day. In addition to this primary research, you can quickly and easily google and find a number of secondary resources; law blogs, legal journals, bar journals, and other sources that put together legal information in a (somewhat) readable format.
But easy accessibility does not mean easy readability. Try this one-
If you understand legal jargon, or have a passing knowledge of real property and/or bankruptcy, this is a quick read. If you don’t ... it could take a while. It’s the same no matter what you look at; it’s not enough to simply find the materials; you have to have a basic understanding of how it all fits together. If you’re reading about a Supreme Court case (or a local case) and you want to find out what the Court really said as opposed to what journalists are telling you about the case; knock yourself out.
If, however, you want to bring your own action pro se, then ... well, just remember it’s not RICO. It’s never RICO.
But try and remember that while knowledge is always good, what you have to watch out for is the unknown, unknowns.