One of the most useful sessions I attended at the virtual AALL conference this year was on rural legal service delivery and “legal deserts.” One of the speakers, Dr. Lisa Pruitt, described a fundamental challenge for legal service delivery. In my mind, it overlaps not only a service challenge for law libraries but perhaps a fundamental purpose without which it is hard to justify the need for a law library.

The phrase she used was legal consciousness and it struck a chord with me. I haven’t been able to find a better description of the phrase than a quote from one of her papers on rural access to justice:

In order for a client to overcome these obstacles, he or she would first have to self-identify a legal need—a hurdle in itself.

Law Stretched Thin: Access to Justice in Rural America, Lisa R. Pruitt and Bradley E. Showman, 599 S. Dak. L. Rev. 466, 479 (2014).

It’s a thing I’ve experienced again recently but didn’t have a name for it. How do you know if you have a legal problem? How do law libraries reach people who have legal issues but do not know it?

The traditional response is to fill a physical space with paper and technology access points, open it from 9-5, Monday to Friday, and do our best. We are obviously constrained to a universe of unauthorized practice of law, which assumes that only lawyers can support legal answers.

But we have people who will not use a legal professional who might benefit from legal information. The traditional courthouse law library approach is a one-size-fits-all solution. I’m wondering how we can crack that a bit to adapt to more nuanced contexts. There seem to be at least two large contexts: the legal problem that is negotiated, and the legal problem that is a crisis.

No Canada for You

I wrote about a negotiated legal issue in relation to a residential lease I reviewed (and rewrote) for one of our kids. That was a pretty clear cut issue – a legal contract – that most people would probably see as a legal issue. They may have done the risk analysis that, in order to have housing, they would sign it without any changes. But I do not think it’s common for apartment leases to be reviewed by retained counsel. I don’t mean to say that a negotiated legal issue is a contract, but it is one in which the person needing information may have options as well as a timeline that allows for self-education and contemplation of those choices.

Our kid also had a choice of housing. I realize that some people’s housing options are not negotiated but are, essentially, a crisis choice. This will inhibit the ability of a law library to treat a subject matter knowledge domain or practice area, like landlord / tenant, in a narrow manner.

As I was walking the dog this morning, though, I realized that I’d had my own crisis legal problem without realizing it. In fact, at the moment, I’m not sure I had options other than information gathering, even if I’d thought to contact a legal professional at 10am on a Sunday and 20 minutes to make a decision.

There is a 72-hour window to enter Canada once you have taken a COVID test and you don’t have any way to speed up test results. What happens if you don’t get your results within the window?

That was the situation I faced when, at hour 71, I was sitting at the US-Canada border without a test result. I was not advised, because border guards won’t advise, but they made it seem like a good idea to return to the US and start a new 72-hour window and get retested. The penalty was clear – C$6500 – but it wasn’t clear what process existed to appeal the fine. I mean, what if I couldn’t get a test result in the second 72-hour period either? No advice.

If you’re in the same position, the rapid test is a Nucleic-Acid Amplification Test (NAAT). It is equivalent to a PCR test and is not the rapid antigen test that is not allowed at the border. US Walgreens’ offer the NAAT test (although the site I was at called it a PCR test ?!?!) and the results are supposed to be returned within 24 hours. Mine showed up in an hour.

This was complicated further because the US border was still closed to only essential travel. While I was allowed with a US university student returning to school, I didn’t have a student this time. They could have sent me back to Canada (and the $6500 fine) but fortunately decided to allow me through after a secondary vehicle inspection.

I was able to stay with relatives overnight while I waited for my NAAT testing appointment the next day in a small town in southern Michigan. To be certain, I scheduled a PCR test that evening as well, so I would have 2 tests under way. Surely one would be fast enough?

Another thought: a lot of the information I needed was, in this case, medical information. So even though it was a legal issue (the goal and the penalty), the steps required were in a completely different knowledge domain. We need to highlight this when focusing on making legal information relevant.

In the end, the NAAT test result was in my email inbox by the time I returned to my relatives and I was able to hit the border without any problem. The PCR test showed up 120 hours later.

Personally, it was a bit of a crisis. And it made me consider that, if we can categorize the legal issues into those that need immediate solutions – and perhaps not even a law library even though they need information – and those that don’t, it may help us to direct some of our energy.

Pushing Past Barriers

Every law library is an island. I’ve posted before about sharing and collaboration, and it’s hard. Unless we have been coordinated into an entity with a center, governance, audience, politics, and legislation leave us largely separated. There is no reward or recognition for cooperation, only paperwork. As we extend tendrils out, though, we may find opportunities to impact legal needs.

Any reliance on delivering legal information via a fixed, physical space can only meet an extremely shallow pool of need. A courthouse law library is probably only open 25% or fewer of the hours in a week. Also, a visit to a courthouse law library assumes legal consciousness.

Declining foot fall supports that. Consider this, from a county with more than 800,000 people with possible legal issues:

On a recent day, [Multnomah Law Library] was as quiet as a tomb. The sign-in sheet for the week of Aug. 24 showed just eight names. An oak phone booth salvaged from the old courthouse stood as forlornly empty as the rest of the space. “We rarely have more than two lawyers come in at a time. Five would be a busy day—but we do a brisk business over the phone and via email.”

