Government Law Librarianship


Ryan Metheny

As discussed in Chapter 7, the United States is experiencing an access to justice crisis. As the cost of legal representation goes up and working-class incomes stay flat, the reality is that a growing percentage of Americans simply cannot afford to hire an attorney when they need one. The number of people without access to an attorney is so great that legal aid organizations can assist only a fraction of those in need due to limited resources and statutory or other rules limiting whom they can assist and what types of cases they can take. The resulting gap in access to justice is enormous, and law libraries are one of the few resources available to address the problem.

Key Concepts
  • Public programs held at law libraries expand access to justice in several ways that build upon and complement traditional library services, helping to maximize the impact of law libraries as they expand access to justice.
  • There are pros and cons to consider when choosing a program model.
  • Program data and feedback will allow the library to assess the success of each program and improve them in future.

The traditional services that law libraries provide – collection development, making informational resources available in print and online, providing reference service – all greatly help address the access to justice crisis, especially when these services are honed and modified to serve those without legal training. In this chapter, you will learn how public programs like classes, clinics, and workshops, when held at law libraries, can go even further in helping to ensure access to justice.

Public programs that serve the self-represented litigant, and others dealing with legal issues, build upon traditional law library services, complement them, and help reach and serve new patron groups.i Classes on legal topics, workshops to fill out and complete legal documents, clinics where those in need can receive direct assistance from legal professionals, and the other types of programs to be discussed in this chapter all work to expand access to justice substantially. Many of the people served by these programs may otherwise be effectively locked out of the court system or otherwise denied their legal rights entirely.

Why Programs? Benefits for Libraries, Patrons, & Communities

Public Programs Expand Access to Justice

Public programs held at law libraries expand access to justice in several ways that build upon and complement traditional library services, helping to maximize the impact of law libraries as they expand access to justice. For example, classes, clinics, and workshops can serve patrons with limited literacy skills, time, or patience to teach themselves the law using law library resources. Classes provide in-person instruction to help patrons synthesize information verbally, in person, through human interaction with an instructor. This can provide value for many patrons above and beyond mere access to a book or other library resource. Clinics and workshops, meanwhile, provide direct assistance to those who otherwise may not want, or be able, to teach themselves.

Classes, clinics, and workshops also serve to direct patrons to the traditional library resources they need (but may not know they need). For example, class instructors may provide basic information on a topic and then direct patrons to a practice guide or other library resource for more detailed guidance. Or, volunteer attorneys at a clinic may identify the appropriate form for a patron’s legal issue and direct them to the reference desk for assistance in retrieving it.

Public programs also raise the general profile of the law library in the community. A clinic where people can get help or a class where they receive instruction – whether that program is delivered in person at the library or remotely using library resources – can drive traffic to the library and allow the library to assist more patrons and have a greater impact. Even if a person does not attend a program, simply seeing the flyer or other information about a library program raises awareness of the library; they may remember the law library and the fact that it exists, the next time they or a friend or loved one experience a legal issue.

Law Libraries Serve as Ideal Locations for Public Programs

One objection that could be raised to law libraries serving as the venue for programs is: why the law library? Why not, say, the courthouse, or the offices of a legal aid agency, or any other feasible location? In fact, a public law library often provides the ideal location for classes, clinics, and workshops on legal topics, for several reasons. First, public law libraries are usually located near a metro area’s downtown and, therefore, offer a convenient, central location. Second, the law library can offer a more relaxed, casual, and welcoming space than the courthouse, which has stringent security requirements like metal detectors and is often busy, crowded, and generally a stressful place to be. Meanwhile, a legal aid office rarely admits large numbers of clients on-site and may not have the necessary space to hold a public program (which can also be a problem at the courthouse).

