Law Week Partnership Has Happy Ending

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Law Week Partnership Has Happy Ending

Montana library leads effort to improve public understanding of the courts

By Judy Meadows

For quite a while I have been frustrated with a lack of originality or relevance with what our state bar association’s Law Related Education Committee does during Law Week. With the public’s growing distrust in government, a general misunderstanding of what courts can and should do, and a lack of any kind of meaningful civics education in our schools, I have felt strongly that we in the library community can help address those conditions. Because the entity that I chair, the Montana Supreme Court’s Commission on Self-Represented Litigants, has had a deliberate and sustained effort of training and partnering with public libraries across the state, I thought they would be a logical collaborator for us in putting together public programming during Law Week next May.

In preparation, we put together a planning group that included the chair of the bar’s committee, our AmeriCorps worker, the state bar’s access to justice coordinator, and me. We held three pilot sessions in June, in Helena, Missoula, and Billings. Read more in the following story to hear how these sessions succeeded (or didn’t!), and how we plan to launch a statewide effort in eight months to reach teenagers, parents, small businesses, and the retired.

Round One – Swing and Miss

The three pilot programs were planned very quickly, and we learned a great deal from how each one was held. I had viewed the celebrations as a true partnership with the public library involved. The grand idea was that we would find speakers to talk about the role of the courts and how citizens can access them and the law, and that the library would handle publicity and logistics.

The first one was held in Billings, Montana’s largest city with almost 100,000 people, and 250 miles from where I live and work. I called the director, who has been a friend of mine for a very long time. He was enthusiastic about the idea and viewed it as a great outreach event for his library.

Unfortunately, he assigned someone else as the person in charge, and she never quite got the message. She seemed to think that we—the state law library, the commission, and the state bar—were merely using one of their meeting rooms for an event. But it was a learning experience! We were able to get a press release into the Billings newspaper two days before the event. My team arrived on the day of their Celebrate the Law and found no signs, posters, or anything placed anywhere in the library. Nor did anyone at the information desk or in reference know why we were there.

We hustled to get a table out on the floor of the reference area, where we displayed various brochures and posters, and gave out copies of the Montana and U.S. constitutions. We set up the room we had been assigned, which was the library’s training room, on the third floor. Our speakers arrived, all on time for the time slots we had assigned.

We had a municipal judge, who talked about small claims court and how his hearings were conducted; he answered various, general questions. We had a discussion of how to find a lawyer, which included topics such as the bar’s Lawyer Referral Service, Legal Aid, pro bono, limited scope representation, and the self-help centers. I did a session on how to find the law and legal forms, with online instruction of web-based resources. We ended with the district court judge (our first level of general jurisdiction), who provided low-key commentary on how he runs his court, what to expect when you come before him, and what to consider when you represent yourself. Of the dozen or so people in the audience, several attempted to get the judge to give them legal advice about their specific cases.

No one from the library’s staff attended the session, although their training librarian came up to me when we were putting away our equipment and asked me to come in September to give them more training on how to find the law and how to best use Lexis, which my library provides them.

We learned a lot from this first exercise. We tried not to think of it as a failure, but rather to turn the evening into an academic training opportunity that we could build on. We determined that we should have provided a better explanation of how the evening would play out and that we should ask people to write their questions on comments cards. 

Round Two – Things Are Looking Up

The next event was held in Missoula, home of the University of Montana. The public library there happens to have Lisa Mecklenberg-Jackson as its outreach librarian. Lisa came to Montana to work for me as our electronic services librarian 15 years ago. Her energy and marketing skills are amazing. She is also a member of the state bar’s Law Related Education Committee. I met with her and her director in May, asking them to partner with us and explained what we had in mind. I said that we would help find speakers and to let us know when they had selected a date. Lisa planned their whole evening with no help from us, getting her own speakers—almost the opposite of what happened earlier that month in Billings.

