How to Do Your Own Legal Research: Worried about the OGL?

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Greetings, fans of turning discussions about unicorns and dragons into protracted legal-ese (all three of you). As you might remember, I have previously cautioned people against tackling complicated legal issues and/or going pro se (roughly translated as “I like to lose without knowing why”). But given that this EnWorld has blown up with breathless speculation related to the legal implications of contracts and licenses and revocation (oh my!), and as there are many people that ignore my advice on issues, including, more often than not, me, I thought I'd at least provide a little assistance.

Now, if you're old enough to be on these forums complaining about how TSR used to send out Cease and Desist letters like they were going out of style, you might remember that there was a time when legal research was all conducted by going to libraries and reading through musty old books, that, similar to the DMG, no one ever read. And, judging by the backdrop of books in EVERY ATTORNEYS’ ADVERTISEMENT, EVER, that’s how it’s still done. Except ... it isn’t.

Legal research, today, is primarily conducted through two giant services- Westlaw and Lexis (Lexis/Nexis). These massive companies charge attorneys through the nose for to use them ... but don’t worry about your attorney’s bank account, because they will pass those charges on to you, one way or another. As your attorney is fond of saying, “Heads I win, tails you lose.” Unfortunately, these services just aren’t very effective for most people because of the cost. So what are you to do when you want to do a little research?

If the internet age has taught us anything, it’s that in almost all cases, there is a not-quite-as-good, free alternative (or "free-ish," if you're willing to give up your personal information to a large data conglomerate and/or the Chinese Communist Party). And so it is here.

Most law-like substances in the United States consists of three components-

1. Cases.
2. Rules.
3. Laws.
4. Tacos. Wait, no, only three. Tacos are optional.

So, how do you find them?

Cases.
There are a number of websites that provide you with the cases (the “opinions”) of the courts. Probably the best free one right now is google scholar-

scholar.google.com

Make sure you select “case law” and then ... search, just like you do in google! You can narrow it to particular courts (jurisdictions) and between federal and state courts. For example, let’s say you wanted to learn more about the difference between a unilateral offer and an obvious joke because someone just said, "A million dollars if you can spell c-a-t without moving your lips." So you go to the website, and type in "unilateral offer" & "obvious joke" and get ... Leonard v. Pepsico, Inc., 88 F. Supp. 2d 116 (SDNY 1999).

Oh. That happened.

Other times, it returns too much. Let’s say you want to research, oh, the “pleading standard.” So you type in “pleading standard” and you get ... 31,100 results. Oh my. The good news is that google is kinda sorta good at giving you good results, sometimes. So you see Twombly and Iqbal and Gibson on the first page. The bad news is that if you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know why this is important. And this brings us up to a very important point. Not all cases are created equal. One thing that Westlaw and Lexis tell you is whether, in a general sense, a case is still “good law” or “bad law.” There’s no free service that tells you that (the fancy term is “shepherdize”).

Anyway, the point is that there are plenty of places to look for the actual text of court opinions on-line; from aggregate sites (scholar, case.law, findlaw, justia etc.) to the websites of various courts.


Rules.
In addition to cases, there are rules. Rules of Procedure for the Courts (both state and federal) and internal operating procedures for the courts (both state and federal). In addition, there are Rules of Evidence (again, both state and federal) as well as other rules that might come into play (administrative orders for the court, etc.). The good news is that these are almost always available on-line. Let’s take a hypothetical example- You have a federal case in the Central District of California. That’s a federal case.

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are available at many cites, including the US Government and Cornell’s Legal Information Institute.

The Local Rules of the Court are available on the Court’s website. All of these things are available to you!

Finding the rules on-line is usually fairly easily.

Laws.
Finally, there are the applicable “laws.” These can be state, federal, or local codes, laws, ordinances or constitutions. Again, the vast majority of these are now available on-line and you can find them.

So, using California as an example again, you would google it, and find this website-

leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes.xhtml


So what does it all mean?
The law has never been more accessible to the average person. It’s almost all out there, and more gets put out for free and public access every day. In addition to this primary research, you can quickly and easily google and find a number of secondary resources; law blogs, legal journals, bar journals, and other sources that put together legal information in a (somewhat) readable format.

But easy accessibility does not mean easy readability. Try this one-


If you understand legal jargon, or have a passing knowledge of real property and/or bankruptcy, this is a quick read. If you don’t ... it could take a while. It’s the same no matter what you look at; it’s not enough to simply find the materials; you have to have a basic understanding of how it all fits together. If you’re reading about a Supreme Court case (or a local case) and you want to find out what the Court really said as opposed to what journalists are telling you about the case; knock yourself out. But sometimes it can be difficult; I was just having a conversation about the case Blurred Lines (Williams v. Gaye, 885 F. 3d 1150 (9th Cir. 2018), and I realized that while I provided the opinion, the things that were obvious in the opinion to me were not necessarily obvious in the opinion to someone who didn't understand the procedural argument that was going on.

If, however, you want to bring your own action pro se, then ... well, just remember it’s not RICO. It’s never RICO.

But try and remember that while knowledge is always good, what you have to watch out for is the unknown, unknowns.


I thought that there would be something about the OGL?
Yeah, that.

Look, if you want to educate yourself about the legal issues surrounding licenses and contracts, more power to you! The more you know, right? That said, I hope the above gives you a little pause; these issues are complicated. For reasons I may (but probably won't) delve into in a separate post, the wealth of legal information now available doesn't necessarily make it easier to people to understand what's going on. While it is trivial to look up cases, and rules, and laws - understanding how they all interact with each other is really complicated! Almost like there are trained professionals that do this. So when it comes to understanding what's going on, my usual advice is this-
1. Use trusted sources. There are a lot of people, with good experience, that want to explain things to you.
2. Be careful of definitive statements; anyone who says that something is absolutely going to turn out one way or the other is either knowingly or unknowingly simplifying things.
3. Try not to get caught up in the stream of hype. Like everyone else, I am worried about possible developments in the hobby; but careful analysis can only be done when people know what they are dealing with.

Anyway, hope this provides some help, or at least some amusement.
 
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad


Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Legal research, today, is primarily conducted through two giant services- Westlaw and Lexis (Lexis/Nexis). These massive companies charge attorneys through the nose for to use them ... but don’t worry about your attorney’s bank account, because they will pass those charges on to you, one way or another. As your attorney is fond of saying, “Heads I win, tails you lose.” Unfortunately, these services just aren’t very effective for most people because of the cost. So what are you to do when you want to do a little research?
Ask someone else who has access to one or both of those resources. ;)
 


G

Guest 7034872

Guest
See? This is why I chose not to go into law.

Anytime I need a good lawyer, I'll do the cowardly, cringing thing and hire one. At least one.
 


Ryujin

Legend
I've been messing around with traffic law for decades now. When it comes to contract law, I wouldn't touch it. That's for someone with a Metric Butt-load of experience.
 




Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top