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Representing yourself in court? L.A. Law Library can help you prepare

The L.A. County Law Library
At the L.A. County Law Library in downtown Los Angeles, people can borrow legal literature or sign up for informational classes and one-on-one legal consultations.
(L.A. County Law Library)
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Representing yourself at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles can be daunting, whether it be filing paperwork or presenting a case in Small Claims Court.

You could visit or call the self-help center in the courthouse if you have questions about filing documents for your case or understanding legal jargon. But you might have to wait a while in line or on hold to get the answers you need.

For the record:

11:13 a.m. Feb. 28, 2024A previous version of this article stated people could sign up for the Lawyers in the Library program twice a month. People can sign up for the free program twice a year.

To find another source of free help, just stand on the courthouse steps, look across Hill Street and there it will be: the Los Angeles County Law Library.

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The law library, second in size only to the Library of Congress in the United States, is stocked with legal information primarily focused on California, although you can find materials there from all 50 states and more than 250 foreign countries.

It’s home to legal encyclopedias, appellate briefs, legislative history information, law reviews and legal magazines and newspapers.

Librarians at the reference desk can direct you to the books that could help you understand the legal issues involved in your case and support your research.

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What makes the library unique is its wall listing classes and workshops — either in person, over the phone or online — that the public can sign up for free of charge.

Its offerings include classes on civil lawsuit basics, landlord and tenant issues, such as unlawful detainer lawsuits, and a basic course on common areas of law and how to take the next step in your case.

Unlike other free legal resources or organizations, all the services provided by the L.A. Law Library are available to anyone who wants them, said Katherine Chew, executive director of the library.

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Organizations and programs that provide free legal aid often have income-eligibility requirements, typically reserving their help for low- or very low-income residents.

“There’s this huge part of the population [who makes] a little too much money and don’t qualify for legal aid and don’t have enough money to hire an attorney,” Chew said.

“These are the people in the justice gap,” she said. “They have nowhere else to go, and so the library is really a kind of safety net for them.”

Most people don’t realize that the library is available to them, Chew said — they mistakenly believe the library is only for attorneys.

Typically, people trying to represent themselves in court discover the library coming out of the courthouse or they’re directed to the library by courthouse staff.

“And we meet them where they are,” Chew said.

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In the list of 600 classes and workshops the library provides, one stands out: “Lawyers in the Library.” This service offers free legal advice from volunteer lawyers.

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Library volunteers will help match you with one of the library’s 17 volunteer lawyers for a consultation in person or over the phone; their various specialties include civil litigation, family law and personal injury. Anyone can sign up for the one-on-one time, but only twice a year .

In the consultations, which are limited to about 20 minutes, the lawyer can answer your questions, provide information and discuss your legal options. What the volunteers cannot do, though, is provide the sort of legal advice you’d get from a lawyer you hired. They can only help explain the issues in your case and help determine if you should retain a lawyer instead of representing yourself.

During these sessions, lawyers often explain how to navigate barriers within the court system, as well as the paperwork that has to be filed, said Maria Hall, a Long Beach-based attorney and director of the Los Angeles Incubator Consortium.

“The library is seeing the questions people come with are becoming much more complicated because people’s legal cases are much more complicated,” Chew said.

During this process, a lawyer might point you to a Community Connections social worker on site for another layer of assistance.

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Hall, who has been volunteering with the Lawyers in the Library program since 2015, said it has evolved and grown from its early days, when it had about eight lawyers meeting with people once a month. Now, she said, small teams of lawyers from different areas of expertise will often work together to provide one person with answers.

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“To see that many legal minds in one place, in one time, all devoted to helping people is really magic, and we have some incredible results,” she said.

Hall said the volunteers might not be able to solve everyone’s problems, but “we can at least give you a better road map of what your options are, what the process might be and look over your paperwork.”

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