Information Today
Volume 19, Issue 2 — February 2002
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• Database Review •
Self-Lawyering with
This site offers the layperson concise, everyday legal information
by Mick O'Leary

SYNOPSIS is the Web site for Nolo Press, the leading publisher of law books for lay readers. It has deep and informative content on common legal matters (estates, divorce, taxes, etc.) that most people will encounter. It serves as an all-around reference encyclopedia and handbook on everyday law.

PROVIDER, 950 Parker Street, Berkeley, CA 94710, 510/549-1976;

You've heard the saying that the lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client. Then, if you try to act as your own lawyer, does that make you a fool twice over? Perhaps it does. But nevertheless, if you're interested in self-lawyering, start at ( You'll get much the same information that a lawyer would provide, and it will be a lot cheaper. is the Web site for Nolo Press, the leading publisher of law books for non-lawyers. Nolo publishes plain, everyday-language expositions of law and the legal system. It concentrates on the types of law that average people are most likely to encounter: real estate, domestic, small business, estates, and taxes. If you'd like a firsthand look at Nolo books, simply go to your nearest public library. Even the smallest local branch is likely to have several Nolo titles, which attests to their quality. However, the books may be checked out, which attests to their popularity.

A '60s Law Ethic
Nolo's stated mission is to help people make their way through the clutter and complexity of the legal process. The company has an anti-establishment, "information power to the people" philosophy that reflects its roots in Berkeley, California, in the late '60s. You can't have stronger counter-culture credentials than that. Ralph Warner, Nolo's founder, worked as a legal-aid lawyer in San Francisco and became frustrated with the obstacles and pitfalls that surround even ordinary, day-to-day legal matters. In 1971, he founded Nolo in a Berkeley attic, and today the company, with over 100 employees, is still located there. (In Berkeley, not the attic—Nolo now occupies an old factory building.)

The company's product line has expanded to 300 titles that cover the types of legal tasks and problems most of us will eventually experience. There's nothing on constitutional law, but then you or I aren't likely to be pleading before the Supreme Court anytime soon. Many titles are available as downloadable e-books. Nolo's growing line of electronic products includes software; legal forms; and eGuides, which are short, booklet-length primers on legal topics. is a publisher's Web site, and like all others of its kind, its intent is to get you to buy its books. From this common point, however, publishers' Web sites sort themselves on the amount of information they provide. Some have a minimal presence in the form of an unadorned list of the publisher's books; others have content from the books and other related information. On this scale, is at the far end of providing valuable information for free (maybe a lingering '60s-style anti-commercialism). In effect it's a complete, concise reference library of everyday law, with articles, primers, FAQs, legal forms, and news.

Centers for Your Kind of Law is organized into 22 Law Centers, each of which gathers several kinds of legal information on a single area of popular interest. The centers are clustered into the following larger divisions that encompass every major category of everyday law:

  • Wills, estates, and retirement
  • Small business and employment
  • Intellectual property
  • Real estate and landlord/tenant
  • Marriage, divorce, and children
  • Taxes and personal debt
  • Lawsuits, crimes, and personal injury
Each of the 22 Law Centers has several different kinds of information:
  • A legal encyclopedia—This handbook-like reference source provides a straightforward explanation of the legal system at the grass-roots level. It summarizes the law, and, more importantly, how it actually plays out every day in thousands of county courtrooms and lawyers' offices.
  • FAQs—Hundreds of short FAQs present, in quick-scan fashion, the most commonly arising questions on legal matters.
  • "Auntie Nolo" reference service—Auntie Nolo answers questions submitted by Nolo visitors. Answers are sharp and to the point, with a tart edge that makes for entertaining reading.
  • Updates—This is a current-awareness service that is one of the most innovative and useful things on, and even on publishers' Web sites in general. Updates contain summaries of recent laws and cases that affect the information in the books. Each update has a list ofNolo titles that are affected by the change. Updates are also available through's e-mail newsletter.
  • Calculators—Forty calculators help in computing mortgage costs, retirement needs, etc.
  • Nolo product information—As you move from one topic to another, corresponding Nolo publications are displayed.
The centers are clearly organized and well-integrated and include links to related content. Pages are sometimes a bit crowded, with the list of Law Centers down the left frame, product ads down the right, and the information squeezed in the middle. You normally regard Web site ads as a necessary nuisance, but those in are often more relevant. As you're reading about a legal matter of personal importance in Nolo, you may very well be interested in getting a more thorough book on the subject. Books purchased from have discounts of 15- to 30-percent off list price. And don't forget that your library's copies may be missing or checked out with waiting lists.

Elsewhere in has several content areas that are not included in the Law Centers:

  • Law dictionary—Lay definitions for 1,000 frequently encountered legal terms
  • NoloBriefs—You can register for this free monthly newsletter, which, besides the Updates mentioned above, has legal news, member-only discounts, and (occasionally) free downloadable products.
  • Lawyer jokes—These are classified by type: lawyers in love, lawyers on vacation, etc. Warning: Some are pretty rough, so if you like lawyers don't go here unless you have a thick skin.
  • Legal research—Although the point of is to interpret the law's complexities, the site offers help if you want to proceed to primary sources on your own. Unlike the rest of the site, this department has no content from Nolo itself and instead relies on public Web sites. Statutory law is accessed from the law pages of individual state government sites; federal law is from Thomas and others. State and federal case law and a few other legal research areas are provided by FindLaw (, a leading legal portal.

Nolo for Business and Pleasure
Even if you're facing no immediate legal problems, is irresistible for browsing, and its clear, sprightly writing style makes it endlessly appealing. You may find yourself revisiting some prior legal involvement, or checking to see if your lawyer has done right by you. (If not, you can turn to the lawyer jokes for solace.)

You may have no intention of ever being your own lawyer, but it's almost inevitable that you'll become involved in legal matters. In law, knowledge is power, and will help keep you from being completely powerless. The lawyers may have the answers, but at least you can come equipped with the right questions.

Mick O'Leary is the director of the library at Frederick, Maryland, and a principal in The Data Brokers. His e-mail address is

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