— Jeff Woodmansee (@jbwoodmansee) April 16, 2014
[Editor’s Note: This entry originally appeared on the The Arkansas Journal of Social Change and Public Service on November 29, 2013.]
One of the many effects felt downstream during the U.S. economic slump of the past several years has been the tremendous rise in pro se litigation (i.e., citizens who choose to represent themselves in court, generally due to their inability to afford an attorney) in today’s courtrooms. However, even as the need for access to professional legal services increases, officials in both federal and state government find themselves needing to cut existing services to lower budgets. Accordingly, many public law libraries find themselves taking on an ever-increasing role as the de facto “front line” for the growing demand for access to legal information, leading to increased pressure on law librarians and other legal-information professionals who provide reference services and often balance myriad other “new” duties in this transitional period of our profession.
With this new environment comes not only increased patron counts, but also the kind of expectations many of these laypersons have when they come see a “lawyer librarian.” In this role, we have a very important legal boundary when dealing with these patrons – we are not their attorneys, are not practicing law in this role, and cannot steer them into decisions by providing legal advice. It’s not only unethical; it can have negative repercussions should the person not have things go their way and feel they relied on your opinion to make a decision. With so many resources and layperson forms available now, however, and because many people are directed to law libraries by local court staff members without much direction as to what can be offered, many patrons have unrealistic expectations of what the reference librarian can do for them. That said, those in this field are librarians first – while legal boundaries must be respected, there is also a professional obligation for reference librarians of all stripes to treat all patrons equally and fairly and provide them with the tools they need to access and use the information that they seek.
Pro se patrons are a unique group of people from all sorts of different backgrounds, but almost all share a very limited background when it comes to the practice of law. Nonetheless, as persons representing themselves in court, they are required to perform at least some research to have a basic understanding of their legal issue, and they must submit documents that follow a certain basic format to be deemed acceptable in court. These patrons typically ask for assistance in choosing and drafting pleadings and forms, interpreting what something says, and in researching statutory law. Ethical conflicts arise regarding the level of reference service a librarian can give to the patron in this context, often when choosing forms, and particularly in drafting forms to be used in court. Patrons frequently inquire about the legal expertise of the person helping them, and, if that person mentions that they have a law degree, those expectations become even higher. Many library policies are vague on issues such as these, leaving librarians on their own when an insistent patron’s inquiry becomes problematic. The trick for librarians is to perform as experts on finding information, rather than as experts at analyzing all of the information gathered, in order to assist the patron in a meaningful way but also not cross into the unauthorized practice of law.
Fulfilling Ethical Duties While Avoiding Unethical Conflicts
The tools of legal reference are often very confusing to pro se patrons, and it is important that these patrons have someone to assist in the navigation of these tools, because, office water cooler stories aside, helping them remains our duty as librarians. To leave the user floundering about, unable to use available resources would be no less a disservice or wrong action than would giving out bad legal advice. The librarian’s loyalty lies with the patron and their information need. Yet fulfilling this need comes with restrictions that protect both the librarian and the patron who has taken on the task of handling the matter on their own. It is best for law librarians to help the patron as much as possible – providing basic source and term suggestions; instruction on using the tools, guides, referrals, and other pieces of assistance; and avoiding any lawyerly performance that might arguably establish a client-attorney relationship. There are certainly a broad range of approaches to this process, with some librarians acting as a source guide, and others as someone who teaches the self-litigant how to research on their own, but the bottom line is the same: if the line into “lawyerly function” is not crossed and the librarian is working inside the boundaries, they may assist their patrons without needing to fear unauthorized practice of law.
Game-planning for Law Libraries
Many library policies do not specifically address the problem of giving clear guidelines to both staff and pro se patrons about the scope of available reference service, beyond cautioning their librarians to tread carefully. Placing stated policies regarding the scope of available legal reference services in a prominent position where patrons can easily spot and read it as they wait their turn at the desk can be a great way to get everyone, staff and patrons alike, on the same page. In addition to increased awareness of policies, there should be available directories and referral lists of attorneys and local association numbers available to the patrons who need legal advice – what better way to show that librarians are here to help, but we are happy to defer to the “experts” when it comes to the actual practice of law?
Randy Diamond and Martha Dragich. Professionalism in Librarianship: Shifting the Focus of Malpractice to Good Practice. 49 Library Trends 395 (2001).
Paul D. Healey. Pro Se Users, Reference Liability, and the Unauthorized Practice of Law: Twenty-Five Selected Readings. 94 Law Lib. J. 133 (2002).
Paul D. Healey. Professional Liability Issues for Librarians and Information Professionals (Neil Schuman Press, 2008).
Stephen Parks. A Lawyer/Librarian’s Efforts to Avoid the Unauthorized Practice of Law. Library Student Journal (2013).
Drew A. Swank. The Pro Se Phenomenon. 19 BYU J. Pub. L. 373 (2011).
Arthur J. Lachman. Self-help services: Reducing risk by avoiding the formation of lawyer-client relationships. NLDA Insurance Program Bulletin.
