Thoughts on Service and Reopening: A Conversation Between Colleagues

By Barbara Engstrom & Karen Westwood, LISP-SIS

As Barbara Engstrom (Executive Director, King County Library – Seattle) and Karen Westwood (Director, Hennepin County Law Library – Minneapolis) watched law libraries reopening over the summer and early fall, they started an email correspondence about their own decisions regarding reopening and other matters.  As happens, they were both busy and the correspondence stretched out over many weeks.  But that’s par for the course for 2020, isn’t it?  Here’s the exchange, lightly edited for clarity. (Please note: Both libraries are membership law libraries – references to “subscribers” refer to patrons who hold memberships.)

October 22, 2020

KW:  Barbara, the Hennepin County Law Library in Minneapolis, MN has remained closed to the public since we were sent home in March.  We’ve had uninterrupted service via email and phone since then, and since June we’ve have skeletal staffing in so we can access the physical collection, but I’m reluctant to open service to the public.  We always pay attention to King County as a metro area of similar size to us and I see that you also remain closed to the public.   What is your thinking about reopening your physical space?  I have my own reasons here for keeping the doors closed, but am curious about your thought process.  Are you getting any pressure to open up?

October 23, 2020

BE: We have been closed since March as well, Karen.  Until recently, the decision on whether to reopen was really out of our hands.  Governor Inslee mandated that all public libraries remain closed until the county reaches Phase 3 of our reopening plan.  King County has been in Phase 2 since the spring.  The Governor issued updated guidance on October 6th allowing very limited public access but with stringent requirements for social distancing, symptom monitoring, and disinfecting.  For a library of our size this just isn’t feasible in terms of cost or staffing.  We haven’t had any pressure to open.  King County, as a whole, has directed all non-essential employees to work from home until January, so there is an expectation that most county operations will be remote until January at the very least.  We are currently experiencing an uptick in COVID cases in King County which also diminishes any expectation of reopening soon.  The real challenge for us has been trying to provide access to our treatise collection and subscription based resources remotely.  Karen, the last time that we talked you mentioned the possibility of using CARES Act funds to pay for remote access databases for patrons.  What ever came of that?

October 28, 2020

KW: I kind of wish that the decision was out of my hands.  As you well know, County Law Libraries have a variety of relationships and reporting structures.  In my case, I have a hands off board, but try to consider interests of the court, county administration, and the local public library with whom I have a close working relationship.  At the end of the day, though, I try to picture who we are not serving by not reopening.  To my mind attorneys and court and county personnel have the wherewithal to make use of our services even with our doors closed.  The main population we miss by staying closed is lay patrons who seek our guidance in learning and understanding the law and legal process – they often used to find us while they were in our building transacting court business.  To compensate a bit for this, we are partnering with district court to provide scheduling and technical assistance for people contesting citations.  The Hearing Office offers a Zoom option and we have made our law library conference room available for citizens who don’t have (or don’t understand) the technology for using Zoom.  We are averaging 15-20 people a week in our conference room now, and we feel good about assisting an underserved population.

But back to your question – I finally got a contract with Wolters Kluwer over the finish line.  Because I am entering an agreement for ebooks, pushed primarily because we remain closed to the public, my county budget colleague tells me that CARES Act funding will be available to help with this.  I had hoped to use CARES dollars for the full year’s subscription, but am told that I can only use it for services rendered in 2020.  But two months of help is better than nothing!  This is an unusual circumstance in which remaining closed actually got me some cash.  We had also discussed how you have purchased some ebooks from Lexis.  Was that primarily due to your remaining closed, or do you think you would have gone down that road either way?

November 4, 2020

BE: I guess the theme for 2020 is change is the only constant.  In the time that we’ve been writing back and forth Karen, I received word that the mandatory work from home order for non-essential King County employees has been extended until July 5, 2021. This directive includes all public service counters for the county.  While we have a bit of an amorphous relationship with the county, their mandates definitely impact our decision-making. We plan to remain closed for the foreseeable future, but have just started curbside subscriber borrowing and have made conference rooms available for reservations on a very limited basis.  It’s interesting to hear that you are assisting with technology for Zoom hearings.  We are partnering with civil legal aid groups to provide space in the law library assist with access to online hearings.  It is currently limited to eviction and domestic violence protection orders but may expand if there is capacity. We are still in the planning stages so I will definitely be reaching out to hear what you’ve learned about the process.

