Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
Advice vs. Information
“Legal Information” vs. “Legal Advice”
Librarians may help patrons find legal information on a given topic but may not answer legal questions or provide legal advice.
- Librarians may help patrons find legal information.
- Librarians may not answer legal questions or provide legal advice.
Some examples of legal advice include (but are not limited to):
- Interpreting any part of the law or legal procedure
- Applying the information to a person’s situation
- Recommending what action a person should take
- Selecting or filling out forms
- Predicting the outcome of a case
(Sources: https://www.txcourts.gov/media/1220087/legalinformationvslegaladviceguidelines.pdf & https://hirealawyer.findlaw.com/do-you-need-a-lawyer/what-is-legal-advice.html )
Keep the Focus on What You Can Do
In legal reference, it’s better to keep a reference interview focused on the things librarians CAN do.
- help patrons find resources and information.
- demonstrate how to use a resource.
- educate someone about what is in a resource.
- suggest visiting a court or law library.
- direct someone to legal professionals.
(Source: https://mdcourts.gov/lawlib/using-library/for-librarians/legal-reference-training/PLR-distinguishing-between-information-and-advice )
Paraphrasing the Question
Another useful tactic for librarians approached with a legal question is to paraphrase the question. When librarians fall back on, “I’m not a lawyer," it raises a barrier that can unnecessarily block the information patrons need.
The Thurgood Marshall State Law Library in Maryland recommends a four-part method for public librarians to rephrase questions in order to redirect the reference interview back toward legal information and away from legal advice:
- Step 1.) Listen to the question.
- Step 2.) Identify the nugget of the question. What information is the patron really trying to find?
- Step 3.) Change the perspective. You’re not trying to solve the person’s problem (aka providing legal advice). You’re directing them to information they can discuss with a lawyer or use to help themselves.
- Step 4.) Knowing all this, rephrase your response. The Marshall law library recommends preparing some scripts in advance. One potential script begins with, “Okay, I understand you need information about…”
More About Legal Reference
Legal reference is a much larger topic than the scope of this tutorial. If you would like to learn more, the following links lead to some very good introductory information for non-law librarians:
And here are two webinars on the topic:
West Virginia State Law Library
West Virginia State Law Library
The West Virginia State Law Library provides access to law-related information to the judiciary, legal community and the public. It provides reference assistance by phone and email, as well as free, public access to the Westlaw database on-site. The library can be reached by phone at (304) 558-2607.
Legal Reference Resources and Support
AALL Public Library Toolkit
Toolkit from the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) meant to help librarians help patrons locate legal information. Goals are to help librarians understand legal research, develop and use information located in their own libraries, and use information outside their libraries. Includes general and state-specific information for all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
American Bar Association: Lawyer Referral Directory
Search by city and state to find state and local bar associations that can refer patrons to attorneys in any state.
Find Legal Aid (Legal Services Corporation)
Search for legal aid organizations that provide financial support with civil legal problems for low-income Americans in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and in U.S. Territories. (West Virginia aid organizations are already featured on this guide, but you can also search at this link in case there have been updates.)
Library of Congress Law Library: West Virginia
Resources on law in the state of West Virginia and the branches of state government.
West Virginia University Law Library Services for the Public
Information on services provided to the public by the WVU Law Library, including reference assistance, borrowing materials, services for attorneys, and referrals to lawyers as well as free and low-cost legal assistance in West Virginia.
Legal Reference Training
Civil Legal Justice 1 - The Justice Gap and the US Legal System (WebJunction)
First in a four-course series to help libraries address the civil legal justice gap in the United States. After part one, learners will be able to describe the scope and impact of the civil legal justice gap and the role public libraries can play in addressing it ; provide appropriate legal information to patrons while recognizing and avoiding crossing the line into legal advice; and describe the 51 US legal systems, three types of primary law, and the distinction between civil and criminal legal issues.
Civil Legal Justice 2 - Civil Legal Issues and Resources (WebJunction)
Second in a four-course series to help libraries address the civil legal justice gap in the United States. After part two, learners will be able to identify the most common types of civil legal issues that people are likely to experience; prepare a legal reference collection specific to the library’s location and local community needs; and evaluate the accuracy, relevance, and currency of online and print legal resources.
Civil Legal Justice 3 - Partnering with Legal Service Providers (WebJunction)
Third in a four-course series to help libraries address the civil legal justice gap in the United States. After part three, learners will be able to describe the range of legal assistance options that might be available to individuals experiencing civil legal issues; provide a legal referral appropriate to the patron’s situation and circumstances; and identify and establish positive relationships with organizations offering legal aid, information, and referrals to individuals in your location.
Civil Legal Justice 4 - The Legal Reference Interview (WebJunction)
Fourth in a four-course series to help libraries address the civil legal justice gap in the United States. After part four, learners will be able to recognize and address patron stress related to their legal issues and the personal circumstances behind them; identify a patron’s specific legal issue through the legal reference interview process; and identify the applicable body of law, secondary reference source, and specific legal reference material that addresses a patron’s issue.
Legal Information Reference Center for Everyday Legal Questions (WVInfoDepot.org)
Tutorial designed to help West Virginia library staff and educators understand the Legal Information Reference Center database and how to help patrons use it. Includes a section on legal information vs. legal advice.
Legal Research for Non-Lawyers and Librarians
Nebraska Library Commission NCompass Live webinar.
West Virginia Library Commission
1900 Kanawha Blvd East | Culture Center, Bldg. 9 | Charleston, WV 25305
In-State Toll Free : (800) 642-9021 | (304) 558-2041