Perhaps most importantly, however, the law library provides access to virtually all of the resources that self-represented litigants and others with a legal issue may need to take the next step to resolve their issue after the program concludes. The law library has publicly accessible computers, wi-fi, printing, and free access to the print and electronic resources needed to do legal research, find forms and templates, draft documents, and even file papers online. On top of all this, if a person needs assistance, they can consult an extremely knowledgeable and helpful reference librarian available on-site. No other space in the ecosystem of organizations that serve those with legal needs offers such a comprehensive suite of resources. The law library is like a court self-help center, internet cafe, Kinko’s, and community meeting room all in one – while also offering free access to Westlaw, practice guides, and other invaluable legal research sources. Additionally, unlike programs held at other locations like general public libraries, law offices, or community rooms, the resources needed to address future legal issues remain available at the law library. Other locations offer little or nothing of value for those experiencing legal issues once the particular clinic or class concludes. On the other hand, the law library offers a stable, accessible resource, both for that particular patron who attends the event and for that person’s friends, neighbors, loved ones, and anyone else whom they tell about the library’s resources.

The law library effectively serves as a central hub in the legal system: the only place someone can go for help with any type of legal issue, take the next step in their legal journey, and get help with any future legal issues they or others in their network experience. If one wants to hold a public program to help people with their legal problems, it is hard to imagine a better location than a public law library.

Public Programs Build Stronger Communities

More broadly, public programs also help to build stronger communities in myriad ways. Contrary to the stereotype of the “shushing librarian” and the library’s image as a place solely for quiet study, libraries nowadays serve as unique and vital gathering spaces. Libraries now serve as shared community spaces animated by the ethos that everyone should have access to information and a safe, neutral, and supportive space to obtain it. Neighborhood public libraries (non-law libraries) have long embraced this role. Your local library likely hosts reading time for children, book discussions for all ages, resume writing workshops for job seekers, English as a Second Language classes, makerspaces where patrons can create physical or intellectual materials using library resources, as well as other, sundry classes and events. Public libraries have clearly evolved beyond just being places for everyone to access books (although that role is still vital!). Specific patron groups, the community at large, and the library itself benefit when the library invests in turning itself into a shared, collaborative, and interactive space. Public law libraries, too, are starting to embrace this new vision of the library’s purpose by introducing public programs.

But the broader benefits of holding public programs find support not just in the anecdotal experience of librarians – empirical studies supported by social science also show the value of public programs held in libraries. For example, sociologists use a “social capital” metric to measure the number and strength of social bonds in a community. The amount of social capital held in a community or nation as a whole predicts many positive outcomes: social tolerance, economic growth, democratic stability, and even optimism about the future.ii How do communities create this vital resource called social capital? Well-functioning, fair, and neutral community-based institutions play the biggest role, including law enforcement, the courts, civil service, and—yes, you guessed it—libraries!iii Public programming at libraries forms a major part of libraries’ role in creating social capital in communities. Programming draws people into the library, which builds social connections and increases trust across a community. In fact, to take one particularly dramatic example, the presence of a library, with all its various programs and services, can even predict how well a given community recovers from a natural disaster.iv The social bonds formed across a community in a place like the library – a place where everyone can gather and interact safely and receive equal service, regardless of income, race, or creed – have real, demonstrable, and sometimes rather incredible value.

Where do law libraries, specifically, fit in this picture? Arguably, a public law library serves an even bigger role in creating social capital than a general public library.v The law library serves many of the same functions as a general library, like being open to all and providing neutral service. In addition, however – unlike a general library – the law library also supports the administration of the law through the courts and provides public access to information about the law, both of which help maintain and expand faith in “the system” and in the democratic institutions that help generate social capital. Public programs that draw more people into the law library, and multiply the impact of the law library’s work to expand access to justice, will only serve to strengthen communities and the country as a whole.

Law Library Programs: Models & Examples

Classes and Education

Government law libraries have innovated many different programs, which can be broken down into a few broad categories. Informational classes that deliver educational content – without providing direct service – constitute one important category. In general, whether taught by a librarian or an outside speaker, such classes aim to synthesize and convey legal information to a group of students (library patrons) on a specific topic. Effective and engaging classes feature usually feature a typical lecture component, but also include live demonstrations and practicum elements like group activities or short assignments with feedback from the instructor.  Instructors usually also provide written handouts for students to refer back to what they learned and resource lists to help them access additional information and assistance on their topic. The particular mix of different instructional elements depends on what is appropriate to the topic and the target patron audience.

One traditional type of public law library class is the legal research practicum, in which a librarian explains and demonstrates the use of a resource like Westlaw or Lexis. Then, the librarian provides feedback and answers questions as students complete prepared exercises and/or attempt to do their own research. (This type of class can be a good first entry for a library into the world of programming since the topics generally lie within every  law librarian’s wheelhouse of knowledge, and no outside speaker is necessary.)

