As we all know, public libraries are bastions of knowledge, and are information citadels for the communities in which they reside. Libraries transform, and libraries lead. Over the years, libraries have added services to their basic book and media collections to further meet the ever-expanding needs of patrons. It has been fun to see services such as seed libraries, tie libraries, makerspaces, and even human libraries make their way into the common services offered to the public. These unique service offerings and programs allow members of the community to experience things that they would not have otherwise.
A service offering that libraries should consider adding is a free legal clinic. This may seem like a complicated thing to start, but do not fear, it is simple. Access to legal services should be a basic right that every American should enjoy, but sadly, it is not (at least, not until it is too late). Having access to a lawyer is dependent upon having the ability to pay for one. Access to the courts is a social justice issue that librarians should be interested in helping correct. Legal advice should not be available only to those who can afford it.
Common legal inquiries that patrons might have:
- Creating a will;
- Researching patents;
- Starting a business;
- Filing for copyright;
- Legality of a certain action;
- Whether someone can be sued;
- How to file paperwork with the courts;
Hosting a legal clinic can be as simple as making volunteer lawyers in the community available for certain days and times during the week to the public. Just devoting space a few hours a week can make a difference. Getting volunteers should not be difficult. Attorneys are encouraged by the American Bar Association to perform so many hours of pro bono services a year[i]. Contacting the local bar association and letting them know that your library is looking for volunteers might be a good idea. Advertising for volunteers on social media and in the library, is also another way to raise awareness.
The first step a library should take before trying to obtain volunteer lawyers, is to create a policy for the legal clinic. This should set the hours and expectations of the clinic. The policy should be created in conjunction with the library’s legal team. A library needs to decide whether services will be on a first-come basis, or via a predetermined appointment.
All librarians, not just those managing legal clinics, need to learn how to interact with those who are conducting legal research. Every librarian is asked at some point a question that can only be answered by an attorney. A librarian should tell the patron that they are not an attorney, and cannot answer their question, but can point them in the direction of someone who can, or towards information resources that the patron can use to arrive at their own conclusion.
Librarians cannot do the following:
- Answer legal questions directly or indirectly;
- Tell someone which legal forms to use;
- Advise on whether a patron should go to court;
- Interpret legal statues or code.
What librarians can do:
- Show patrons the legal research services that the library offers;
- Point patrons towards valid legal information sources;
- Offer legal clinics staffed by licensed attorneys.
Recommended items for a legal reference collection:
- NOLO legal guides (as many as your library can afford);
- A legal dictionary;
- A legal database, such as LexisNexis/Westlaw;
- State legal directory;
- Rules of local and federal courts;
- Book of template legal forms.