Mar 29, 2017
It's easier than you think: attorney Tim Nardell on volunteering for Lawyers in the Library
Mar 29, 2017
By Lawrence A. Strick
In just the four months since its inception, the Lawyers in the Library program (“LIL”) has served 119 members of the Marin community. Twenty-four (24) attorneys have volunteered (a number of them multiple times) to help participants with help on their legal matters. LIL's continued success is predicated upon the continued participation of generous MCBA attorney members. The program needs your help with a mere two hours of your time on Thursday afternoons (4:30 to 6:30). To provide more insight into the experience, MCBA Board Member J. Timothy (“Tim”) Nardell shares his experience volunteering.
How would you describe the program to potential attorney volunteers?
Well, the closest parallel in Marin County that I know is the Law Day clinics that Marin Legal Aid used to run one or two times a year. The Lawyers in the Library program now runs every other Thursday afternoon. Anyone who is interested in speaking to a lawyer about a legal problem can sign up at the Marin County Law Library for a free appointment. There are no subject matter or income level restrictions.
Four lawyer volunteers sign up to provide four 20-minute consultations to help the “patrons,” without creating an attorney-client relationship. Some problems can be talked through or explained in that short time, but the outcome of the consultation is typically to refer the patrons to resources in the law library, on the internet, or to make an appropriate legal referral. For tricky problems, the volunteers can also consult with each other to brainstorm how to point a patron in the right direction.
What was most impressive and surprising to me was how many people in the community have discovered the Lawyers in the Library program in just a few months. On the day that I volunteered in early March there were close to 20 people waiting to meet us. I’ve frankly never seen the law library so crowded.
The library staff were super helpful in working with the lawyer volunteers to get copies of documents, printouts from the internet, and helping the patrons find what they need in practice guides and other resources. The law library itself has been nicely remodeled in the past couple years. It was great to see people outside the legal community using it and working directly with library staff to find legal resources.
Tell us about the type of problems that the participants brought to you.
The patrons I spoke to all had real legal problems. Since my Spanish is pretty good, I focused on working with the handful of Spanish speakers. One participant had an active case pending in Marin against a municipality and wanted to understand how the modest means mediation program worked, and how to access information about the case from the court website. Another had a personal injury case and was having trouble getting information about the case from her attorney (someone out of county).
One was an employer looking for advice about how to deal with potentially having to lay off employees if her business wasn’t doing well. Another was a family with landlord-tenant problems. At the end of session, I met with an English-speaking fifth patron, who was still waiting. She was a homeowner who had boundary issues: as tricky, complicated, and interesting as anything I’ve heard about while practicing law in Marin.
I have heard that potential volunteers are concerned they may not have the expertise to handle the participant inquiries. Did you feel you had adequate knowledge to respond to the participants’ questions?
I think the important thing to remember is that while none of us are experts in everything, we are all experts in listening to people’s problems, knowing what the legal system can and can’t do, and reading legalese. We also all know other lawyers who have more subject matter expertise than we do. We’ve all been to law school.
Most of us get calls from family, friends, neighbors, and friends of friends of friends looking for advice or just to talk through a legal problem. Usually, we can’t take the case, but (speaking for myself at least) I find I usually can at least point the person in some direction so that the call is not a waste of time. For me, I realized when I was participating in the Lawyers in the Library program that there are many, many people who don’t have any lawyers in their circle of friends and family whom they can consult with. These are people in the Marin community that probably none of the members of the MCBA (and none of the readers of this newsletter) know. They are grateful for any legal help they can get.
What advice would you provide attorney volunteers preparing to participate in the program?
Just Do It. It’s only a two-hour commitment; two and a half if you count the half-hour training. There’s no future obligation to work with the patrons, so there’s no worry that volunteering will take you away from your existing, paying clients or impact your practice. I think volunteers will find the two hours go very fast, and you’ll get the good feeling that comes with knowing you’ve done something real to help someone you don’t know. It was also fun to talk to and get to know the other volunteers.
Please join Tim and our other volunteers to help. Sign up below.