Distinguishing Between Information and Advice
There are many resources to help library staff distinguish between legal information and legal advice (linked below). The line is often blurry. Law librarians and even attorneys do not always agree on where the line is. The tips below can help you recognize the difference.
People think of the public library as a place to find answers. With legal reference, many times you will not be finding an answer, but rather providing a response. That response will include information, but may not be specifically an answer.
What is the difference between advice and information?
- Giving advice is telling another person what they should do. It keeps the decision-making in OUR hands.
- Giving information lets the person know what possibilities are out there. It puts the decision-making in THEIR hands.
Why does the difference matter?
Advice requires careful analysis of the law as it applies to a person's specific situation, and may affect the rights and responsibilities of the patron.
Exercise Your Skills
Librarians have a skill set that is particularly helpful with legal reference. Our strength is in our ability to teach people how to use resources, to lead them to and through materials that will help inform them. To state this more directly:
- Help find information that will help a patron read about and better understand a legal problem and options
- Demonstrate how to use those information sources
- Educate someone about alternative locations for and forms of information or assistance
- Suggest someone visit a court library, where a broader range of resources may be available
- Direct someone to legal professionals or legal service providers who are equipped to offer interpretation and advice
- Tell someone what a law means
- Tell someone what choice to make between two or more options
- Give an opinion about a situation or whether a particular action should be taken
- Tell someone what the outcome of their court date might be
- Tell someone if a court decision is relevant to their case
- Tell someone what to write in a form or document (note, however, that most courts allow a non-attorney to fill in blanks for a disabled patron, as long as the librarian sticks to the exact wording of the patron - check with your library system before do so to make sure you comply with insitutional policies)
- Tell you which lawyer to go to
Maryland Courts Access to Justice Department, What Can I Do to Help You
The What Can I Do materials include a booklet, desk card and poster, as well as a training video. The aim of the materials is to aid court staff in serving the public, but is also helpful to librarian as the distinguishing line is the same.
Southern California Association of Law Libraries (SCALL), Locating the Law: A Handbook for Non-Law Librarians, 5th ed. rev., Chapter 4: Legal Reference vs. Legal Advice
This resource provides an excellent summary of the why and the how: why the difference matters, and how to distinguish. Concrete examples of questions that fall on both sides of the line are offered. The material is directed at California librarians, but the overview and sample questions apply generally.
Findlaw's What Is 'Legal Advice'? provides additional illustrations as to what falls into each category.
Get training on how to distinguish information from advice, and learn how to turn an advice question into an information request to which you and your staff can respond. In-person training is available upon request from the Maryland State Law Library (contact the reference desk) and other members of the Conference of Maryland Circuit Court Law Library Directors.