Online training prepares library staff to address the civil legal justice gap

This blog post was contributed by WebJunction team members Brooke Doyle, Betha Gutsche and Dale Musselman.

The WebJunction team of OCLC’s Research and Membership Division recently completed a very successful five-week, online, instructor-led course for public library staff to strengthen their patrons’ access to civil legal justice. The course Creating Pathways to Civil Legal Justice is part of a larger national training initiative in which WebJunction is collaborating with the non-profit Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to enlist libraries in the effort to reduce the justice gap—the divide between the civil legal needs of low-income people and the resources to meet those needs. The project is funded by the Mellon Foundation and the Susan Crowne Exchange.

The need for library training

Through LSC’s research and the Justice Gap Report, we know that:

  • Barriers to justice disproportionately affect low-income people in the U.S.
  • 71% of low-income U.S. households experienced at least one civil legal problem in 2017 (the year of the study)
  • 86% of those problems went unresolved
  • There are not enough legal aid attorneys to help everyone

As trusted community institutions with a foundational mission to meet people’s information needs, libraries are well positioned to help reduce the justice gap by providing more access points to legal information and services for their patrons. The course is designed to amplify skills library staff already have and to build their confidence to address legal issues, which can seem intimidating.

The timing of the course could hardly have been more propitious. When registration opened up in mid-February, there was a trickle of enrollees. As the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the country, shuttering libraries, course enrollments mounted rapidly; we hit the enrollment cap of 350 learners a few days before launch. Library staff without their normal daily duties were looking to online learning to boost their skills, and we were ready. Timing was also fortuitous for this particular topic because of the looming surge in civil legal issues resulting from the pandemic.

Seventy-seven percent of enrollments were from public libraries, with additional representation from academic libraries, law libraries, and legal aid organizations. Delivering a quality course to an audience of 300+ learners always presents challenges. In this case, there was an added challenge –how to deliver a national training on a topic that has great variation by state and locality.

Our approach to adult learning online

At WebJunction we follow our live online instruction sessions with meaningful assignments that apply and extend the learning into the library. Our courses conclude by inviting reflection on learnings in a moderated discussion forum. This has proved to be a very powerful combination. In our live (synchronous) sessions, we encourage the robust use of open chat. We find that it is a great learning tool to allow adult learners to ask and answer each other’s questions as well as alert the instructor about questions and confusion. A lively chat box tells us that learner engagement is high.

Asynchronous assignments are designed to build the skills, knowledge, and individualized resource set necessary for our learners to successfully apply their learning to the library workplace and positively impact service to the community. Their activities are documented in threaded discussions so that all can benefit from the learning of each. We never want learners to be simply proving retention to the instructors. Instead, we always want to motivate them through clear practical application of the ideas and information we are sharing and that they are discovering and sharing themselves with their co-learners. 

We also believe in the efficacy of the practitioner voice in continuing education, not simply the traditional subject matter expert. For this course, the best solution was a trio of law librarians who combined the knowledge of law with the practical application of serving patrons in a library setting and deep experience with conducting legal reference interviews.

Getting Started – preparing the learner for success up front

Although online training is increasingly common, we are always aware that a significant portion of our audience has had either little, or simply unsatisfactory experience with online learning. We always make a point to familiarize our learners with interacting with the technology, navigating the online space and making contact with their fellow learners before they need to focus on the course content.

Lesson 1 – with Sara Pic, Head of Public Services, Law Library of Louisiana
The justice gap, legal system basics, and legal information vs legal advice

A foundational concept for all civil legal reference is distinguishing between legal information and legal advice. It’s a distinction most library staff know about in theory but its real-world application can be much trickier. Many learners did not realize that “unauthorized practice of law” (UPL) is actually illegal, even a felony in some states. Sara Pic empowered participants to think about what they are able to do that falls in the realm of information.

One point of discussion in the first lesson’s forum was about reading a definition or a statute over the phone. In some states, this is not allowed because of the potential for the reader to lend meaning by the inflections in their voice. This was a particularly timely discussion since more legal reference at public libraries will be conducted over the phone in this COVID-19 world. Sara Pic explained that it is ideal to email the patron the definition or show them how to find it online so they can read it for themselves. It certainly raised more questions about people who do not have email or are illiterate. Law is complex, and it often feels like the more you learn, the less you know!

Lesson 2 – with Sarah Larsen, Outreach Librarian, Minnesota State Law Library
The most common civil legal needs and the barriers to addressing them, preparing a civil legal reference collection for your library

An important takeaway from this session is that law overlaps with nearly every part of our lives and things that don’t seem like a legal issue to most people could have a legal dimension and/or solution. For example, a contractor might fail to complete repairs; health insurance might not cover services; a workplace might not make reasonable accommodations for a disabled employee, etc. People may show up at the library with a problem that they are not identifying as containing a legal solution. This course helps library staff be better able to identify civil legal problems and to provide the legal resource. Sarah Larsen offered an overview of the types of resources that could be in a civil legal collection–both primary and secondary, online and physical – and how to make a successful referral.

