“Lawyer in the Library” program in Vallejo, CA


Article from the Vallejo Times-Herald describes the popular “Lawyer in the Library” program to help patrons handle their own legal problems:

The legal system is a baffling process for most, even before they walk through the front courthouse doors.For those with limited finances, resources can be thin locally — which is why attorneys here and nationally have tried to fill the gap between government-funded, legal-aid programs and those in need.

“Legal aid in this country has been emaciated,” Solano County Superior Court Judge Paul Beeman said. “If they don’t have legal aid and they don’t have money, they’re going to lose. It’s a terrible thing when you think about all the wealth and resources in this nation.”

In Vallejo, the Lawyer in the Library program, started by former Vallejo librarian Michael Senturia with help from Beeman, has provided free one-time legal advice and referrals for the past 13 years.

“Everybody thought it was a good idea from the beginning, but once it got started, it knocked your socks off because peoplemassively appreciated the help,” Beeman said. “For most lawyers, it was real simple advice that gave direction … and they were genuinely appreciative.”

The service, offered at the John F. Kennedy Library, is in high demand. At least 25 residents often settle into chairs lining a library lobby at least an hour before the twice-monthly events — and that’s just in hopes of signing up.

Vallejo resident Tom Boruta said at one session, he was surprised to learn he would have only up to 20 minutes with an attorney.

“What I want him to explain, there’s no way

he can do it in 20 minutes,” Boruta said.Nearby, Jaime Valle was a third-time visitor to the program. He said his questions had previously taken about 12 minutes to answer. Valle added that he could not imagine how much an attorney would charge for the same service.

The local program’s attorneys are often hit with questions that run the gamut of legal specialties, said Nancy Atkins, the reference librarian who now leads the program. She said she tells participants that the attorneys are only theirs for the length of the appointment.

“We are a beginning for people who need legal services … It does happen that problems are solved,” Atkins said.

Vallejo criminal law attorney Amy Morton said she volunteered regularly for the program until about four years ago.

“The bureaucracy is really hard, and they don’t know who to turn to,” Morton said. “I can’t even imagine what the lines must look like now.”

Morton said one difficulty for her was answering civil law-related questions, like landlord/tenant disputes, disability issues and divorce law — specialties she does not practice.

“I’m not trying to pass the buck, but if more civil attorneys in the area would donate one day every six months, it would help out tremendously,” Morton said.

The Vallejo office of federally funded Legal Services of Northern California serves as the more in-depth version of Lawyer in the Library. That office is restricted in whom it serves and for what issues, and is staffed by only two full-time attorneys for the entire county, Managing Attorney Bob Stalker said.

Stalker said the number of eligible applicants have increased in the past year, as local unemployment and foreclosure rates have risen. Attorneys’ pro bono work and the Lawyer in the Library program help — but are only a “drop in the bucket” compared to the need, he said.

“A lot of times, the majority of people that need legal assistance are just not going to get help,” Stalker said. “A lot of what our office does is give advice, resource material, self-help material. It’s really kind of a triage approach — we’re like a legal emergency room.”

Contact staff writer Jessica A. York at (707) 553-6834 or   -->

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