Baltimore County Library Takes Lawyers on the Road

When Baltimore County Public Libraries (BCPL) implemented its successful Lawyers in the Library program at its Essex branch in 2016, it was a way to offer legal help to those in need who didn’t have the means to hire a lawyer on their own. However, library staff began to realize that there was more that could be done. So the library and Maryland Legal Aid decided to create the Mobile Library Law Center.

van with When Baltimore County Public Libraries (BCPL) implemented its successful Lawyers in the Library program at its Essex branch in 2016, it was a way to offer legal help to those in need who didn’t have the means to hire a lawyer on their own. “We’ve had a lot of success with Lawyers in the Library,” said Julie Brophy, BCPL’s adult and community engagement manager. “It’s a hugely important program, and great work is being done. Everything from expungement to family law to evictions. We also partner with St. Ambrose Housing for programs on wills and estates.”

However, Brophy and other library staff began to realize that there was more that could be done. “Baltimore County is large and diverse, with 19 branches,” said Julie Saxenmeyer, director of development for the BCPL Foundation. “The community demographically runs the gamut, and there are a lot of immigrants. We realized that the Lawyer in the Library program was great for those who could come to the library. But that was the problem—people had to come to the library. We saw a need to get out into the community, get into areas with senior communities and immigrants.”

Amy Petkovsek, director of advocacy for training and pro bono work with Maryland Legal Aid, agreed. “It’s hard for low-income people to come to centralized offices,” she said. “They might need child care, have to take three buses, need time off from work.” Part of the challenge is that Baltimore County itself is a difficult piece of acreage to work within. “Baltimore County is not really rural, and it’s not urban. It’s more suburban, spread out enough that it’s hard for low-income people to get across easily.”

So more than two years ago, the library and Maryland Legal Aid came up with a solution. “We realized we could take lawyers to them, whether it was churches, libraries, even laundromats,” said Petkovsek. They also realized that libraries were already a good match after the success of Lawyers in Libraries. Together they decided to create the Mobile Library Law Center. It would take lawyers and librarians out into the community to reach those people for whom library access was a difficult obstacle to overcome. It was a collaboration in which both parties had much to contribute; Maryland Legal Aid could provide the lawyers, who are on salary with Legal Aid, at no cost to the library, while BCPL already had experience with mobile outreach.

“We have a mobile engagement department, and we have a long history of mobile library services,” said Saxenmeyer. “We needed to add a vehicle for the legal program. But in terms of maintenance, the county has a garage that handles vehicle maintenance.” Existing library staff will work with the lawyers, so no additional staff will be needed, at least initially. That also allows the library to send some of its own services, such as collection materials or library card sign-up forms, along with the lawyers.

“We saw it as a way of bringing lawyers with great expertise paired with libraries, which are trusted entities in the community,” said Brophy. “We initially applied for a grant. This was pre-COVID. But even then, there was absolutely a need to address legal issues. People can move forward in their lives, but sometimes they just need that help to do so.”

Funding has nearly reached the $160,000 goal needed to get the mobile unit on the road. “We’re very close to completing the funding,” Saxenmeyer said. “There have been grants, but most has come from the legal community. They can see how this will meet great needs in our community.” Entities that donated include the American Bar Endowment, the Maryland Bar Foundation, and Maryland Legal Services Corporation.



The mobile unit will be different than the standard bookmobiles. “The new vehicle is a large minivan which is being customized to have a private meeting room in the back where the lawyer can meet with clients,” said Brophy. “There will be an area with seating for people waiting. The driver and passenger seats will swivel with a tray table behind them, so that can be a work area too. There will be an awning, so work can be done outdoors when the weather allows.” The plan is to use the outdoor space as much as possible during COVID, which allows for more distancing, along with masks.

The mobile unit will focus on urgent legal matters, such as eviction. Less pressing issues, including drawing up wills, will be periodically offered through virtual educational programming. Most legal documents in Maryland don’t require a notary, but for those that do, some of the county’s library branches have notary services (but not during the pandemic). There are also monthly programs with Maryland Legal Aid via Zoom and Facebook Live.

Initially, she thinks the mobile unit will go out two days a week, dependent on the availability of lawyers and library staff. Petkovsek said that the Maryland Legal Aid staff were incredibly excited about the opportunity. “They’ve made lists of where we can go: Homeless shelters, food pantry, Department of Social Services, schools in low-income areas where parents go with their children.”

The original goal was to have the unit up and running by late 2020, but as with so many things, the pandemic interfered in an unexpected way. “It turns out the parts we needed to customize the minivan come from RV servicers,” said Brophy. “Given the huge demand for RVs during COVID, our work fell a bit behind.” Plans are still being finalized for how to provide confidential services to clients. The private office space in the van is one way to accomplish that, as well as setting appointments. Working around the pandemic will require some flexibility in finding suitable private spaces or semi-private areas out of earshot of others.

Petkovsek noted that getting out in the first part of 2021 will still be valuable. “The silver lining of the pandemic is that we can’t reach people in most of those places now, but with the mobile unit, we can send masked librarians and lawyers out to park by housing complexes where someone’s about to be evicted.”

All involved are excited to be able to offer these kinds of service at the point of need, and they want to help others consider the possibility. “We also hope to provide the framework for other libraries around the country,” said Saxenmeyer. “Libraries are great about sharing program ideas and tips.”

Even before launch, plans for expansion are being discussed. “Eventually we’ll want to work with other partners in the community, faith and civic organizations that have similar needs,” said Brophy. “We’re 100 percent sure this is needed and will be well-used.” And it could open the door to other needed services going mobile. “We’ve also gotten a separate grant to bring a social worker into the library. Eventually I’d like to send the social worker out with the lawyer. Legal issues don’t exist in a vacuum.”

Even with all the nitty-gritty details being worked on, Brophy sees the bigger picture. “It’s odd to think this all started before the pandemic. It’s so much about bringing the library’s services to customers where they are. It’s also important work around equity—there may be people who don’t know the library has these services available, that they’re free to use. It will help us get those messages out.”

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Linda Gray

What an amazing program. I shared with my daughter, a future lawyer. Programs like this make me proud to be a librarian!

Posted : Jan 26, 2021 04:16



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