Pro Bono Trend: Lawyers at the Library (Now in DC!)

Sam Halpert, PSJD Fellow 2014 – 2015

“Public libraries are critical access points to government institutions. As times get tougher, it becomes more and more important that people have libraries where they can find out how to protect their rights and navigate the complexities of our society.”

— Self-Represented Litigation Network, National Center for State Courts

"Everyday Justice" (retitled), photo by umjanedoan, licensed under Creative Commons
(Photo: umjanedoan-CC License)

If you’re looking for pro bono opportunities, you might want to try your local library. For example, just this fall the D.C. Public Library partnered with D.C.’s Neighborhood Legal Services Program, joining a growing number of public libraries where low-income patrons can obtain legal information or advice. (Update: Check out the Washington County [Oregon] Law Library’s list of library-legal aid collaborations to get a sense of scale.) Working with the library, NLSP lawyers will focus on employment law, adding a legal component to job programming, which the DC Public Library (like many similar institutions) has offered its patrons for some time. In addition, the partnership includes seminars on tenant rights and paternal rights.

With this new partnership, the D.C. Public Library joins a number of its sister institutions working to address the United States’ access to justice gap. The concept has been picking up steam since at least 2010, when the Self-Represented Litigation Network of the National Center for State Courts held a conference titled “Public Libraries and Access to Justice” at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2012, Probono.net followed up on the conference with a Webinar Series titled “Libraries and Access to Justice.”

Both of these events explored the logic behind library-legal aid partnerships and the variety of forms they have taken. Like DC, some of these institutions bring pro bono lawyers into the library to provide community education. Other libraries ask lawyers to train library staff to work with online legal resources; a third group hosts full-blown legal aid clinicsUpdate: Liz Keith of Probono.net recently clued me in to Colorado’s Virtual Pro Se Clinic initiative, which connects pro se litigants to volunteer attorneys via webcam–a model that relies heavily on public libraries’ computer services.

For my fellow Washingtonians, if you’re interested in being involved contact the NSLP’s project attorney, Dan Choi (dchoi@nlsp.org), with questions or requests for information.  For those located elsewhere, ask your local library whether they have any similar partnerships going. If your area isn’t yet lucky enough to host one of these partnerships, remember that both the Self-Represented Litigation Network and Probono.net have left all of their event materials online. Between the two, you have access to a wealth of information and contacts to help you think about how your community might begin leveraging libraries for legal aid.

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