Successful Partnership Model Provides Legal Assistance Across Colorado
Attorney Ric Morgan is a humble man who brushes off any accolades to himself and gives all the credit to librarians. “Go give the librarians a hug. Thank the librarians, they’re the ones who make this all possible!” Morgan is referring to successes of the Virtual Pro Se Clinic, a program he established in libraries across the state of Colorado. He could give a master class in how to effectively build partnerships, engage communities, and sustain momentum with the lessons he has learned in the process.
Harnessing Technology to Connect Experts to Patrons
The Virtual Pro Se Clinic (VPC) program provides free monthly legal clinics at 87 public libraries in 40 counties across Colorado. Staffed by a handful of volunteer attorneys recruited by Morgan, and run on an annual budget of $2000 funded through a generous donation, VPC is for patrons with legal problems that are complex enough to need legal help but not so complex as to require an ongoing relationship with an attorney. Some common questions include “I moved out of my apartment, and my landlord won’t give me back my security deposit,” “I want a divorce, we have two kids, and my husband left and I don’t know where he is,” or “Where can I find help with a will, and financial and medical powers of attorney?” Patrons can walk out of the clinic with a court-ready file on a flash drive. In pre-COVID times, patrons came to the library and connected to the attorney remotely via Zoom for the clinic. During COVID, they switched to connecting by phone from people’s homes. The phone has proven particularly helpful to people with transportation, technology, and mobility challenges and is continuing as the technology of choice in some locations.
Morgan got the idea for VPC from watching other industries use the power of technology to connect expert advice to the people who needed it, for example, medical professionals connecting virtually to extremely rural northern Alberta communities that needed medical advice. He wondered if something similar could be done with legal advice. Knowing that libraries occupy a crucial role in providing access to information of every sort, he began with libraries as his foundational partner in this work. (For more about Ric Morgan’s volunteer work and the story behind the start of the Virtual Pro Se Clinics see this 2014 Elbert County News article).
Building Partnerships Across the Community
Morgan began site recruitment for VPC in 2012 by picking the most geographically diverse sites which were profoundly impoverished and/or had the fewest free legal resources. He started small, demonstrated success, and built incrementally. He describes how he begins the process of cultivating partners to open a new site: “I start with the judges, court staff, churches, the DA office and ask, ‘Who are key stakeholders? How can we make them feel invested in this process of helping people get free legal assistance?’ I reach out to them from the very start, and then I keep them updated going forward, with regular feedback. They need to feel a sense of investment. Folks that you wouldn’t expect are often the best advocates – people in the medical or housing communities. Then, you have to keep the community engaged with the support you’re providing. You need to team with the community. Otherwise, you lose a lot.”
The logistics of the VPC program are fairly straightforward. The library staff controls the sign-up sheet, makes sure patrons are clear on what help they can get, and does minimal screening to make sure there is not a simpler solution to the issue. The library also calculates privacy issues and supplies a headset or a small meeting room if a sensitive issue like domestic violence is involved. The VPC does not require an income screening; the only requirement is that the person does not already have an attorney. Some sites are able to provide their own interpreters, but where interpreters are not available, several family members may be on the call providing both tech and language assistance.
After logging on, the librarian starts each clinic by letting the volunteer attorney know how many patrons are waiting (or signed up) and how long the library would like the volunteer to spend with each patron. Each patron will have a set period of time to talk to the volunteer attorney. The CHECKERBOARD website created and maintained by Morgan provides one-click public access for all forms, statutes, rules, instructions, flowcharts, and videos for over 60 different types of Colorado civil cases. It is designed to help the volunteer attorneys quickly find the information they need to assist patrons.
Keeping Partners Invested
VPC relies on building effective partnerships. The community must be invested in the process, and the community must remain involved. Morgan continues to cultivate these relationships after the clinics are established by keeping stakeholders informed of progress. He sends monthly announcements of upcoming clinics and asks for feedback. When feedback is offered, he acts quickly to help create ownership. Sending out his reports to stakeholders to foster connections and to underscore how important community support and involvement are to the success of each VPC clinic. Each community is different, and the services provided must reflect the community’s needs. (see graphic below)
Recipe for Success
The Virtual Pro Se Clinic Program is so successful partly due to the excellent connections with libraries and the laser focus on growing and tending effective community partnerships, centered around local libraries. The Virtual Pro Se Clinics are wonderful examples of the library demonstrating its value in providing information to patrons and connecting stakeholders to their community.
On October 13, 2021, the Virtual Pro Se Clinic assisted its' 10,000th clinic patron since its 2013 start-up, by helping an elderly woman with her property issue near Westcliffe, a very rural area high in the Colorado Rockies. It was a wonderful milestone for this small program and a monument to the hundreds of Colorado librarians who are so generous with their support and make the VPC clinic program possible.
Learn more about libraries and Civil Legal Justice on WebJunction
- Creating Pathways to Civil Legal Justice, a free self-paced course series available in WebJunction’s Course Catalog, exploring how public libraries can help to address the justice gap. Learn more about the course series, including a short video, in this announcement.
- Find additional resources related to libraries and legal services: oc.lc/legal-justice