As the access to justice crisis becomes more acute, another increasingly popular class at public law libraries is the overview of court procedure, in which either a librarian or an outside speaker (usually an attorney or judge) explains procedural basics for a given type of case in a given court jurisdiction. Because of the complexity of civil procedure, classes often focus on relatively narrow topics, like preparing and filing a civil complaint in state court, preparing a probate petition, or representing yourself at a civil trial. Course material is typically quite detailed, and will include templates, forms, and instructions, along with citations to other resources like practice guides for additional information and assistance.

Patrons also benefit from lectures summarizing one’s substantive rights and responsibilities in a certain legal area. Often called a “Know Your Rights” or “consumer law” class, topics for such classes can include your rights in the workplace, various aspects of landlord-tenant law, debtor-creditor law or consumer bankruptcy, various civil rights topics, dealing with traffic citations, and many other types of everyday legal issues. Resource lists with information about where patrons can turn for additional assistance are especially valuable for this type of class.

Public law libraries have also long held Continuing Legal Education (CLE) courses. These courses are usually geared toward attorneys but can also aim to serve other professionals who need continuing education covering legal topics, such as paralegals, court interpreters, or business owners. Topics can include any legal subject that professionals would benefit from training, updates, best practices, or refreshers. Serving as a provider for CLE involves registration with (and fees paid to) the local State Bar. Still, this cost is typically outweighed by registration fees and the benefits of keeping attorneys and other professionals engaged with the law library.

Generally, however, public law library classes tend to be free or low-cost to encourage attendance and maximize patron use of the library. However, the staff time and other resources involved in developing, organizing, and teaching such programs can be significant, especially for smaller or more poorly funded libraries. Even if the potential payoff in increased exposure, traffic, and expanded service to patrons is also great, securing resources can be difficult. Sometimes, an outside organization, often the same organization providing the speaker, will donate funding via the library’s “friends of the library” nonprofit to help defray the library’s costs of putting on the program. (Legal restrictions typically prevent government agencies, like public law libraries, from directly accepting donations.)

One important guideline law libraries must always keep in mind is the line between legal information and legal advice. In providing any class on a legal topic, the instructor must be careful not to provide legal advice since the law library and law librarians should not, and cannot, practice law. Generally, law librarians apply the same care not to give advice when teaching classes that they do at the reference desk, and outside presenters must also be cautioned not to give advice. Any material advertising the class should clarify that the information provided in the class is general and educational in nature and not meant to advise anyone on how they should proceed with their particular legal issue. Self-represented litigants and others with legal issues often have particular questions tied to their own situation. Instructors frequently find themselves redirect a student’s question to the material covered in the class, tell the student that they can ask for more specific guidance at a legal clinic or elsewhere, or tell the student they can receive more assistance researching their matter after the class at the reference desk.

Clinics and Workshops

Another important category of public program provided by law libraries is the legal clinic or workshop, where patrons receive direct assistance from an attorney or other legal professional with their legal matter. They vary in size from individualized, one-on-one consultations to larger group workshops and similarly vary in format from oral consultations sitting at a table to document preparation workshops where each patron works at a computer. These programs have obvious value in light of the access to justice crisis and often prove quite popular. Unlike educational programming – the content for which is developed, at least in part, and often delivered by librarians – clinics and workshops necessarily involve third-party providers, such as legal aid organizations, bar associations, or individual volunteers. This requires developing a partnership with the third party, as discussed further below.

Perhaps the most popular – and resource-intensive – type of clinic or workshop is the all-comers legal clinic, often billed as a “Lawyers in the Library” event. A team of volunteer attorneys commits a block of time to provide free, limited-time consultations to anyone with a legal question or problem. Ideally, the makeup of the panel of volunteers covers all of the common types of legal issues people face: family law, probate, landlord-tenant, employment, conservatorships and guardianships, immigration, debt/bankruptcy, and the like. Participating patrons are processed beforehand, either on-site or remotely, and assigned to an appropriate attorney based on the nature of their legal issue.