We sent our AmeriCorps volunteer over that day, to observe and to distribute evaluation forms. She reported that about 20 people came to listen. One of the interesting things they were able to do at that library was to announce over their public address system when the next session would start and what the topic would be. Thus a smattering of new people would wander in for that specific discussion. I also really liked the title they assigned to the occasion. They called it Explore the Law @ Your Library, rather than Celebrate the Law.  

Round Three – Getting Better All the Time

The final pilot event was held at the Helena Public Library, on Last Chance Gulch in my fair city of 30,000 people. Here, we were able to meet several times with the director and the head of adult services. We lined up five topics and speakers, and the library did an amazing job with publicity. After the press release that was sent to our daily newspaper arrived, the news desk reporters were talking about how important civics training is. Consequently, the editor called me to come down for an interview, and the on the day of our Celebrate the Law an editorial appeared, lauding our efforts (http://helenair.com/news/opinion/editorial/learn-the-ropes-of-the-legal-system/article_a83e1080-a209-11e0-9117-001cc4c002e0.html?mode=story).

I think that it was because of that publicity that we had 60 people turn out at 4:30 that afternoon. The library had also set up an information table for us, with an accompanying book truck showcasing some of their self-help law books. They had posters all over the library, with a list of our speakers and what time they would be talking. Everyone on the staff knew about the event.

We had the following sessions: municipal judge, small claims judge, district court judge on family law, the lawyer referral director on how to find a lawyer, and my presentation on how to access the law. Each talk was about 25 minutes long. We set up a large meeting room in a classroom style and placed note cards and pencils on each table. One of our team walked around the room while the speaker was talking, picking up the questions. I would read them, sometimes rewording them to make the topic more generalized, and then I would re-direct the questions to the speaker.

Attendees took notes and were totally engaged. Their ages ranged from adolescents to the retired. We took 10-minute breaks between each session, and the library kept the lemonade and cookies flowing. Librarians would walk around the library during the break and announce what the next topic would be. Hardly anyone had left after four hours! We asked people to complete short evaluation forms and had very positive feedback. Our local public access television station filmed the entire evening and has rebroadcast it several times. 

Post-Meeting Evaluations

In our de-briefing the following week, we agreed that we should have had a second mike available for repeating the questions before the speaker answered them. We plan to show a short video of our chief justice for introducing future events. Our AmeriCorps worker is putting together a website, with all sorts of suggestions as to how Montana’s libraries can have successful Law Week activities next May. We will provide both a speakers’ bureau and canned presentations that have been pre-recorded. We will encourage topics of broader interest, such as renters’ rights and how to get back your driver’s license. But we will discourage anything that will lead to the airing of personal legal grievances, such as how to get your child’s parent to pay child support. Several of us will present an afternoon’s workshop at the October public libraries’ training.

A Final Vindication

One of the best initial results of this project was our chief justice’s response when I told him what I was planning. He agreed that the Law Day exercises in the schools were ineffective and echoed my thoughts on the importance of getting more information to the public about what the courts do. We had just come through a bruising legislative session, which had us thinking about how to affect change in public opinion and voting. A couple of weeks later he called me to his chambers. He said he had been thinking about our project and what we hoped to accomplish. He then discussed the fact that we are the only major agency in Montana state government (let alone branch) that didn’t have a public information officer, and it was unlikely that the legislature would ever fund that position for us. He asked me to fill that role, saying that he had always thought of the law library as being the public face of the courts—we are the ones who provide access to what they do, and we are the ones who explain and teach about the rule of law. I ask you, what could have been a finer moment? To have one’s boss voluntarily endorse and reward what I have been trying to achieve for decades was so affirming that I’m still basking in the acknowledgment.

The Helena newspaper’s op/ed piece said it all. They quoted me: “ It’s all so people understand the importance of their legal rights and how important it is to have a fair and independent judiciary that is separate and apart from politicizing and money.” The editor concluded with, “Not everyone can afford a lawyer, and not everybody wants one. But we could all stand to learn more about the law and how the legal system works. The law affects everyone every day, but until we get in trouble or want to get out of a relationship, we don’t necessarily know what all those effects can be. We applaud this effort to help all Montanans better understand how the law works.”