Lawyers in Libraries: Meeting Local Needs at the Jacksonville Public Library
The Jacksonville Public Library in northeast Florida consists of 21 locations and a library staff ready and willing to connect their community to the resources they need – including support with civil legal issues. In 2014, Lisa Buggs, Coordinator of Lifelong Learning and Community Outreach, saw an opportunity to develop a program to strengthen the library’s ability to support the civil legal needs of their patrons.
Buggs’ approach for introducing a new program to the library is to avoid reinventing the wheel, “…we look at our partners, look at who is already doing something in the community and how can we partner with them to make sure they can expand what they are already doing.” She was familiar with two local legal aid organizations and contacted them to explore a partnership that would support their collective missions. Jacksonville Area Legal Aid and Three Rivers Legal Services were both interested in the partnership and shared that attorneys were available to do pro bono work – essentially a legal workshop for patrons at no cost. After determining that a partnership was possible, library staff were consulted to determine the most common types of questions from patrons to determine a direction for the first sessions. The first topics for the Lawyers in Libraries program included landlord or renter issues, and custody and child support concerns.
The library provides the legal aid groups with the space and marketing support to offer the workshops in the branches. Because the legal aid offices focus on serving low-income individuals, the workshops are held in library branches with communities that more closely align with these demographics. However, there is no restriction or income requirement for who can participate in the workshops at the library.
Kathy Para, Director of Pro Bono for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, recruits pro bono attorneys and facilitates communication between the attorney presenters and the branch managers. States Para, "Print and online resources are readily available and are critically important, but when faced with a legal issue, most people find it very helpful and encouraging to be able to ask questions face-to-face, with an attorney in a small group setting. This is one way we take legal guidance into neighborhoods. It's education and it's also empowerment."
Some of the sessions that have been offered include:
- Beware Before You Prepare - Avoid Tax Preparation Schemes
- Child Support Modification and Custody/Timesharing/Paternity
- Dissolution of Marriage
- Expunge/Seal Criminal Arrest Records
- Heir Property: How to Properly Transfer Title of Your Home to Your Family
- How to Help When Domestic Violence is Suspected
- Landlord/Renter Issues
- Living Wills, Medical Directives, Final Wills and Powers of Attorney
- Online Legal Resources
- Restoration of Civil Rights in Florida
- Understanding Social Security Disability
The session on “Online Legal Resources” has been a resource for library staff, not just patrons. Staff have attended to increase familiarity with reputable online legal resources. When library staff provide reference support to patrons on legal issues, they clarify that they are not lawyers and that they cannot provide advice, but that they can provide resources to look up information or provide a referral to call a local or state legal aid office. Patrons are also advised that advice provided by visiting lawyers does not create a formal attorney-client relationship, and that the intent is to provide general guidance and resources on their issues.
Marketing and outreach for the sessions is handled on several different fronts. Promotional flyers are created by library staff and made available in the branch locations. The library also posts some of those flyers in local coffee shops and find that small businesses are good about making the materials available and supporting the mission of the public library. Jacksonville Area Legal Aid and Three Rivers also let people who visit their offices or who call with questions know about the opportunities at the library. Word of mouth is also a powerful tool for promoting awareness among the community.
LaKesha Thomas is an attorney with Three Rivers Legal Services, Inc., which is one of the organizations that provides attorneys for sessions at the library. Thomas sees libraries as a place where the community naturally turns for information, “When you cannot afford an attorney and have a legal issue, or there is a topic you’re hoping to learn more about, you may go to the library first.” The attorneys provide general information during the library sessions and encourage individuals to make appointments for more in-depth discussions on their issues. Thomas recommends marketing legal aid workshops in target communities which in addition to local libraries, may include churches, local housing authority offices or subsidized housing complexes that support low-income households.
Patrons are asked to complete evaluations at the end of the workshops to help the library determine future needs. Comments from participant evaluations include, “It’s good to know where to get the real legal information. Not just something I Google or something on my Facebook page.” and “I cannot afford to pay a lawyer for information. Thank you for bringing this to the library for free.” The library staff and the legal aid organizations also pay attention to local issues that could impact patron needs. In the near future, they plan to host a session to address scams that are impacting the immigrant community such as scare tactics around deportation or promises to expedite citizenship requests. Three Rivers will also provide a new presentation entitled “I’ve Been Audited! Now What?”
Through a strong partnership, these organizations are helping to meet legal needs of the Jacksonville community.
Support for this article was provided by Legal Services Corporation (LSC). LSC, the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the nation, supports efforts to build partnerships between libraries and legal aid providers. For more information visit www.lsc.gov.