Lots of Good A2J Reads This Week! + Two Essay Contests for Library Students

On my reading list:

Legal Self Help Should Swipe Right on Google: Given that search engines are the primary way non-lawyers search for legal information, CALI exec John Mayer proposes Google create a special interface to display legal self-help search results. Google already does this when you search certain keywords – for instance, searching “measles” or any other health-related term will prompt Google to display a sidebar with basic definitions, iconic symbols, and a downloadable PDF among other functions.

These Future Attorneys are Skipping Law SchoolThis short and heartwarming video is spreading like wildfire on my social media timeline, and for good reason! A past Equal Justice Works (my former employer! love them) Fellow is fighting the racial and gender disparity in the legal profession by offering California-based four-year program that trains legal apprentices to pass the bar.

Two Improvements Our Courts Can Implement for Self-Represented Litigants: The Chief Justice of Canada Richard Wagner recently announced that the Supreme Court will include easy-to-understand summaries in future headnotes. Toronto attorney Heather Douglas offers two other ideas to make the law more accessible: staffed kiosks and multimedia summaries! I’m a fan of both, especially including more audiovisual elements for non-lawyers.

The Innovation Gap Part 1 and Part 2: Legal tech expert Robert Ambrogi wrote a couple of interesting takes on access to justice and legal technology for Above the Law. Part I in particular has a great overview of the justice gap issue in America, along with some great links to resources like a Boston Bar Association study that mirrors the nationwide legal aid crisis and the 2013 LSC report on the use of tech to expand access to justice. Ambrogi offers a few potential explanations for the widespread resistance to legal tech.

Also: I wanted to share two upcoming essay contests for library students.

  • The Progressive Librarians Guild is offering a $500 Braverman Award for the best essay “on some aspect of the social responsibilities of librarians, libraries, or librarianship,” and the
  • AALL’s Morris L. Cohen Student Essay Competition is open to grad students (including law school and library school) interested in “legal research, rare books, and historical bibliography”.

Attack of the Flu + Draft of Symposium Poster on Best Practices for Helping Self-Represented Litigants

January was a LONG month. I ended up missing my library school’s symposium due to a nasty flu, and I feel as if I’m just coming up for air.

My research still has a long way to go. Below is my symposium poster showing my findings – I call it a draft because my research is still in its infancy. The poster was created in a haze of anti-nausea medication and cough syrup, so I’m not incredibly proud of it. But I still wanted to share!

Symposium Poster Matthews

This is just the beginning of my research, which I will continue to update. I spoke with county law librarians only, so I want to speak to more academic law librarians and law firm librarians to see where they stand on helping self-represented litigants (or if they have any stance at all).

I would also like to take out the word “innovative,” which I have grown to hate. More on that in a later post!

Interesting Convo on Non-Law Student Use of Academic Law Libraries

Our Canadian lawbrarian friends at the University of Calgary Bennett Jones Law Library are currently in a (heated?) debate over SNAILS (“Students-Not-Actually-In-Law-School” – their term, not mine) using the library. Their issue: the non-law students are loud and take up too much space.

Although I am still in lawbrarian infancy, I have heard similar debates carry over about public patrons using academic law libraries. Obviously, if any patron is disruptive, they can be shown the door. However, it’s no secret that helping some public patrons can be time-consuming and quite stressful, especially if they are self-represented and in dire need of legal information.

I believe most academic law libraries prioritize students and faculty, but there was one instance in particular where I had to ask a law student to wait while I assisted a frazzled and confused public patron for an extended period of time (I, like many newbie librarians, have not quite mastered the Closing/Follow Up portion of reference encounters.) The law student, while gracious, ended up leaving and coming back on a different day.

A former UC lawbrarian caught wind of the debate over SNAILS (such an unfortunate acronym) and decided to write a short response over what he calls the elitism at play:

For 15 years, I have heard these complaints go on incessantly, and frankly, they just reek of elitism. The fact that they complain about the mere existence of non-law students in their library is quite pathetic. My job was to ensure that the rules were applied fairly to everyone, and that includes the non-law students who they have such disdain for.

Interesting debate!

I Need Your Voice!

Are you part of a law library that helps self-represented litigants in unique ways? Innovative assistance can come in the form of programs, events, published materials, protocols, workshops, tutorials, online help, and more.

If you’re interested in sharing these methods, please email me at matthewsa@cua.edu, drop a comment below, or click “Contact” in the header menu and message me with your information. I’m compiling a list of best practices for lawbrarians helping pro se litigants, and the results will be included in an upcoming academic symposium.

The more the merrier. Thank you to everyone who can help!

Law Library Makerspaces

The Cochise County Law Library in Tucson, Arizona recently told a local news outlet that they’re renovating their building for the first time in about 50 years. From Tucson News Now:

For decades, the Law Library has housed thousands of books, which were available to both the public and legal experts looking for information or help with research.

But technology and the Internet have lessened the need for these bulky and expensive volumes, which means the area they occupied can be repurposed and recreated as a more user-friendly resource.

It seems more and more law libraries are making similar moves and shifting the focus away from static print resources, guiding patrons to makerspaces where they can sit with lawbrarians and gain an understanding of necessary legal forms, instructions, and other self-help resources.

Full article here.

 

Paradigm Shift: Focus on what we *can* do as Law Librarians, and not on what we can’t

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.

Full article

 

“Eliminating Barriers to Justice” Con: Teach pro se litigants to D-I-Y

The “Eliminating Barriers to Justice” conference at Georgia State University School of Law gathered A2J experts together to discuss access to justice for Georgia’s rural population, specifically for those who speak limited English or have a disability.

