Challenging to Find Even with Search

The Internet has us all spoiled. If you want to know who co-starred with Cary Grant in “North by Northwest,” you just go to Google and type in a few keywords. That should work just as well for legal research, right? Just find the right keywords and up pops your answer. Who needs law school?

Few weeks go by without me getting a call or an e-mail from a frugal dealer who has a legal question he has tried, unsuccessfully, to answer by doing research on the Internet. The dealer frequently isn’t a client but assumes we’ll answer his question for free, which makes me wonder what his response would be if I asked him for a free car…, but I digress.

The dealer has tried the keyword approach, but has found out that the Internet is filled with answers that don’t quite fit the question. Many of the answers are from sources that are of questionable accuracy or from sources that have some ax to grind. A researcher who is aware of these problems will stick to primary sources?the actual laws and regulations that apply to the question at hand.

Finding those laws and regulations can be a challenge for those with legal training, even more so for those without. If, for example, you don’t know the difference between a loan and a retail installment sale contract, your search might lead you to find the state laws and regulations that govern the activity of making a loan secured by an interest in a motor vehicle, but those provisions usually will have no application to the retail installment transactions that most dealers engage in when financing their car sales.

And even if you are able to find the laws and regulations that apply to your situation, you still need to know some of that law-school stuff to decipher what you are looking at. Legal training teaches you that determining the meaning of the terms you are looking at is key to understanding a law or regulation. Knowing legal principles such as rules of statutory construction and pre-emption of state law by federal law can mean the difference between the right answer and the wrong answer. Also, courts often interpret laws and regulations in ways that are, shall we say, unexpected. Unless you are skillful enough to find the reported court cases that have interpreted the provisions you have found, and correctly analyze those cases, you may be missing the difference between “correct” and “oops.”

All of which is not to say that the Internet can’t be helpful in your compliance efforts (pardon the double negative). For years, we have suggested to dealers whose budgets simply don’t permit them to hire lawyers to do compliance work for them that there are some inexpensive?sometimes free?resources available to them. Many of these resources can be found on the Internet.

We tell dealers to bookmark and regularly check sites for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Federal Reserve Board, the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, their state attorney general, the state consumer protection agency, the motor vehicle administration and the state dealer association. All of these sites are free and some, particularly the FTC’s site, contain a great deal of helpful, authoritative legal help.

But Internet legal research by people with no legal training? Reminds me of do-it-yourself brain surgery.

Vol. 9, Issue 9