Legal resources are very state-specific and even vary by locality within a state, which meant that learners from different states would be compiling different resources sets. To avoid posting chaos, the forums were organized to allow those from the same state to share their findings, build on each other’s discoveries, and discuss the relative qualities.

Lesson 3 – with Catherine McGuire, Head of Reference & Outreach, Thurgood Marshall State Law Library, Maryland
The legal reference interview, including reference interview practice

Catherine McGuire emphasized the similarities of a legal reference interview with a regular reference interview – remaining non-judgmental, asking informational questions, finding out what the patron had already tried, and identifying and explaining sources. On this foundation, she framed the differences in a legal reference interview as enhancing their basic reference skills. The interpersonal dynamic can be more highly charged because the issue may be intensely personal. Remaining non-judgmental can be more challenging. Finding out who the patron has already talked to is important; respecting privacy and confidentiality are paramount. Library staff should stay focused on responding to, not answering the query. The vocabulary of the law is complex, and dead ends are totally normal. It’s okay to admit ignorance.

It’s one thing to bullet point a list of interview skills, but how to make it come alive? WebJunction staff role-played two scenarios for legal reference interviews with Catherine acting as the reference librarian. In the first scenario, learners were asked to identify in chat the legal reference skills used in Catherine’s librarian responses. In the second scenario, learners were asked to suggest responses to the irritated patron, before Catherine spoke her own responses. One learner remarked in chat, “Just listening to this exchange made me break out in a sweat.” This exercise was preparing participants to put their learning into action – to find a practice partner with whom to role play two civil legal reference interviews.

The Cleveland Public Library and The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland partner at the monthly legal clinic hosted at the Cleveland Public Library.

Reporting on their practice interviews in the forums, participants shared a range of experiences from simple and straightforward to tricky and frustrating. One learner expressed a common sentiment, “I am surprised at how much better I did with these scenarios than I would’ve done before this course… I get nervous any time law questions come up but now I definitely feel more comfortable giving responses (not answers!).” Some encountered implications of COVID-19 on legal reference, like having to spell out tricky URL’s over the phone or finding websites without updated closure information. Many learners could relate to this comment, “It was difficult to respond when confronted by rude, hostile replies” and “the most difficult part was trying to remain impartial and not get into the emotions of it.” Others struggled with the strong desire to help fix the problem.

Our team of law librarians were busy reading the forums and responding with guidance and reassurances to learners. For example:

  • “The urge to give legal advice can be really strong – we’re in a helping profession, and when people present a problem to us, we just want to fix it!… I find that usually displaying empathy and showing the patron you’re trying to find solutions really helps get past that. . . if you get the patron information and referrals on the topic they’re asking about, I’d consider that a successful response.”
  • In response to learners’ frustrations with the limitations of the law. “The reality is that the law doesn’t cover every single situation and sometimes all we can do is share the available information and let the patron know they’re going to need to find a lawyer or interpret the resources themselves.”
  • Relating to the line between information and advice, “We avoid the word ‘advice’ because it has connotations, but if you think of it as ‘suggest,’ sometimes that helps. Can you suggest they might want to keep any paperwork…? Yes… squidgy language like ‘might want’, ‘could possibly’ are good to remember.”
  • “It is going to be challenging, particularly if you are not in a library that regularly receives legal reference questions. That’s ok! Take your time and just let the patron know you are doing your best. You might not get the referral(s) right the first time and that’s fine – just let the patron know you are happy to try again.”

Lesson 4 – with Catherine McGuire, Head of Reference & Outreach, Thurgood Marshall State Law Library, Maryland

Creating partnerships with civil legal organizations

The Cleveland Public Library and The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland partner at the monthly legal clinic hosted at the Cleveland Public Library.

Many patrons with a civil legal issue will feel more comfortable in a public library than in a law library which might be housed in the courthouse and have limited hours. By partnering with various legal agencies and experts, library staff can connect patrons who are using the library as their entry point with the expertise they need. The range of partnership options could start from the simple act of picking up the phone and calling to introduce yourself to the local legal aid organization and it could lead to setting up a lawyer in the library program or a staff training from the law library. Law librarians are particularly open to establishing relationships with public library staff.

Next up

The timing of the delivery of Creating Pathways to Civil Legal Justice and the relevance of the topic of civil legal justice in a COVID world allowed us to fully enroll the course and have particularly engaged learners who are more prepared to serve their patrons. WebJunction will adapt this course to the development of a self-paced version, launching this fall. The third phase of the project will be a facilitator training, in which we train learners in facilitation techniques so they can lead a group of their peers through the self-paced course. We hope these different dissemination channels will help more library staff be better equipped to identify and answer civil legal questions.