Joan Bellistri has been a librarian at the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Public Law Library for 30 years, helping clerks, associates, partners and the public research their legal questions. She is now the Director of the Law Library, and the founder of "Ask a Lawyer in the Library", a clinic program that has netted her a nomination for a 2010 Pro Bono Service Award and a spot on the Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Service.
Bellistri started "Ask a Lawyer in the Library" to both provide opportunities for local attorneys to volunteer and to assist members of the public who would come to the law library at the courthouse looking for answers outside of family law – an area in which the courthouse had already established a clinic for pro se assistance.
The basic concept was that, for two hours, an attorney would be available at 20-minute intervals to consult with a client on almost any type of legal question outside of family law. Bellistri says that she was inspired by a similar clinic program started in Washoe County, Nevada, which had been successful enough to garner some attention from the American Association of Law Libraries. Last year, for Legal Aid's Law Day on April 29, she organized a pilot clinic to try out the idea in her own library.
The Law Day experiment went so well that Bellistri worked on organizing the program and identifying attorneys who were willing to donate regular hours on a monthly basis. As a result of these efforts (and their success), she was able to set up a blueprint for a regularly scheduled monthly clinic, which officially kicked off during the American Bar Association's National Pro Bono Week in October 2009.
concept was that for two hours, an attorney would be available at 20 minute intervals to consult with a client on almost any type of legal question outside of family law.
"Ask a Lawyer in the Library" was held once a month for three months in the fall of 2009, but in response to a positive reception from the volunteers and the clients, in January 2010, Bellistri ramped up the clinic's scheduled hours to once a week. The clinic is now held every Wednesday in the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Public Law Library on Church Circle in Annapolis, and intermittently on Saturdays at public libraries in the area.
The "Ask a Lawyer" volunteer attorneys have fielded questions about criminal record expungement, landlord-tenant issues, unemployment law and legal questions related to financial problems and bankruptcy. They give brief advice and refer clients to other appropriate resources such as pro bono referral programs, specialized clinic programs and Legal Aid. Participating in the clinic are three local firms and one solo practitioner, all of whom have their names and contact information up on Bellistri's Clinic Wiki (www.aacpll.pbworks.com). Each firm signs up for one Wednesday a month and they are responsible for staffing the clinic for two hours with one attorney on that day.
Information about the clinic schedule, including the locations of upcoming events not being held at the Circuit Court, can be found on Bellistri's Wiki at www.aacpll.pbworks.com. You can also visit her blog about the clinic, which features an FAQ for volunteers, at www.aacpll.wordpress.com. To find out more about how to volunteer for "Ask a Lawyer in the Library", please contact the Anne Arundel County Public Law Library by phone at (410) 222-1387 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adrienne Hagepanos is Project Assistant for the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.