Since most people go through most of their lives without interacting with the court system, it can be confusing when one is suddenly forced to interact with that system. Imagine that tomorrow you discover you have a legal problem. “Do I need a lawyer?” may well be your first reaction. The easy answer for any legal problem is yes, you should talk to a lawyer, even if the lawyer then says you don’t really need a lawyer. But you don’t know any lawyers – this being your first encounter with a legal problem – and lawyers cost money. Maybe you can handle the problem on your own, but you don’t know for sure and you don’t know how to find out without first finding a lawyer and then paying him or her.
You’re not alone. Fortunately, state court systems and non-profit organizations interested in justice know you need help and answers. They also know you probably have an internet connection, or know how to use one at the library, so they put a wealth of information online. CourtReference.com can help you find it.
If you’re not comfortable doing anything at all on your own, your first step can be to find a lawyer online. In each CourtReference state guide, under “Find resources by category,” you can choose Legal Aid and Lawyer Referral. There you will find links to legal aid societies for those who have a civil legal problem but can’t afford a lawyer; public defenders for those who have been charged with a crime but can’t afford a lawyer, and lawyer referral services for those who can afford a lawyer but don’t know any.
If you think you might be able to take care of the problem yourself, another court resource category is Self Help and Legal Research. There you will find links to explanations of your state’s court system, definitions of legal terms, your state’s laws, court rules, law libraries (see this blog’s Law Libraries for You), small claims cases, and mediation. You’ll also find information on specific legal issues such as divorce, child support, traffic tickets, foreclosure, and drug courts. Each of these topics could be a separate blog article – and will be soon if it’s not one already – but the basic idea is that information about your problem is probably available online right now. For free.
If you really can’t afford a lawyer, a single online resource may answer your “Do I need a lawyer?” question and then help you find that lawyer. Every state has a non-profit legal aid organization that not only offers free information on a wide variety of legal issues, but also shows you where to find a lawyer who will represent you for free. Many of the state legal aid organizations partner with LawHelp.org (the first listing in the Blogroll on the left side of this page) to present a consistent look from state to state. For example, compare the Texas website to the New York version. For self-help information, click one of the topic icons on either website. For lawyers, click “Legal Aid Directory” on the Texas website or “NY Legal Aid Offices” on the New York website.
In some states, LawHelp.org will even provide links to lawyers you will pay for, in the event you don’t meet the income guidelines for free services. For example, on the Georgia LawHelp website, click “Legal Program Directory” to see a list that includes both free legal aid organizations and county bar associations with referral services to their fee-accepting members.
LawHelp is not in every state, and many states have additional self-help resources. For an example of a state that’s not part of the LawHelp network, see Michigan Legal Aid. All of these legal aid resources can be found in CourtReference’s Self-Help and Legal Research category; the links will be named Legal Information and Legal Resources (Texas, New York, Michigan), Legal Information and Legal Assistance (Georgia), or something very similar.
With help from the many wonderful self-help resources available online, you may be able to resolve your legal problem by yourself. If your research convinces you that you really do need a lawyer, CourtReference’s Legal Aid and Lawyer Referral category is only a click or two away.