Given the demand for Lawyers in the Library clinics, some law libraries also host and organize smaller, subject-specific legal clinics. These are organized along essentially the same lines as a general “Lawyers in the Library” clinic but limited by topic – for example, a landlord-tenant clinic or a debt and bankruptcy clinic. However, one major challenge of such narrow clinics is funneling patrons with the right type of legal issue to the right clinic. Generally, self-represented litigants and others have little ability to correctly assess the broad subject matter of their own legal issue: a person with a breach of contract issue may tell library staff she has a family law issue because the other contract signatory is her brother. Such misunderstandings on the part of the layperson are quite common, and one reason why all-comer Lawyers in the Library events remain especially valuable.

However, workshops at which patrons receive assistance completing specific legal forms or other documents to file with the court necessarily must cover narrow topics. Typically, such a workshop is also limited to a relatively small number of patrons so that they can receive adequate assistance from an attorney or a paralegal or law student working under the supervision of an attorney, to complete their paperwork. Topics for such workshops include record expungement, name change, conservatorship, asylum petitions, and other limited, high need subject areas where the self-represented can complete the necessary forms with assistance and succeed. Getting patrons with an appropriate need into the appropriate workshop often involves intake by library or third-party staff, but generally, this intake is less challenging for these workshops since patrons already know the specific type of form with which they need assistance. In practice, these workshops often also include a large instructional component in addition to the hands-on assistance provided.

Libraries that host third-party provider clinics and workshops undertake certain risk management practices. As noted, law libraries may not undertake the practice of law, nor can they show favoritism in referring patrons to specific for-profit practitioners or providers. This means, among other things, that clinics and workshops are always offered at no cost to patrons. For most events, it must be clear to patrons that the third-party provider is furnishing the service and not the library. The library may require that the provider have malpractice insurance. For Lawyers in the Library events, where individual attorney volunteers often provide the consultations rather than specific organizations, the library may also wish to make clear to the volunteer that no lawyer-client relationships can be formed at the library, and, certainly, no money can change hands in the library. However, the lawyer and patron may follow up with each other after the clinic, should they choose.

Special Events

Many other types of programs can benefit a library’s patrons and the library as an institution. Such programs include

panel discussions on legal “hot topics” drawn from recent headlines. A program like this convenes a group of experts – legal practitioners, law professors, policymakers, representatives from advocacy groups – to discuss a topic of broad interest to the public. For example, a panel on the problem “gerrymandering” (i.e., drawing legislative districts to benefit a certain political party) might address the effects of the practice and whether it should be of concern; whether it violates any provision of the Constitution; and, what can be done and has been done to reform how legislative districts are drawn. After the panelists discuss the topic, the audience can ask questions, resulting in a lively discussion.

Social gatherings at the law library can also have value for the library and the community. Law libraries often host an event with music, food, and drink to celebrate particular legal-themed holidays like Constitution Day, Law Day, or other occasions. Such events can raise awareness of the law library and give a chance for library patrons to gather and connect with each other, staff, and the legal community, with all the social capital-building positive effects discussed above.

Lastly, private, third-party programs can be held at law libraries, too. Event space can be hard to come by, and a library can serve as a quirky, fun location and a convenient one for many outside groups. Third-party events can provide revenue (space rental fees) for the library. Assuming the third party has a connection to the legal industry or the law – like a bar association or law firm – the event can also help raise awareness of library services. At such events, the library may wish to provide introductory remarks introducing the library’s services and resources and/or provide written material and flyers.

Program Development, Creation, & Execution

Development: Identifying Need, Brainstorming Solution

In order for a program to have maximum impact and be successful, it should be tailored to an actual legal need experienced by people in the library’s community. Given the nationwide access to justice crisis, there is no shortage of potential topics. Library staff discusses program ideas, both internally and externally, as they brainstorm. Reference librarians likely have a sense of particular subjects that would benefit the library’s patrons. Detailed reference statistics that break down patron questions by topic will also prove valuable if these are kept. Court staff, legal aid providers, local government agencies, and practitioners with whom the library has contact can also serve as great sources of ideas for particular classes, clinics, or workshops that could be of value to the community. (In fact, an outside organization may already have a particular program in development, or already up-and-running, and simply need a venue.)