The Arkansas Journal of Social Change and Public Service is a vehicle for identifying and addressing the pressing needs of our society. It examines issues lying at the nexus of policy, public interest, and academia, and raises awareness of topics insufficiently examined in traditional scholarly publications. [UALR Bowen School of Law]
What a treat for me to be on hand yesterday for 2012 Democratic National Convention Keynote Speaker, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, who spoke at UALR today as part of the Winthrop Rockefeller Distinguished Lecture Series. The remarks this evening were fairly apolitical, at least in the typical partisan sense, and focused around meeting the challenges and seizing the moment resulting from the large demographic shift currently occurring in not only places like Castro’s Texas and throughout the American Southwest, but all throughout our country, including right here in Arkansas where between 2000-2010 the Hispanic population increased by nearly 115%. Having the chance to meet one of my political heroes and a future POTUS (¡Viva 2024!) following his presentation was a true honor.
San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro told a packed audience at UALR that the way Americans approach shifting Hispanic/Latino demographics will have “fundamental consequences” for America’s future role in the world.
Castro was delivering a talk on “The Political Implications of Shifting Demographics in the 21st Century” at UALR’s Stella Boyle Smith Concert Hall Tuesday, Sept. 17.
His lecture was supported and presented through the Winthrop Rockefeller Distinguished Lectures series, one of the most popular UALR campus events.
The consequences will be felt in particular in states like Arkansas, where there has been a 114 percent growth in Hispanic and Latino communities, Castro said. The shifting demographics affect not only who is voting in America, he said, but also the electoral outcomes as well as the conversation about which issues are important.
“We have a young and growing minority population, and we have an aging, non-Hispanic, white community, both with different life experiences,” he said.
These differing experiences produce people who see issues quite differently, according to Castro, who added that the changing demographics can either be an “asset or an albatross” for the U.S.
Castro added that for the first time, other countries are producing students who can outcompete American students. It is in America’s best economic interest to address the accessibility of education to minority populations, he said.
“If we ensure our young people receive an education, we ensure another century of American prosperity and dominance,” he said.
Higher education plays a unique and compelling role in the shifting demographics of the American 21st-century, according to Castro. Not only are college campuses often among the “most diverse places” in the U.S., they are a great place for people to discover the truth that “even though they look different, people are fundamentally much like we are.”
Earlier in the day, Castro met with UALR students for a master class in which he hit on similar themes.
He spoke about ways to improve higher education accessibility, such as San Antonio’s recent addition of Café College, a one-stop center offering guidance on college admissions, financial aid, and standardized test preparation to students in the San Antonio area.
When asked by one student about his political plans, Castro said he intends to serve out the rest of his term as mayor and then run for the office again in 2015.
A San Antonio native, Castro is the youngest mayor of a top 50 American city. He won reelection last year with more than 80 percent of San Antonio’s vote and delivered the keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
Underwritten by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the lectures bring nationally known speakers to the Little Rock community, including anthropologist Dr. Richard Leakey and civil rights leader Julian Bond.
First, Arkansas progressives found themselves wondering what the heck happened to our Forrest Gump candidate in AR-03, now we’re supposed to come to the defense of ol’ sud-sippin’ Grandpa Herb in AR-02. We sent up a school bus driver against an impressive bunch of D.C. insiders in AR-04. Thank goodness for Scott Ellington in AR-01, who at least gives us a shot of not being shutout completely this fall. Seriously, is this the best Dems here can offer? Exactly what was it that the state party did to “regroup” following the historic GOP gains in 2010? No push to recruit top-notch candidates? Are we quietly just waiting it out until President Obama is off the top of the ticket before we even try again? If not, why does it feel that way right now?
Sadly, Governor Beebe does not use his broad popularity to push anything bold or progressive, or even to really push for other Democrats down-ticket. Historically popular politicians generally try to leave their mark on history . . . but I just don’t see a reduction in the grocery tax or a landslide re-election as having a lot of staying power in the minds of future generations. If he were maintaining his spot above the fray in anticipation of a run for federal office, perhaps that approach would make sense. Otherwise, it is just a big ol’ disappointment. Perhaps the Left’s biggest guns here, Bill Halter and Dustin McDaniel, are already setting the stage for a primary bloodbath in two years. And as we saw in the Halter v. Lincoln war, spending millions to tear down each other didn’t bode well in November with so many hard feelings still lingering. As much as I personally admire Halter and his ideas, this “secrecy” he maintains to what his next moves will be make it difficult on other progressives possibly considering runs of their own or wanting to build a movement behind his populist message.
It’s beyond time for progressives here to rebrand themselves (being champions of government ethics reform and protecting the environment in the era of fracking could be winning issues to start) and start developing a roster of young talent to run for office over the next decade. While there has been some movement on this front with progressive groups forming, it must go beyond occasional email list updates or get-togethers downtown to drink and socialize. Considering that seemingly everyone just looked around with shrugged shoulders when it came time to run against Congressman Griffin and his record – from the state’s most progressive and populated region in a seat long-held by someone like Congressman Snyder – just seems to prove that apathy has indeed settled in and that Democrats are subtly just allowing the complete GOP-takeover to occur.