When Attorney Ric Morgan enters the conference room at the Elizabeth Library there are already two people sitting at the four folding tables pushed together to form a wobbly rectangle. He is early.
Morgan pulls a bulging, aquamarine three-ring binder from a black rucksack and slides a sign-in sheet to the center of the assembled conference table. On the whiteboard at the opposite end of the room, he prints “Lawyers at the Library” in neat, blue letters.
By 6 p.m., the singsong alert on the library's front door has sounded several more times and three more people interested in the monthly legal information clinic have signed in and found seats next to the others. Some are strangers, some are men and women Morgan has known or worked with for years.
Despite the presence of the others in the room, people are remarkably candid with him. Morgan is friendly and approachable. His hair is trimmed close enough to pass military inspection, and a Leatherman case hangs from the brown leather belt holding up his blue jeans. His reading glasses settle near the tip of his nose as he flips open the tabbed pages of the binder.
“I don't tell anyone what to do,” he tells the group, explaining that the legal process does not take place in a single step. “I try to help people understand the implications from the spectrum of options that they have to deal with. You are the one who has to decide which options you want to choose.”
Return to school
Morgan, a retired Navy commander, did not intend to become a lawyer, but one day an elder at his church suggested that the area needed a good local attorney. “We think you should go to school,” the elder told him.
After a year or so of procrastination and three years later at University of Denver Law School, Morgan passed the bar exam at age 50, and has owned a solo general practice in Elbert County since 2003. He is also the current co-chair of the 18th Judicial District's Access to Justice program.
In addition to his practice, he offers his time and expertise to several groups throughout Elbert County, acting as the Elbert County Veterans Service Officer and writing grant proposals pro bono for the Elbert County Water Advisory Committee.
Much of Morgan's pro bono work centers on assistance to an increasing number of individuals who appear in court without legal representation. Public attorneys are not provided for civil litigation the way they are for criminal cases, so many people go into court unrepresented.
According to an article he published in the May 2014 edition of the Colorado Lawyer, the Colorado Bar Associations official publication, there were more than 500,000 of these pro se (advocating on one's own behalf) parties in Colorado in 2013.
In addition to the monthly volunteer work he does at the Elizabeth Library and with the Metro Volunteer Lawyers, Morgan coordinates the Colorado Access to Justice's Virtual Pro Se Clinics (VPCs) at select public libraries throughout the state.
Using free software, along with existing Internet and computers infrastructure, the VPCs allows a person in Montezuma County to hold a free video conference with an attorney in Denver who can answer questions and assist with forms.
What began as a pilot program in 2013, serving nine libraries with 130 legal clinics in 2014, is set to provide clinics in 15 libraries in 10 Colorado judicial districts beginning in January and may grow to include 18 libraries by the end of the 2015.
Morgan's goal is to set up in 50 libraries throughout state as well as adding cloud printers that will allow lawyers to print forms remotely. A recent $12,000 grant from the Masonic Lodge will provide for some of the proposed expansion, paying for software licenses and the cloud printers.
Program being created
In addition to the VPC, Morgan is assisting with the development of a free interactive software program that will allow anyone with access to the Internet step-by-step information online. Users can select a topic and find information specifically related to a procedure or legal issue. The program is slated for release in early January, and the web address is still being determined.
Though instrumental to the VPC program, Morgan is quick to pass on credit and express his appreciation to fellow attorneys who volunteer for the program as well as acknowledging the support of the Douglas Elbert Bar Association and 18th District judges.
“The real heroes are the libraries that host it,” Morgan says. “We couldn't do it without the support of the libraries.”
By the end of the three-hour session at the Elizabeth Library, Morgan has provided information to nine individuals or couples on legal processes including hiring practices and sexual harassment; landlord/renter agreements and wills; as well as one property dispute, frequently flipping through his binder to hand out flow charts and checklists illustrating a particular legal process.
“I was an engineer. I like flow charts, so if you don't like flow charts, I'll probably drive you crazy.”
When asked “Do I need a lawyer?” by one attendee, Morgan responds, “Ask a barber if you need a haircut, you're going to get one answer. Everyone needs a lawyer, but that's not always possible.”
Morgan never uses his clinics as a source for clients, nor is he willing to recommend a specific attorney, instead referring clinic participants to the Colorado Bar Association website at COBAR.org.
Not all the advice Morgan provides is procedural. He recommends talking things over before taking a dispute through the legal system, but if things do deteriorate to the point where the courts need to become involved, Morgan stresses the importance of preparation.
“Preparation is everything. Prepare until your ears are wiggling,” he tells the group and then turns to a military axiom. “No plan ever survives first contact. It is not all going to go to plan, but preparation will carry you through. ”
Morgan is still giving advice as he slips his binder into his backpack and pulls out his keys to the front door of the library.
“You've got to have faith in the process. You can get there,” Morgan assures. “If you are not done in 30 days, I'll be right back here next month.”