So you’ve found yourself involved in a legal matter and you’ve decided to represent yourself. Maybe you’ve just received a copy of a complaint which was filed against you. Maybe you’ve received a letter from an attorney who claims to represent someone against you. Perhaps a neighbor who’s borrowed your tools now refuses to return them and you’d like to be reimbursed for their loss. Regardless of how it happened, you’re facing the prospect of diving headfirst into the legal world. Where do you begin?
Fortunately, there’s an easy answer. If you have decided not to hire an attorney to represent you in your legal issues, the first thing you need to do is research. Research is probably the most critical part of preparing for your case, no matter what the case is actually about. As it turns out, the legal world can be incredibly complex. Even seasoned attorneys spend a huge chunk of time researching the issues and law involved in a case. You can bet that any other attorneys involved in the case, their clients and the judge are spending a significant amount of time researching – if you are not prepared to do the same you run the risk of seriously hurting your chances of winning.
First, you need to identify the issues in the case. Are you being sued because a former business partner thinks that you breached a contract? Did you get pulled over because you were speeding or because you ran a stop sign, or both? What facts do you have to prove to show that the person in the Wal-Mart parking lot was negligent when they backed into your car? Learn what it is that you are trying to prove, or what defenses you have for your conduct before you prepare to make your case. Once you have identified the issues, it’s time to research.
There are several methods by which you could begin researching the issues in your case. You could apply to and enroll at a law school, spend three years and significant amount of money learning the basics of law and practice, and pass a bar exam, at which point you might have an idea how to prepare your case. This is probably not the most cost and time-effective way of going about dealing with a minor legal issue, however. Instead, rely on the rich variety of resources available at your fingertips.
The most accessible resource is obviously the internet. There are many excellent sources of information available, free-of-charge, just a mouse-click away. For example, Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute, found at http://www.law.cornell.edu, provides an enormous amount of information related to the Constitution, federal and state statutes, and information designed to make the law more accessible to non-lawyers. Likewise, companies such as Westlaw (www.westlaw.com) and LexisNexis (www.lexisnexis.com) publish an exhaustive number of court decisions, statutes, and other resources which are used by lawyers on a regular basis. These are excellent places for you to begin your search. Note that some of the best databases such as Westlaw and LexisNexis require a subscription or access to a law library (more on that in a bit). The Legal Information Institute is free.
A word of warning though: while the internet has tremendous value as a means for locating relevant study materials, you should be extremely careful about the reliability of those materials. For example, don’t rely on Wikipedia – while information there can be correct and is frequently a way to gain a general understanding of a subject, it is impossible to gauge how accurate that information is. Always rely on a reputable source.
Another excellent source of legal information is your local law library. Law libraries frequently have large collections of books containing key case law at both the state and national level, and, more importantly, usually have a public subscription to Internet services such as Westlaw and LexisNexis. Thus, a visit to a law library can be an extremely cost effective method of doing your research. Note that not all local law libraries are open to the public. For example, the Toledo Law Association Library’s computers and online services are only available to members. On the other hand, the Wood County Law Library, 25 minutes to the south, is open and available to anyone wishing to use its resources. To locate a law library near you in the state of Ohio, visit http://www.clelaw.lib.oh.us/public/misc/colawlib.html, which contains the address and contact information for county law libraries throughout the state.
Using the types of resources discussed above should give you a head start on understanding the legal issues you face. If you are representing yourself in a legal matter, take the time to familiarize yourself with these sources of information. Winning a legal battle requires that you understand the law you are dealing with – now you know where to start looking. Next time, we’ll discuss the differences between statutes, case law and other types of legal authority in order to help you narrow down your search.
Adam is an associate attorney at Rohrbachers Cron Manahan Trimble & Zimmerman Co., L.P.A. This article is the second in a multi-part series providing practical tips for pro se parties representing themselves in a legal action.