During the event, Georgia Supreme Court Justice Nels Peterson noted that access to justice means more than having access to a lawyer. From the Daily Report Online:

The lack of lawyers for people who need help with civil matters in underserved areas is about more than law; it’s about economics, transportation, health care and education, the justice said. People in the South Georgia counties with no lawyers, and the many others with only a handful, have more needs than just legal, he said.

I know there’s been a push for public service lawyers to practice holistic legal representation, and for good reason. When I interned with the Georgia Justice Project years ago on their expungement project, I noticed that clients faced a multitude of barriers to employment beyond their criminal records: lack of access to disability or veterans benefits, housing issues, child support issues, etc.

It was not effective to ignore these other problems and focus solely on criminal records, so attorneys would often triage legal issues according to urgency. Clients were sometimes routed to local partners, such as medical-legal partnerships, social workers, or government agencies.

The Daily Report Online article also features A2J lawbrarian Laureen Kelly, who I talked about a couple of weeks ago on this blog. Since that #TBT article was written, it looks like Kelly has received some much-needed support to offer legal “self-help” services to Georgia’s rural pro se litigants:

She created and expanded a law library in the Daugherty County Courthouse, where she works daily providing research and assistance to people who can’t find or can’t afford a lawyer. She serves on the State Bar of Georgia Access to Justice Committee, which has won a grant to address the rural lawyer shortage. The plan is to use the grant to expand Kelly’s library and make it a pilot project for other parts of the state to copy.

If people in Atlanta or other cities don’t fully understand the needs of rural areas, Kelly seeks to be the translator. When people asked why the state can’t simply provide more legal aid lawyers, Kelly explained that often those who come to her for help do not meet the low-income requirements for legal aid help, but they don’t have the money to pay a lawyer either. Or they do meet the guidelines, but they have a need that legal aid lawyers aren’t allowed to handle such as divorce. Or the legal aid lawyers are already overbooked.

When someone asked why people in underserved areas don’t just use their computers and broadband internet to get help online, Kelly explained than many of the people who walk into her second-floor library don’t have laptops and tablets. A significant number of them can’t read or write, she said.

You can read the full article here. Kelly and all the other A2J lawbrarians out there are undoubtedly amazing for walking so many non-attorneys through the clunky and not-user-friendly-at-all legal system.

I’m always hunting for free, ready-made tools and resources that could facilitate the time-consuming process of explaining legal research and issues to law library patrons. With the help of these resources, law librarians may also be better able to hone in on other legal, social, or medical issues pro se litigants are facing.

Legal

 

New Self-Represented Litigation Network Brief on Legal Design

Last week, the Self-Represented Litigation Network (SRLN) released a brief on legal design thinking 101. Really interesting, especially since I’m learning about design thinking and human-computer interaction (HCI) in library school.

SRLN Pic

A message from SRLN head Katherine Alteneder noted that the SRLN Brief introduces the commonly-used terms “design thinking,” “legal design,” and “agile development”.

The full brief can be found here.

#TBT: Inspiring 2015 Article on Georgia A2J Lawbrarian Laureen Kelly

I was recently accepted to present research on law librarianship and self-represented litigants at a library and information sciences symposium next year. I’ve already started reading more academic research on legal self-help centers and law libraries, but I also like searching for background info in older news articles and archived web content.

That’s how I stumbled on this older article from The Daily Report highlighting the tireless work of law librarian Laureen Kelly in Albany, Georgia. The article does a great job showing the emotional stress that can come along with being a public law librarian, and the desperation that many self-represented litigants go through while trying to find affordable legal help.

Laureen-Kelly

Lauren Kelly for The Daily Report/Law.com (John Disney/Daily Report)

A snippet:

The family spent about 45 minutes in the library, including most of what would have been Kelly’s half hour off for lunch. She even gave her purple grapes to the little boy, taking time to wash them first.

Kelly said the family was typical of the people served by the law library, one of the busiest of about 10 legal help centers funded by court fees and run by local governments.

Law librarians like Kelly are working to fill the gap between the need for legal services and the lack of access to attorneys, particularly in rural communities like those surrounding Albany in deep South Georgia, according to Michael Monahan, pro bono director for Georgia Legal Services.

Rural communities are hit especially hard by a lack of access to legal assistance, and it seems Kelly’s library in Albany gets visits from neighboring Georgia counties. In addition, the article points out that the local legal aid organizations were already overloaded with cases, so the rejected would-be clients flock to the law library for free help and resources.

My plan is to try and speak with Kelly to see if this need has increased, decreased, or remained stable throughout the years since this article was written. It would also be interesting to find out whether any tools or resources have been developed to ease Kelly’s workload, especially since the article notes that, like many other county employees, she has not received a raise since she started working for the law library.

Read the full article on Law.com.

 

Legal Design Lab’s ‘Law + Design Workbook’

The most interesting part of library school has been learning about all the intersections between law librarianship and human-centered design.

I have been pleasantly surprised to learn that much of librarianship is about customer service, and supporting (or designing!) systems that enable patrons to better search for and discover information. Obviously, this task takes on new dimensions when trying to make the law more accessible.

Margaret Hagan, a good friend and head of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford, created a Law + Design Workbook that may be helpful to those trying to address gaps for service providers. Can’t wait to crack it open (figuratively speaking, of course – it’s accessible online) and see how I can apply these concepts to law librarianship + A2J. Click the photo below to check it out:Law-Design-Summit-workbook-even-newer-copy