This post will be quick since I’m swamped (in a good way, I suppose!) with work at the law library, library school finals, group projects, research, and way too many other things.
Found this older article by A2J lawbrarian Shawn Friend on the RIPS Law Librarian blog, and this paragraph jumped out at me:
For dual-degreed law librarians, the concern about the unauthorized practice of law may loom large. But realistically, what is the concern? In the end, all the questions that can’t be answered boil down to two types – “Is this right?” “What should I do?” Those questions cannot be answered with research. But almost anything else can.
As a new law librarian, I usually experience an initial flash of panic whenever I assist pro se patrons. It’s sometimes accompanied with the familiar sting of imposter syndrome, followed by pangs of sympathy (no one likes to tustle with the law, especially non-lawyers). Once this emotional roller coaster is over (usually takes about 10 seconds), I’m left to parse through the issues to see where I can help without closing another door to assistance for the patron.
The concern about legal advice has now run up against a heavily competing interest – access to justice. The two do not necessarily have to be competing – the training of librarians should focus much more heavily on what they can do. AALL’s white paper on this subject perhaps states it best: “[a]nother challenge regards the ongoing need to train librarians, especially public librarians, about the unauthorized practice of law from the perspective of permissiveness rather than restrictiveness.”
I think a lot of my “emotional roller coaster” can be calmed by adopting this attitude. We are often told what we can’t do as non-practicing law librarians, and these restrictions are always looming in my head during my interactions with pro se patrons – so much so that, in the throes of my own existential new-lawbrarian thoughts, it’s hard to focus on what I can do.
Some folks just need basic assistance. They need to understand causes of action, or find statutes, or simply just know where to look for legal info. Guiding patrons to materials doesn’t have to continue into the realm of legal advice, but we are so fearful of crossing that line that we may not start at all.
Lawbrarian Shawn Friend does a great job of reminding us of what we can do to help public patrons, and this was a refreshing read.