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Lawyer in the Library program offers free aid in city neighborhoods

Vicki Johnson, an administrative assistant for Maryland Legal Aid, greeted visitors at the Tuesday legal clinic at the Pennsylvania Avenue branch of the Enoch Pratt library.

Vicki Johnson, an administrative assistant for Maryland Legal Aid, was on hand to greet visitors at a legal clinic at the Pennsylvania Avenue branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.

When Shantelle Middleton walked into the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Pennsylvania Avenue Tuesday, she didn’t expect to discover lawyers ready to provide information to help with her longstanding divorce and tax issues.

“I was actually coming to get my son some PlayStation games, and the lady informed me at the door about this program, so I figured why not kill two birds with one stone,” Middleton said.

Each Tuesday, Maryland Legal Aid sends a team of lawyers to the library as part of its Lawyer in the Library program. The program started with just one lawyer in 2015, immediately after the riots following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.

This week, six attorneys were on hand at the Pennsylvania Avenue branch, each at a booth in the library’s basement. Half were Maryland Legal Aid staff attorneys, while the rest were lawyers working pro bono. Three of the booths were devoted to consultations about expunging criminal records and the rest focused on matters related to housing assistance, family law and public benefits.

Middleton, who waited for her consultation along with her elementary school-aged son, said she was surprised at how many attorneys were on hand to offer help.

“I was kind of shocked, given the type of urban community we’re in,” Middleton said. “I didn’t know we had so much at our disposal. It was a big relief.”

After hearing each client’s case, the attorneys confer with other Legal Aid staff before deciding if — and how — they can help or whether they should direct the client to other pro bono services.

Following the 2015 riots, which took place near the Pennsylvania Avenue branch of the library, Legal Aid attorney Todd Cagwin said the organization decided to start the free legal consultation service knowing it would help city residents, particularly those looking to expunge their records of minor offenses.

Since then the service has expanded and now operates in six city library branches, according to the Maryland Legal Aid website. Cagwin said the organization recently hired a lawyer to offer legal services in city public schools.

In recent weeks, the library also has added free wellness checks, administered by a Johns Hopkins doctor.

With the Legal Aid program running only from 1 to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays, there’s often a long line of people waiting for legal help. On Tuesday, about a dozen people waited to meet with a lawyer.

Wendy Thomas Wolock, a volunteer attorney for the Maryland Legal Aid program, said she came out of retirement to help review expungement cases. She said it’s more fun to practice law when she doesn’t have to do it for a living.

“Kids make stupid mistakes, some more so than others,” Wolock said, explaining what motivated her to help with expungements. “Everyone deserves a second chance, and so I wanted to help facilitate this.”

More information about the Lawyer in the Library program can be found here.

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