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Connecting Justice Communities

Legal Aid/Library Collaborations – Lessons Learned

Posted in Legal Services, Libraries, Technology

“Librarians [are] very natural navigators.  That’s what they do, they help people figure out what resources they need to use, what medium they may need in order to move forward.” -Stacie Colston Patterson, Illinois Legal Aid Online.

November 2 marked the last of Pro Bono Net’s Libraries & Access to Justice Webinar Series, “Developing Legal Aid-Library Collaborations: Models and Replication Resources.”  This webinar focused on five collaboration models throughout the country, including the technologies they use, the partners they engage, and what they’ve learned along the way.

Collaborations and Programming

Stacie Colston Patterson, Outreach Coordinator at Illinois Legal Aid Online, presented four partnership programs forged between the legal community and public libraries in Illinois.  This includes legal self help centers, which can be found in 99 of the 102 counties in Illinois, 80 of which are housed in public libraries. Another program, “Law at the Library” brings attorneys and judges through the Chicago Bar into Chicago Public Libraries for seminars on specific legal topics, which are then streamed and archived by Illinois Legal Aid Online. The final two programs focus on training librarians and cyber navigators (part time employees housed at libraries throughout Chicago to help patrons use library computers) on the online legal resources available to patrons, providing training opportunities for library staff, and additional collaboration opportunities.

Janine Liebert, Librarian for Programs and Partnerships at the LA Law Library spoke about four models used to collaborate with legal aid agencies.  These include topical legal information sessions in public libraries, answer clinics with self help centers in the libraries, traditional legal clinics, and access to justice via technology.  The subjects they cover vary widely and are responsive to the needs of their patrons, and have recently included debt collection, consumer law and veterans’ benefits.  These collaborative models provide access to legal information and referrals for patrons, serve as a focal point for joint outreach for legal aid agencies and libraries, serve as a means for early intervention for some patrons (allowing them to access mediation or deferred action programs), advocate the public library’s role in access to justice, and support the courts by providing self-represented litigants with information.

These services also include internal trainings, such as a recent CitizenshipWorks training the LA Law Library hosted for more than 50 public and law librarians.   Tony Lu, CitizenshipWorks Project Coordinator, discussed this initiative and how librarians can use CitizenshipWorks.org to help residents become citizens.  CitizenshipWorks is an initiative that assists those seeking citizenship in understanding and navigating the naturalization process.  The Los Angeles Public Library system, in partnership with local naturalization service providers, is creating “Citizenship Corners” in each library branch; incorporating computer terminals featuring CitizenshipWorks into these Citizenship Corners will allow library patrons to use interactive tools to learn about the naturalization process, learn about their eligibility, and find legal help  In addition, libraries in Los Angeles are beginning to partner with citizenship service providers to conduct group processing workshops using CitizenshipWorks in their computer labs, where groups of people can be served by volunteers to complete their naturalization applications.

Navigation and Triage

Another trend in library and legal aid collaboration involves creating navigation tools to assist patrons and librarians in locating relevant legal information.  Three of the projects highlighted in this webinar are designed to do just that.  All three initiatives are funded by Technology Initiative Grants administered by the Legal Services Corporation.

Soha Saiyed, Staff Attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Louisville, demonstrated a new Legal Research Assistant triage tool, in which the patron is guided through legal information provided by the Legal Aid Network of Kentucky using an interactive interview.  Rather than searching a site, users answer a series of simple questions, which help them locate the information most useful to them.  This tool is powered by LawHelp Interactive and A2J, and is available at Legal Aid Network of Kentucky.

Erik Williamsen, a staff attorney at Legal Services State Support in Minnesota, presented a soon-to-be-released tool, created by the Minnesota Public Libraries Access to Justice Project.  This cobranded sub-site of LawHelpMN.org will allow local libraries in Ramsey County to provide content chosen by the libraries and designed to meet local needs, including a local referral finder, in a format that librarians are comfortable using, using a template that can be replicated for additional libraries.

Both these initiatives are part of a collaboration including Pro Bono Net, Central Minnesota Legal Services, Legal Services State Support and the Kentucky Access to Justice Commission, in collaboration with local and statewide libraries.

Erik Cole, Executive Director of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services presented the final navigation tool, Legal Information for Tennesseans (LIFT).  LIFT is a collaboration between West Tennessee Legal Services, the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, the Tennessee State Library and Archives and the Tennessee Access to Justice Commission.  LIFT provides easily accessible resource pages on a variety of legal issues, pulling from national and statewide resources.  These pages contain legal information, online forms, links to OnlineTN (a site where pro bono attorneys answer users questions), and a statewide directory of legal aid services. LIFT provides profile pages for libraries, where libraries can provide specific content and information about their library.  When the content upload is complete, the site will be piloted in four libraries.

Tips and Lessons Learned

Ms. Liebert and Ms. Colston Patterson provided an overview of lessons learned, tips and challenges.  These include:

  • Building on the shared mandate for outreach and community education
  • Defining the roles of the partners and the model of programming at the outset
  • Taking advantage of the different perspectives at the table
  • Managing expectations throughout to provide a high-quality experience.
  • Creating deliverables, measurable milestones that can be met throughout the project

One of the challenges faced in any program is to create a win/win experience for the partners, which can be done by programming based on services the legal aid agency already provides, and extending existing services.  Low attendance can be addressed by creating a “built in audience” either through eligibility and screening tools or relying on community partners to develop audiences.

Conclusion

This webinar series has covered the access to justice movement, how libraries are specially situated to provide easy and necessary access points to legal information and resources, resources and online referral tools available to librarians and patrons, and, in this last webinar, collaboration models that bring all these pieces together.  With hundreds of participants from 42 states, we hope that this series sparks new conversations between libraries, legal aid providers, bar associations, courts and other stakeholders on methods to continue holistically serving patrons and clients facing legal challenges.

This and all past webinars are available on the Pro Bono Net site.  In the coming week other resources will be available, including questions and answers that were asked during the webinars, as well as resources mentioned in the webinars.  More resources will be posted here as they become available.