Thursday, January 13, 2005

Legal Research Tip 7: Specific Resources for Non-lawyers

These are the back issues of the e-newsletter Legal Research Tips from 2004. Since these tips are a little longer, each back issue will be published separately. Starting in 2005, all issues will be published here and no longer distributed via email.

Legal Research Tip 7: Specifc Resources for Non-lawyers
This month's tip will focus on identifying specific resources developed especially for nonlawyers, or those who have little or no training or experience with legal concepts or resources. We'll focus on both national and local resources to adequately cover the major publications out there. Though this list is not exhaustive, this tip is a little longer than usual so that I may adequately cover this topic.

Nolo & Sphinx
In the world of legal publishing, there are two biggies: Westlaw and Lexis. Similarly, in the area of publishing legal resources for the public, there are two biggies: Nolo and Sphinx.

Nolo Press (
Nolo’s mission is to make the legal system work for everyone-not just lawyers. They have dedicated their products to be in a language understandable by those without a background or experience in the legal system. Nolo has been around about 30 years and their products are constantly being updated. While they have a few state-specific resources, mainly for California and New York, most of Nolo’s resources are focused on giving general information that is widely accepted by most states. "Nolo" is Latin for "I choose not to" and is most often heard in the phrase "Nolo Contendere" meaning a no-contest plea. Some common Nolo Press titles include the "How To…" series, such as "How to get a Green Card" and "How to Get Your Business on the Web." Many public libraries collect Nolo books, and you'll notice that many of them look very similar in design and layout, making Nolo books easier to find on the shelf. Be mindful of the edition and year. It doesn’t matter if you have an entire set of Nolo books if they’re all out of date. A good place to watch for these changes is through examination of their catalog, in print or online at They are careful to note the latest edition.

Sphinx Legal (
Similarly, Sphinx Publishing was started to inform and explain the law to the public in terms that they could understand, rather than the high-falutin’ language that lawyers seem to like. Sphinx became part of Sourcebooks, Inc. in 2000. One of the more popular series by Sphinx is the "Legal Survival Guide" series. Sphinx also publishes several books that are state-specific. While Sphinx claims that their information is "Valid in all 50 states," it’s always a good idea to contact the local law library or court to make sure you’re reading the most current law and procedures.

Other National Publishers
While there are no other legal publishers with a sole focus on resources for the lay public, there are several publishers who may have a few titles for the public. For example, the American Bar Association sometimes publishes guides or dictionaries that are useful for both lawyers and lay users, while the American Lawyers Media publishing group focuses on lawyers, but some lay users will also benefit from their titles. Some publishers have a specific area that they concentrate on in their products, such as teen or children’s books. Naturally, there would be some books by that publisher that venture into the areas of teen law. Specifically, I’m referring to Free Spirit Publishing. They publish books for adolescents, so you will find books about laws surrounding juveniles, as well as juvenile court procedures. In addition to these two categories, there are associations or agencies or governmental groups that publish resources for the public. For example, the Commerce Clearing House once published a "Citizen’s Guide to the Freedom of Information Act" and the National Consumer Law Center recently published this "Guide to Surviving Debt" book.

Local Publishers & Publications
WI State Bar/Local Bar Associations: While the State and local bars mainly focus on resources for attorneys, many nonattorneys will get use from them as well. Many State Bar books include sample forms and descriptions of court procedures. These resources are useful in providing a greater explanation of an unfamiliar legal area or court procedure. They also compile statutes into resources called "Code Books" that make it easier to find all the statutes on a specific subject area, rather than having to look through the 5-volume statute set yourself.

Local agencies, and associations, and other groups will publish resources for the public and are able to translate procedures and information into language that most people will understand. For example, the WI Dept. of Justice put out a resource directory for crime victims, and the Elder Law Center/Coalition of WI Aging Groups (CWAG) have published a resource guide for elder rights and benefits. In addition the group Law Librarians Association of WI (LLAW) has a legal research guide for non-law librarians that would be useful for the public as well. Sometimes the product out of an association’s conference or convention is a guide or directory that yields useful information as well.

Other Local Publishers
A local press called "Prairie Oak Press" publishes a "WI Father’s Guide to Divorce and Custody" book, one of the few local resources on that topic. In addition, several publications are released from UW Law School, Marquette Law School, or UW-Milwaukee professors on a topic of particular interest to the legal community.

WI Court System/Dane County Circuit Court
The Court System publishes guides in accordance with the state rules and procedures. Examples are the "Guide to Small Claims Court" and a "Citizen’s Guide to Filing an Appeal." Dane County Court Offices have published resource guides for various types of court sections, such as the "Guide to Probate in WI," the "Dane Co Circuit Court Rules," and the "Family Court Resource Booklet." We are working on a "Juvenile Court Resource Booklet."

With a few exceptions, all of the local resources listed above can be linked from our home page: --the WI State Law Library's website. In addition, all the resources listed above can be found in print at our library. Many are also in public libraries.