Great news the you were able to get CARES Act funding for at least a few months of your Cheetah subscription!  I’ll be interested to hear about the usage you get.  Yes, we did recently add the Lexis Digital eBook collection.  I’ve been trying to get remote access to our database subscriptions for years but to no avail. I guess it’s a COVID silver lining that we are now able to offer eBooks to our subscribers. In addition to Lexis Digital — which is limited to our subscribers, we now also have remote patron access to the National Consumer Law Center database, HeinOnline, and the Nolo Press collection from Ebsco. I’m currently working with the Washington County Law Libraries Association to secure grant funding for statewide access to the Nolo Press database.

Karen, I’m curious as to whether you have any concerns about remaining closed being used as a justification for taking space currently allocated to your library. King County is undergoing a massive shift in space allocation.  Many employees have been told that they will be working from home permanently and the King County Administration building, which historically contained essential public service counters, is being mothballed.  So far, I haven’t heard of any impacts on the Courthouse, where we are located, but I imagine they are coming– especially once the lease runs out on the off-site space that the county is renting to facilitate socially distant trials.

November 16, 2020

KW: Barbara, you raise a good question about space – similar to questions many law firms are raising about how much space and what type of space they’ll need going forward.  For social distancing we would seem to need MORE space, but for other services (more database access, etc.) less space is needed.  This question is just academic for me, though.  Our library footprint was shrunk to less than half its former space several years ago so I’m certain that the county (our landlord) will look elsewhere for more square footage before they approach us.

December 16, 2020

BE: Remember at the beginning of this whole thing we all thought we’d be closed for two weeks, Karen?  It’s laughable to imagine now.  My husband recently described time being like taffy, and as I look back on the dates of this conversation, I’m both surprised and completely nonplussed to see that we started this two months ago!  It’s also looking very likely that we won’t resume full walk-in services until July of 2021 – so the needle hasn’t moved to far on the main topic of this conversation either.  I can say that I finally understand why the phrase; “May you live in interesting times” is considered a curse.   I hope you all the best in 2021, Karen and may your new year be plain vanilla!

December 17, 2020

KW:  Indeed, Barbara!  Wishing you and everyone at King County Law Library a magnificent year in 2021, full of nothing interesting!  One day we’ll meet again at the AALL Annual Meeting and visit each other’s libraries in person.  Until then, be well!

About the authors: Barbara Engstrom is the Executive Director of the King County Library in Seattle, WA and Karen Westwood is the Director of the Hennepin County Law Library in Minneapolis, MN. 

Access to Justice Technology Spotlight: Learned Hands

By Jessica Almeida, LISP-SIS

This holiday season give back to the access to justice community by… playing a game?

What is Learned Hands?
Learned Hands, named after the well-known judge and legal philosopher Judge Learned Hand, is a crowdsourcing game that asks players to apply legal labels to real life problems taken from social media.  Learned Hands is a project of Stanford Legal Design Lab and Suffolk Law School’s Legal Innovation and Technology (LIT) Lab.  The program takes the labels associated with the real-life legal problems and creates and teaches AI models, helping technology link legal information to the people who need it most.

Bob Ambrogi does a better job explaining the game’s goal in his 2018 post. Learned Hands “use[s] crowdsourcing to train an algorithm to spot legal issues in the words that ordinary people use to describe their legal problems. The goal is to develop artificial intelligence that will more accurately recognize the area of law involved in a legal question and therefore be able to better match the questioner to the appropriate attorney or legal resource.”   

