Q: With all of the legal information that is now available for free, can't I deal with most legal issues I'm likely to face without hiring an attorney?
A: General legal information does not replace an attorney's services. First, you can't assume the legal information you are getting is accurate and complete. A legal decision based upon inaccurate or incomplete information is unlikely to be a sound decision. Assuming the information is accurate, legal information found in columns such as this and on Web sites can be very helpful, particularly in raising questions and providing background for legal issues consumers are likely to encounter. The more you understand about the law and the legal system, the better. However, the law is very complex and each situation is unique. Free legal information is necessarily general --"one size fits all." By contrast, an attorney provides legal advice to a specific client with specific needs and wishes. While "consumer" legal information you obtain may be accurate in general, it may not be accurate when applied to your particular case. However, if you have become somewhat knowledgeable about the area of law affecting your personal situation, your communications with your lawyer likely will be enhanced.
Q: What if my case is very simple?
A: Often, what appears to be a simple case involves much more than meets the eye. An attorney is trained to look beneath the surface of an issue, and understands that an apparently straightfoward case may not be so at all. A lawyer can help you determine which of your concerns require professional assistance. For those concerns that do, a lawyer can help you with expertise developed over years of study and practice. If you fail to secure or to protect your legal rights in the correct way, at the required time, you may lose those rights altogether. Intelligent, honest people have signed important documents (real estate contracts, employment agreements, and insurance settlements, for example) without fully understanding the obligations they were assuming, or the rights they were giving up--then found themselves frustrated by expensive, time-consuming problems that could have been avoided. Others have died in the mistaken belief that their property would be divided among the heirs in a certain way, or that their minor children would be raised by certain relatives, when their intentions could have been carried out exactly if an attorney had been consulted so that the technical requirements of the law were met. A bumper sticker promoting higher education reads: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." In many cases, it truly can be said: "If you think legal advice is expensive, try doing without it."
Q: What happens if I rely on legal information provided through a Web site, and that information turns out to be false?
A: "Buyer beware" might be the motto for someone who relies on such information. By its nature, general legal information is not intended to be applied to a specific case, and usually a disclaimer to that effect appears somewhere on the site. If you compromise or lose your legal rights because you relied on erroneous information from such a source, you may be out of luck. Your ignorance of legal rules or procedures will not excuse your failure to comply with them, so do not count on getting a second chance.
Q: If I can't afford to pay an attorney's fee, what other option do I have but to rely on free legal information?
A: If you really can't afford an attorney, you can contact the Ohio State Legal Services Association to find out if you qualify for legal aid. Also, you can contact your county bar association's lawyer referral service (available in many Ohio counties). Through this service, you can learn about the legal resources available in your area for your particular situation and income level.
Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. This article was prepared by David S. Cooper, B.A., J.D., of Worthington.