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TLA Courthouse Library offers services for the ‘little guy’

The Toronto Lawyers Association’s Courthouse Library offers lawyers the sophisticated tools to do extensive legal research at a fraction of the usual cost, says its executive director Joan Rataic-Lang.

“We really are kind of like a Bay Street library for the little guy,” she tells AdvocateDaily.com.

Located at the Ontario Superior Courthouse at 361 University Ave., the TLA Courthouse Library is not just an architectural gem with books on shelves, she says. It’s a repository of human expertise. The library has a staff of five, including one library technician and three librarians. They act as free researchers for members, providing them with expert access to an up-to-date collection of books and electronic resources.

“We are not lawyers, so we never say, ‘Well, here’s your answer,’ Rataic-Lang says. “But we look hard to find the information that will give them their answer.”

There is a common misconception that everything you need is on the Internet, she says. While there are valuable free web sources like CanLII, which publishes Canadian legal decisions, many important resources lie behind expensive pay walls, she says.

And much historical material is only available in print. “We have an excellent collection,” Rataic-Lang adds.

Library staff can scan pages from textbooks and email them to lawyers. Or they can photocopy materials and leave them to be picked up. The library has a reciprocal relationship with courthouse libraries across the province, giving Toronto lawyers access to their materials as well, she adds.

Some lawyers like to use the library, located near five major downtown courthouses, as a quiet refuge to sit and prepare cases.

Law libraries are no less relevant today than before the onset of the Internet, Rataic-Lang says. Although the number of walk-in visitors to the TLA Courthouse Library has declined since the 1980s, traffic has stabilized in recent years.

Most importantly, many more lawyers are using the library remotely, accessing its professional development webinars or research services.

“I don’t think I would be able to pick them out of a lineup, but we’re in regular communication with them,” she says. “They call or email us and we send them what they need.”

Law librarians are doing more sophisticated research that is beyond the ability of many lawyers, she says. “It’s almost like we’re always one step ahead of them because the technology is improving and enhancing.”

Rataic-Lang suggests if lawyers are researching something relatively straightforward and can’t find it in 10 minutes, they should call a law librarian, because much of the best material is behind pay walls.

“We have the tools here and we have the people who know how to use those tools efficiently,” she says.

Many of the library’s users are sole practitioners or work in small firms.

“They don’t have the budget of a Bay Street firm, so we are filling a really big void,” Rataic-Lang says.

Lawyers need to be able to do comprehensive research; it’s an access to justice issue, she says.

“We’re doing a disservice to clients if we don’t make resources available to all lawyers,” Rataic-Lang says. “If a lawyer doesn’t have access to the resources and can’t stay on top of his own practice, he’s not a competent lawyer,” she adds.

Many young lawyers come out of school ill-equipped to do legal research, which is becoming increasingly complicated as the volume of case law grows and the number of textbooks proliferates, she says. To help articling students develop their research and other skills needed to thrive, the library offers a Head Start program every September.

The library is open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. On summer Fridays, it closes at 4 p.m.

It is open to all members of the public. They can access its books and use four of its computers.

The library offers extensive free legal research, access to paid databases and Wi-Fi access only to members of the Toronto Lawyers Association or all members of Federation of Ontario Law Associations across Ontario.

“The law library and its staff provide you with the support you need to practise effectively and efficiently,” Rataic-Lang says. ”We save you time and money.”

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