In fact, in July 2019, the Suffolk Lab received a grant from Pew Industries to take the information they gather from Learned Hands to create Spot.  Using the labels provided in Learned Hands, Spot would take a client description of a problem and show a list of possible legal issues based on National Subject Matter Index (NSMI).  This helps programmers create access to justice apps and software that easily “spot” the legal issue being discussed and send the user the correct legal information or attorney referral. 

How can you help?

Learned Hands is easy to use both on your desktop or mobile device.  Register for an account at https://learnedhands.law.stanford.edu/.  Once you are logged in, choose the area of law you want to work on, or choose mixed mode (a mix of all the areas).  A question taken from social media will appear. Read it carefully and consider the legal issues being asked about or discussed.  On the bottom of the page, a question will appear asking if a legal issue around a specific topic of law applies to the situation above.  By labeling the question, you are helping the AI learn to label these questions as well. 

Image taken from Learned Hands

The game is engrossing – you get pulled into the people’s questions, and can get absorbed in labeling them correctly.  As this is a crowdsourcing game, the labels you apply are checked against other players’ choices.  The more players that label the problem as a particular issue, the more the label is deemed correctly applied. 

For more information, visit the resources below.

Resources

About Spot. Accessed December 17, 2020. https://spot.suffolklitlab.org/.

Ambrogi, Bob. “Stanford and Suffolk Create Game to Help Drive Access to Justice.” LawSites, October 16, 2018. https://www.lawsitesblog.com/2018/10/stanford-suffolk-create-game-help-drive-access-justice.html.

Learned Hands. Accessed December 17, 2020. https://learnedhands.law.stanford.edu/.

“Online Tool Will Help ‘Spot’ Legal Issues That People Face.” Online Tool Will Help Spot Legal Issues That People Face | The Pew Charitable Trusts. Accessed December 17, 2020. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2020/02/14/online-tool-will-help-spot-legal-issues-that-people-face.

About the author:  Jessica Almeida is an Associate Librarian at the University of Massachusetts School of Law.  She is also the editor of the LISP/SR Blog.

Help Seal My Record expungement program by the Minnesota’s Attorney General’s Office

By Suzanne Peterson

Minnesota’s Attorney General, Keith Ellison, has long-term criminal justice reform goals.  One of the goals is manifested through the Attorney General’s new program to help Minnesotans seal their criminal record convictions.  The program addresses the employment, housing, and education barriers criminal records can have in people’s lives after they have fulfilled all of their legal obligations.  The website’s “Help Seal My Record” page begins with this paragraph

According to the FBI, nearly one in three adults in America has a criminal record. Long after people have atoned for the harm they caused and fulfilled their obligations to the justice system, criminal records and the collateral consequences that follow serve as barriers to jobs, housing, education and more, preventing people from serving as productive members of our community. Studies have shown very few people who are eligible to seal their records successfully apply, but among those whose records are sealed, very few commit new crimes and, on average, they experience a significant increase in wages and employment within the next two years.

The program began October 1st and by the third week of October the AG’s Office had received over 1000 applications.  The application is very basic and user friendly which is a marked difference from the actual expungement forms pro se litigants are expected to understand, fill out, and properly serve and file in order to bring their request before the Court.  The attorney in charge of the expungement program gathers the applications, requests the applicants’ criminal histories, triages according to her metrics, reaches out to the county attorneys’ offices and depending on the answer, either the prosecutor’s office takes the lead or she does, pursuant to Minn. Stat. Sec. 609A.025 (2020).  This program is offered free of charge and the applicant is not required to pay a fee to court administration. 

During a prosecutors’ meeting in October of this year, many of the prosecutors present supported the program so the enthusiasm and hope for a successful program is big.  There is a concern right now about the backlog which demonstrates the severe need for the program.  Once the program gets to the point of equilibrium, the lead attorney said the expungement program should take anywhere from 60 to 90 days from start to finish.  For more information, here’s the link to the Help Seal My Record expungement program at the Office of the Minnesota Attorney General, Keith Ellison: https://www.ag.state.mn.us/Office/Expungement.asp.

About the author: Suzanne Peterson is the Olmsted County Law Librarian.