Providing Services in Unprecedented Times: Washoe County Law Library’s Virtual Lawyer in the Library Program

By Sarah Bates

For over 20 years, the Washoe County Law Library, located inside the Second Judicial District Court of Washoe County, Nevada, has offered a weekly program called Lawyer in the Library.  It is a free program in which self-represented litigants can meet with a volunteer lawyer for about 10-15 minutes to ask legal questions.  As the need for legal assistance is high and cost prohibitive to many people in our community, this program has always been very popular and well-attended. 

In previous years, we held this event as a “walk-in only” program in the Law Library.  Patrons drew numbers for spots in line, and patiently waited for their turn to speak with a lawyer about their legal situation.  Then, COVID-19 hit.  The Washoe County Law Library, like so many others, was forced to close suddenly, with very little warning or plan.  Thinking this would be temporary, we posted signs saying the Lawyer in the Library program was canceled for two weeks.  However, it quickly became apparent that the closure would not be as short-term as we hoped.  Without the Law Library doors being open, how would we serve the needs of the community? 

With staff working remotely from home, we were accessible by phone and email.  We quickly developed a live chat option on our website, but how would we deliver one of our most crucial services – the Lawyer in the Library program?  So many members of the public that we serve regularly need legal advice.  As Court employees, we are not allowed to provide legal advice.  This restriction has always been relieved by referring litigants to our Lawyer in the Library program.  Where could we send people now?  We realized that we needed to come up with a way to offer the program in a different format. 

With the instant popularity of Zoom, we started brainstorming how we could transition Lawyer in the Library to a virtual platform.  We started recruiting our existing volunteers to test this new version of the program, and fortunately we were able to find some brave souls to take this journey with us.  It was a little rocky in the beginning and took some time to get the word out to the public about how to find us, but almost five months later, our virtual program is thriving. 

We offer Family Law, General Law, and Probate Law programs on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  Patrons are required to sign-up in advance, which is a big change for us after offering a walk-in only program for two decades.  However, we must require advance registration for preparation and planning purposes.  We provide volunteers with a conflict list ahead of time and ensure that everyone has the Zoom meeting information the day before. 

Staff handles all technical aspects of the program so the volunteers only need to worry about logging in and providing their legal expertise.  We make sure the patrons are able to connect; the technology skills and access definitely run the gamut.  It is certainly a challenge, week-to-week, making sure the programs go off without a hitch, but it has been both successful and fun.  The volunteers and participants have raved about how convenient this new format is for them; they can attend from the safety and comfort of their own home or office.  Even as the world starts to normalize, and we eventually re-open our doors, transitioning to a virtual format of our Lawyer in the Library program may be a positive and permanent outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic.

About the author: Sarah Bates is the Law Librarian at the Washoe County Law Library in Reno, NV.

Reopening Our Libraries – Maryland’s Thurgood Marshall State Law Library

By Catherine McGuire, Past LISP Chair

Maryland’s Thurgood Marshall State Law Library has been reopened since June 8, 2020. As part of the State court system, we follow the Phases set forth by the Judiciary – Phase I was full lockdown; Phase II, which began June 8th, opened the Courts of Appeal Building in Annapolis (most if not all other Maryland state court buildings remained closed during Phase II). As the Library is the first floor of the building, Phase II included the Library’s reopening. Initially, we had restricted hours, open only from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday (our “normal” hours included Tuesday and Thursday to 9:00 p.m. and Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.). Judiciary personnel and persons with active appellate cases were permitted to walk in with no prior notice; all other people were asked to make appointments. This continues to be how we operate, though we opened to our usual extended hours when Phase III began on July 20th.

The mechanics of possible plans are addressed in many places by many other libraries. Ours are similar to, and sometimes informed by, our colleagues.

Physical Adjustments

Reopening has included physical space and material precautions, including:

  • Distanced seating, which we created by simply removing chairs and stashing them in the back stacks;
  • Tape arrows to indicate traffic flow;
  • Signs for required masking and physical distancing, posted at every entrance and exit, seat, and low bookcase;
  • Plexiglass at the reference desk, hung from the ceiling and attached to the desk (there are gaps on the rounded sides, so we taped off a six-foot distance and parked some potted plants on the floor to keep people back – see photo);
  • Cleaning supplies, including wipes and hand-sanitizer;
  • Masks for anyone who forgets one – the building guards make them available, and we do as well, just in case.
Tape and potted plants are used as a reminder

Regarding masks, these have been a matter of much discussion, both from a staff and a patron perspective.