As staff hone in on an idea for a program, they may consider several factors:

  • How big is the local population that experiences the particular legal need the program will address? How many people could benefit?
  • What options do people who experience this legal need have for getting assistance? For example, many people have personal injury claims. However, this population is generally well-served by plaintiffs’ attorneys, who can take cases on a contingency basis. A library program on this subject might not address an urgent access to justice need or be successful.
  • To what extent would a library program assist with the legal need? Would a class, workshop, or short consultation with a volunteer attorney provide sufficient assistance for the patron to take the next step and feel that they have been helped?
  • Can the library feasibly create a program to address the need? Is there either someone on staff or an outside partner who can develop the content?
  • What type of program would best address the need? Class? Clinic? Workshop? Are other organizations already addressing the need?
  • Can the library reach the population experiencing the need? How will people learn about the program? Will people experiencing the need be able to attend a program at the library?

Creation: Partnership or ‘Homegrown’ Program? On-site or Online?

Once library staff decides to move forward with a program, the process of actually creating and piloting the program presents many choices and challenges. For example, if a class will address the need, to what extent do library staff have the knowledge necessary to create the program? If an in-house or homegrown program is not feasible, is there a third-party instructor willing to develop and deliver the content? Can staff and outside instructors collaborate with the content developed jointly and outside instructor teaching? Or, if a clinic or workshop best addresses the need, who will the third-party provider be? Does the library have a relationship with them already? If not, how do you recruit the organization or volunteer to provide the service?

Advantages and disadvantages abound for every choice to be made along the way. For example, if staff can develop and teach a class without an outside presenter, the library will have sole responsibility for the quality and accuracy of the content. This entails a large time commitment and, potentially, a drain on staff resources that could be employed elsewhere. On the other hand, developing librarian expertise in particular subject areas can pay off in the quality of service at the reference desk – the librarian who teaches a class on enforcing judgments will be able to quickly hone in on the exact need of a patron experiencing an issue in this area, and point them directly to the resource needed. Cross-training can also occur with in-house classes, in which one librarian may develop the content and other librarians also learn it sufficiently to teach the class, thus improving the level of knowledge across the reference staff.

Partnering with outside organizations, similarly, comes with advantages and disadvantages. First, developing relationships with the third-party provider entails an investment of staff time that can sometimes rival the amount of time needed for staff to develop and deliver content themselves. However, the relationship, once formed, can pay off for the library in many ways: the outside organization will be familiarized with the value of the library, and their comfort level in referring patrons to the library will be increased; the relationship can also help create an ally for the library, someone who will confirm the library’s value to important stakeholders; and, the continued relationship can lead to the development of new, valuable programs down the road.

How do librarians form these partnerships and recruit speakers? As discussed above, the advantages of the law library as a venue are many – it really is an ideal location for many programs. Once staff become used to explaining this and advocating for the library, the role can become quite natural: the library’s value is almost self-evident. When recruiting individual instructors, library staff can also emphasize the business development aspect of doing public speaking and increasing one’s visibility as a leader in a particular field. This is something many lawyers are interested in doing and value. Attorney volunteers at clinics, meanwhile, benefit from logging pro bono service hours (a requirement or recommendation of many State Bar organizations), giving back to the community, and, in the case of younger attorneys, getting invaluable experience interviewing, issue spotting, and providing legal guidance to clients in real-time.


In 2014, LA Law Library staff began to explore the development of programs that might appeal to new patron groups outside of the library’s established audience of attorneys and self-represented litigants. Business owners and entrepreneurs represented one possibility: a large segment of the population facing a legally complex problem (starting or running a business). Library staff first reached out to established partners who served the business community to brainstorm possible program ideas; these discussions led to other contacts at other organizations. As staff began to put together a roster of possible program topics to benefit business owners, momentum began to build, and more potential speakers and organizations wanted to get involved. The library had happened upon a service model that did not yet exist in the Los Angeles area: a recurring series of classes for new and prospective business owners on legal and financial topics, a single resource to give comprehensive information on all the complex subjects they “didn’t know they needed to know.” The library and its nonprofit Friends organization were even able to secure sponsorship funding from a local bank that focuses on serving the business community to help defray the costs of putting on the classes. Beginning in 2015, LA Law Library has offered its Business Series twice yearly, a 14-session series of classes and workshops on topics like business organizations, business modeling, branding and marketing, intellectual property, business contracts, and more. Attendance has averaged close to 30 people per session for on-site classes, and the library was awarded an official commendation from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for its work in organizing and maintaining the program.

