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Lawyers and Libraries: A Winning Combination for Your Patrons

by on March 21, 2016

Libraries are great places to find legal information, in the stacks, in NOLO books on every topic, and on legal websites accessed via the public computers. But librarians can only point patrons to these resources; they can’t give legal advice themselves. So why not bring in the lawyers who can?

Libraries across the country are embracing programs that bring pro-bono lawyers to the library for presentations on popular legal topics or one-on-one basic legal advice. In Florida, Lawyers in Libraries is a statewide project initiated by Florida Legal Services. At first, the program consisted of presentations by lawyers to library staff to show staff how to find the state’s online legal information and services to pass on to patrons. Soon it expanded to include presentations directly to patrons on legal topics including family law, bankruptcy, and medical directives.

“There are all kinds of ways that people can benefit from the information and face to face contact with an attorney,” said Kathy Para, director of Pro Bono Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA).[1]

The Jacksonville Public Library has hosted more than fifty of these presentations over the last year in conjunction with JALA. Librarians at each branch are able to request presentations on topics of interest to their patrons, and a group of fifty volunteer lawyers are on hand with JALA to take on the topics they are experts in.

In Baltimore, Maryland, the library’s role as a safe space in the midst of 2015’s riots helped spark a connection between Maryland Legal Aid and the Pennsylvania Avenue branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, a branch located right in the middle of the unrest.

In September, the library started hosting a weekly Lawyer in the Library program, with volunteer lawyers arriving for two hours every Tuesday to offer advice on topics ranging from consumer issues to housing to public benefits. Patrons get about fifteen minutes one-on-one with a lawyer at the library; if their issues are more complex, MLA does a full intake and assigns a lawyer to the case.

The services offered at the Pennsylvania Avenue library are exactly the same as what is offered in MLA’s downtown office, but the library location offers a huge benefit to patrons. “They can walk to the library from their house, so they don’t have to take three buses downtown to MLA,” said Amy Petkovsek, Director of Advocacy for Training and Pro Bono at Maryland Legal Aid. “This brings us right to them in a place they already see.”[2]

In addition to the weekly program, the library also hosts an expungement clinic one Saturday a month with MLA. A recent change in Maryland’s law means that many people are looking to expunge charges from their records,[3] a process can cost upwards of $1,000 with a private attorney. At these clinics, which have served up to two hundred people in one day, these expungements can be completed for free.

Even the busiest days do not deter people. “They may have to wait 6 hours to see a lawyer but they so grateful and willing to sit there” and use the library while they wait, said Petkovsek.[4]


Resources:

Lawyers in Libraries


References:

[1] Jennifer A. Dixon, “Enoch Pratt Free Library Brings Lawyers to the Library,” Library Journal, accessed February 23, 2016.

[2] Kathy Para (Director of Pro Bono Jacksonville Area Legal Aid), telephone interview by author, February 19, 2016.

[3] Amy Petkovsek (Director of Advocacy for Training and Pro Bono at Maryland Legal Aid), telephone interview by author. February 19, 2016.

[4] Ibid.


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