Staff Masking

On our original return, the Judiciary policy was masks at all times except for staff when seated at their personal workspaces, as long as there was six feet of space (shared cubicle residents had to remain masked). As we learned more and had to address many questions about mask requirements, the policy shifted.. Now, the Judiciary mandates masks at all times except staff who have individual offices with closed doors. Unfortunately, since most of us are in cubicles, this means wearing a mask for eight hours almost straight (there is an exception for sipping drinks or eating at one’s desk). The staff makes sure to take quick breaks every hour or two, to run outside and release our faces from the heavy layers and get a breath of fresh air. This would, of course, be far more refreshing if we weren’t in the throes of a Maryland summer (90s and humid, with regular thunderstorms). As a personal tip – I carry daily with me facial astringent and wipes, and use them a few times a day, which helps reduce the oily feeling of my lower face under the mask.

Patron Masking

The Judiciary policy requires masks of all persons present in the building, meaning all library patrons must wear them. We have not yet been obligated to address a situation in which someone’s health concerns allow for no mask. We make many of our services available remotely (document provision, with fees waived; free Westlaw passwords for some access to database searching) and believe we can provide mostly equitable service without someone needing to come in person. Visitors for the most part have been compliant. There have only been a few instances where staff needed to provide reminders to pull up a mask, and with one exception, everyone has done so. The one exception needed multiple reminders, but once aware that every staff member was watching them all the time, kept the mask in place without a squabble.

Operational Adjustments

Reopening has also included operational adjustments, some of them quite complex. These include:

Quarantine of Print Materials

Materials used by patrons in the library, as well as those circulated to Judiciary staff (we are a non-circulating library to the public). We quarantine for 72 hours, on a cart with shelves designated as Day 1, 2, and 3 to keep them from overlapping and contaminating each other;

Scheduling of Visitors

We request that all visitors pre-schedule, but if we do not have a full house, the guards know they can let in walk-ins.

When patrons call to schedule, we ask them a set of questions, including what materials they plan to use (print, microform, databases), and how long they plan to be in the library. We explain that we ask these questions to keep within appropriate numbers, and to ensure that the resources needed are available when they visit. Resources like the MDEC kiosk (electronic courts access), microform machines (legislative history, mainly), and public computers are limited in number and are frequently requested.

As an example – our public computers are set up in carrels that are built as a single unit (see photo), so with safe spacing, our computer availability is severely limited. We therefore schedule computer usage in one-hour blocks. If there is nobody scheduled to use a computer at the end of an hour block, the person can stay. Fortunately, we’ve not had more than three simultaneous computer users so far. We actively inform and encourage all visitors who express interest in computer use to bring a laptop, as all of our databases can be accessed via our wi-fi.

Carrels built as a single unit

Scheduling of Reference Desk Coverage

In the pre-pandemic world, we had two reference staff at the reference desk in shifts. Unfortunately, the space is too small to allow for the required six-foot distance between persons. And we are concerned about the use of the phone, keyboard, mouse, etc. by rotating numbers of staff. To address these concerns, we have adjusted  how we staff the desk.

Two persons are still scheduled simultaneously. However, only one person sits at the front reference desk at a time, scheduled in two four-hour shifts (three on our extended days). This minimizes the number of times the space must be cleaned. The person rotating in cleans the space before starting the shift. The second scheduled person remains at their usual workspace and completes reference work from there. This solves the seated distance problem.

It also solves a secondary problem – the telephone, and concerns about the ability to adequately clean the handset with its tiny little speaker holes. The person at the front desk manages any in-person needs and completes email reference; the person at their own desk manages any incoming telephone calls and completes email reference in tandem with the front desk. In this manner, there is no need for the front desk person to pick up the phone.

On our extended hours – evenings and Saturdays – there is a solo staff person. For now, the evening librarian uses the single handset of a cordless phone we’ve attached to the main desk. The Saturday librarian, who is new to our staff (day one – July 1st – lovely to start a new job in a pandemic!), has had training partners on Saturdays, so the phone has been answered at individual desks. We have ordered a multi-handset cordless phone to replace the current single handset. We will then be able to assign a handset to each person needing access, with no fear of contamination.

We have also assigned our Reference Assistant to provide the bulk of our document delivery requests. Prior to the pandemic, whoever was “on the desk” generally managed document duplication.  Now, all document requests are forwarded to the RA for full completion. This minimizes the number of staff needing to use the equipment. The overall goal is to minimize the possibility of cross-contamination.

The adjusted reference schedule has been working well. In a quick review of reference statistics, we have seen that our FY2020 numbers (from July 1 to June 30) were just about exactly even with our FY2019 numbers – even with a three-month building closure. During the closure, while we operated in email-reference-only mode, we completed about 75% of our normal reference numbers. Since returning, our numbers have climbed higher than pre-pandemic levels – we are now running about 8% higher than our pre-pandemic statistics. Interestingly, the move to all email may have convinced many patrons of the value of email reference, as pre-pandemic, about 63% of reference was conducted via email; post, it’s at 74%.

I’m certain I’ve missed a few details – new ones certainly crop up regularly. We continue to watch what our colleagues are doing elsewhere, to learn from their efforts and innovations. We appreciate the sharing community of law librarians!

About the author: Catherine McGuire is the Head of Reference and Outreach at the Thurgood Marshall State Law Library.