Once library staff settle how the content will be developed and who will deliver it, the library also may take into account a final consideration: is this program in-person or online, or both? In-person programs bring people physically into the library, where they can experience firsthand the value of the library’s resources, interact face-to-face with library staff and partners, and access all of the services the library offers – many of which, of course, can only be accessed on-site. On the other hand, coming to the library in person is not always practical for patrons, and sometimes – as the COVID-19 pandemic underlined – in-person events are not even possible. In that case, delivering the program remotely, through Zoom or other means, may be the only option. Remotely provided programs come with other advantages, as well. For example, they can be recorded and posted to the library’s website or social media for patrons to view asynchronously, providing a valuable resource into the future. In addition, online programs present a higher ceiling of possible attendance for library programs: literally anyone in the world with internet access can participate. On the other hand, the digital divide remains real, and many who might benefit from the program may not possess sufficient digital literacy or access to attend.

Execution: Promote, Deliver, Maintain & Improve

Once the program is developed, with the content finalized, the instructor committed, and a date and time set, the program still has to be executed. What does this entail? First, the program must be promoted so that patrons who might benefit can learn about the class, clinic, or workshop and choose to attend. There are a variety of ways to do this. Event promotion is a large topic that cannot be summarized in detail here, but generally, a flyer should be created, which can be distributed in print or electronically, along with a webpage where people can sign up to attend. Flyers can be distributed at courthouses, through partners like legal aid organizations and other government agencies, and – perhaps most helpfully – through local public libraries. Events can also be posted on free or low-cost online event calendars such as Eventbrite. Law libraries can set up and maintain an email list, as well, to periodically promote events and other services directly. The email list will grow with time as more patrons sign up for events.


Library stakeholders want to be kept apprised of the results and successes of programming efforts, and library staff wants to show a payoff from the resources devoted to programming. How is this information reported out to governing boards, court administrators, elected officials, and others? The law library will likely keep detailed statistics on program attendance and number and types of programs. Total numbers, trends in attendance, and the successful development of new programs can all be underlined in board reports and other communications. Patron testimonials also provide an important form of qualitative, narrative feedback to express the value of library programming efforts. One story from a patron about how their legal situation seemed hopeless until they spoke to an attorney volunteer at Lawyers in the Library, or attended a class that explained to them what they needed to do next, can have an impact much greater than the raw statistical report of X number of people received assistance at a program during Y time period. The real-life narrative can give emotional heft to the reporting of carefully gathered and presented statistics.

The library should consider carefully, and well in advance, what resources will be needed to deliver the program. Which space in the library will be used? What are the IT needs for the program (e.g., PowerPoint, online demonstrations, AV with audio)? What style of seating should be used (a classroom set up with tables to take notes, or theater-style to maximize seating capacity)? How will any handouts be distributed (electronically via email, or via a web link, or in print, or some combination)? How will attendees learn about the other library resources available to them – will a staff member introduce the speaker and the library? Will attendees receive any other handouts about library resources? How will attendance be counted and tracked? How will the library express its appreciation to an outside speaker or provider for lending their time and expertise?

Feedback should also be gathered, both from attendees and the speaker or service provider. Attendance, or lack thereof, is one important form of feedback. An evaluation form can be used to gather comments and ratings, and more informal feedback can be gathered and logged. All of this will allow library staff to continue to improve a program’s content (whether in-house or in partnership with an outside speaker/provider). It will also allow the library to make decisions such as: whether how often the program should recur; whether to expand the program’s scope or break it down into smaller sub-topics to be covered in separate sessions; and whether to discontinue, or not repeat, a given program.

  • American Association of Law Libraries. 2014. “Law Libraries and Access to Justice: A Report of the American Association of Law Libraries Special Committee on Access to Justice.” 21-32.
  • Metheny, Ryan. 2017. “Improving Lives by Building Social Capital: A New Way to Frame the Work of Law Libraries.” Law Library Journal 109, no. 4: 631.


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Introduction to Law Librarianship Copyright © 2021 by Ryan Metheny is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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