When a patron asks a question that, taken as phrased, appears to request a legal opinion, your initial reaction might be to step back from that question, to respond with standard "we are not lawyers" patter, to raise a barrier so as not to venture into the area of unauthorized practice of law. However, take a second look at the question, and you might find that, under the need for legal advice is a basic though unrecognized need for legal information. And information, legal or otherwise, is a library's specialty.
In all reference interactions, whether for legal information, medical information, homework, science fair, or reader's advisory, the first step a librarian takes is to rephrase the question, to confirm with the patron that your understanding of the question is on-target (see RUSA's Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers).
Use this rephrase opportunity to change the perspective of the question. Look for the information nugget in the question. Look for key words that might help identify what it is the patron needs information about, then turn their question into one which you can address.
The following examples illustrate how to rephrase a legal advice question into a legal information question.
Examples of Rephrasing
Question: Is it legal for me to leave my daughter at home alone? She's seven.
Identify the nugget: child alone
Change the perspective: Does the law say anything about the age a child can be left alone?
Rephrase back to the patron: Okay, I understand you need information about what the law might say about the age a child can be left alone.
Question: My ex-wife won't let me see our son, and she wants to move with him to California. How do I stop her?
Identify the nugget: child custody, rights of father/non-custodial parent
Change the perspective: What does the law say about the rights of a non-custodial parent?
Rephrase back to the patron: Okay, I understand you need information about custody and visitation rights.
Question: I want to file a small claims case. I live in Maryland, but the company I'm suing is in Virginia. Where do I file?
Identify the nugget: small claims case, procedures for filing in two geographic locations
Change the perspective: What are the procedures for filing small claims cases in Maryland and Virginia
Rephrase back to the patron: Okay, I understand you need information about filing a small claims case in Maryland, and information about filing the same in Virginia.
Review the training element on distinguishing between information and advice
LATI: Library Associate Training Institute. Maryland's LATI training includes essential reference interview skills.
ALA's RUSA Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers (also noted above); see 3.0 Listening/Inquiring.
Last revised 05/08/2018