Confusing Google Searches with a Law Degree
Updated: Sep 21
Using the internet as a self-help guide to your legal problem is as dangerous as performing surgery on yourself using a YouTube video.
The last couple of generations have gotten used to and quite naturally turn to the internet to find answers to their most pressing questions or problems of all kinds. Do-it-yourself has become very easy with online tutorials and instant access to knowledge at our fingertips. Unfortunately, legal problems, just like medical problems, are best resolved and should be addressed by a consultation with a doctor (Yes, attorneys are doctors too…doctors of law). There are several reasons for this:
Laws vary by state. You most certainly will find a lot of information on a legal topic on the internet but, unless is it is a federal law problem such as immigration, a lot of legal authors will conclude and disclaim that the answer may vary depending on where the issue will be decided (i.e., which state/jurisdiction). For example, there are many differences in divorce law between states. The requirements for process serving, waiting periods or cooling-off periods, property distribution, fees, or grounds for divorce may be completely different in one state than another. Here is a good article from Forbes magazine regarding this subject: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jefflanders/2016/05/24/50-ways-to-end-your-marriage-divorce-laws-vary-widely-from-state-to-state/#4b975c206b13
Laws change. Many attorneys will blog about a topic or give general legal information but they don’t always update their article when the law they wrote about changes. An internet surfer may find an article about a new law or amendment but that doesn’t mean that the law wasn’t subsequently changed or amended, and it is not necessarily the current law.
You can’t ask about something you don’t know about. It takes attorneys 3 years of full time education to learn how to analyze a legal problem, spot the issues, think of and research remedies and the law. Even young attorneys sometimes are not as good at responding to some legal problem as experienced attorneys. This is why attorneys practice law. And the more you practice the more you learn. So it is no surprise that someone who has no legal experience may not know the various aspects of their case that will need to be addressed and researched. For example, someone who has been served with a complaint for divorce may research how property is divided in their state or who qualifies for spousal support or how child custody and support is established but they may not know to research how to respond to a complaint for divorce or avoid the entry of “default judgment of divorce”.
The result may be dependent on the outcome of other cases. In the United States' legal system, there are four main sources of law: constitutions, statutes, administrative regulations, and case law. Case law (also known as common law or judicial precedent or judge-made law) is that body of law derived from judicial decisions of courts and similar tribunals (ex: Court of Appeals or Supreme Court). Attorneys often turn to case law to interpret the application of a constitutional, statutory or administrative law or to find a rule where no codified law applies. This type of research is not easy and is often time consuming. Until recently, attorneys had to pay a lot of money to access case law databases such as Westlaw or Lexis but in 2017 Google offered a solution: Google Scholar. Now anyone with internet access can try their hand at case law research to better understand the application of the law they may have learned about in their www searches. While this can be very useful, to many it is more confusing than helpful because each case is analyzed based on facts that are always different and sometimes result in opposite conclusions. Comparing apples to oranges is an exercise in creative arguing which not everyone is good at.
For those reasons alone, it is very dangerous to try to represent yourself using only the internet as your guide. However, if you still are not convinced to hire an attorney or you cannot afford to do so here are some TIPS IF SEARCHING FOR LEGAL HELP ON LINE:
When searching the internet, it is best to specify and include in your search the state where the matter is being litigated. Here is a good website to search for free legal help by state: https://www.lawhelp.org/find-help.
Double check if you are on the right track and not missing anything by seeking free legal advice online. Here is an article that reviews 5 sites: https://blog.capterra.com/free-legal-advice-5-easy-to-use-sites-that-are-actually-free/
Double check citations to law/statutes directly with the source. Most states have their laws/statutes available online. For example, you can find Michigan law at: http://www.legislature.mi.gov/(S(i3gocedtkilr04oquzoviy3b))/mileg.aspx?page=chapterindex
Or Illinois at: http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/ilcs.asp
Use Google Scholar to see how the law is applied in different cases: https://www.mycase.com/blog/2017/06/using-google-scholar-for-legal-research-in-2017-part-1/
When you feel you have done your homework, at least consult with an attorney or retain an attorney in a limited scope to ensure you are not making any critical mistakes. (see LINK for an article on Limited Scope Representation).
One of the more popular websites for finding an attorney is www.avvo.com.