Taxpayers Now Pay for Two Downtown Law Libraries Five Blocks Apart, Willamette Week, 9/8/2021

Our law library is based in the largest city in the province (over 3 million population) and serves 65,000+ legal professionals across the province. We average about 20,000 reference interactions a year, including email and phone. Our physical space in a metro courthouse, our limited public access, and other constraints mean that we touch a bare pittance of people with legal issues even if you assume some of those people hire a legal professional.

From a strategic perspective, then, every courthouse law library can safely assume that it has already captured the market segment that includes people who have (a) awareness that the problem they have is a legal problem and (b) the means to access the law library to attempt to resolve it. This includes access to our print and digital collections. This includes access to court forms and other self-help information.

This is a really narrow market segment. If your foot traffic is low, or your reference interactions have fallen, they are still a good indicator of how small that served audience – those who know they have a legal issue AND can do something about it – really is.

The growth market is everyone else. It’s exponentially larger than our current impact.

A SWOT matrix from a law library business plan. The challenges this law library faces haven’t changed much in the last decade since it was created, given its strategic focus. Your law library may have different opportunities.

Let’s assume that we can’t know whether people know they have a legal problem. I think that’s true, although I’m not sure it’s a binary (“I’m aware”/”I’m not aware”) state. To that end, if we create an informational funnel that relies on awareness (“I need legal help” or “I need a lawyer”), we will already be excluding people with legal issues who lack awareness.

We may need to rethink our entire approach to delivery of content. This would include:

  • not trying to drive people towards legal materials that we acquire and intermediate access to, and being willing to have people NOT visit the law library in order for them to be successful;
  • identifying specific, narrow legal issues that need to be solved based on data that has nothing to do with the law library’s usage data (number of evictions, number of noise complaints or fence by-law issues) rather than starting with a practice area (Libguide on Landlord/Tenant) or even what content in your collection moves the most. This data may be hard to find and, even if found, will reflect people who have resolved a legal issue rather than those in need.
  • identifying partners (other law libraries if it is a shared regional issue, lawyers who might write or update a topic, commercial entities who would provide referrals to the library, organizations that already handle that narrow legal issue, even if they’re not law-specific organizations) to find opportunities to connect and support them
  • using 24/7 resources (online content, kiosks, vending machines, and other options that exist outside of the 9-5, Monday-Friday courthouse) to create serendipity without shelves
  • deciding where the law library sits on the access to legal information spectrum/mandate. Specifically, how much do we care that it is access to OUR legal information or access to ANY legal information? What problem is the law library trying to solve?

Here are some ideas – none easy or novel – on how we might push past some barriers:

  • Aggregate content. I’ve posted about this before: there are hundreds of basic legal pathfinders and Libguides. It’s evidence of work. But it means that a person without awareness of their legal issue will stumble upon the most popular, not the most relevant guide. Which may not be your library’s. If there is a regional issue (so many issues are state or provincial laws), everyone may benefit from a single, regional approach. A group focus could help to improve findability on web search, to raise one resource among the noise.
  • Rewrite content. If people do not know they have a legal issue, they may not use legal terms of art. Find out what they do call it and use that language in your online resources. We won’t be able to do that without reaching beyond the law library.
  • Focus on the legal problem. We may avoid talking about the law because we are focused on delivering information. Or because of UPL. But we need to do better than “read this book” and find a way to get at the kernel – a court’s holding, a regulation – that gives people a way to put a foot forward on gathering information. We will need to push into this to determine how far we can go on our own, and how much further we can push to provide context by using a partner, like a lawyer, as author. My favorite example of this are the Courthouse Libraries BC Clicklaw Wikibooks. They are more broad than I think we need to attempt but I love the detail and the partnering with other organizations.
  • Shift the contact point. I won’t belabor this because I’ve posted a lot about it. Kiosks. Mobile resources. Partners who can deliver and intermediate the information the law library licenses. If we are meeting the needs of people for legal information and no-one comes into a library, is that a terrible thing?
  • Find ways to address both both negotiated and crisis issues. A crisis issue is one that we do not want to intermediate; there isn’t time. If we know there are crisis issues, we can be more effective by recognizing it’s better to immediately forward a person who finds our resource or library to a place where they can get help. Just as we can’t provide legal advice, we can be most useful by not creating a dead end for someone who is likely looking at it while they are in crisis. That’s a choice: create something which moves people forward, or create nothing and stay out of the way in areas we can’t impact.
  • Don’t presume visibility. Partner with others, like online legal publishers like Nolo so that, if someone is visiting the site (which receives 400,000 daily visitors and uses localization to perform lawyer matching). Law libraries may be less visible than large commercial sites but there may be a referral opportunity, particularly if you purchase or license their information. Have someone bigger push people in need towards you, if you can help them.

This will mean surrounding ourselves with a curated set of 24-hour accessible resources. These may be online resources. But they could be physical information containers, too, that can be placed at a point of need. We will need to lean on partners who are closer to the legal issues than we can be in our courthouse libraries. We may need to persuade our organizing structures that courthouses are not the best place for 21st century law libraries.

This may mean that the library takes a smaller place in fulfilling the library’s mandate of collecting, organizing, and providing access to legal information. Each law library will need to decide which of those functions needs to be emphasized more, and how to do that.

But first we need to figure out how to reach people who don’t know they have a legal problem. That may be the key issue that defines the future for courthouse law libraries. It’s a growth opportunity and a way to make good on the resources our funders and governance boards allot us.