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Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

More Than Coincidence

“It is every man’s obligation to put back into the world at least the equivalent of  what he takes out of it.”

—Albert Einstein

My friends find endless amusement in reminding me that at 12:01 a.m. on July 1, 2011, the moment I became president of this great association, the State of Minnesota closed its doors.  “Pure coincidence,” I assure them.

We all know that Minnesota is not alone in its attempt to navigate its way through the economic challenges.  The statistics are nevertheless staggering and suggest that the downturn has, not unexpectedly, had a significant impact on those who can least afford it.

According to the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, preliminary U.S. Census data suggest that poverty in Minnesota is clearly on the rise. In the last ten years, the percentage of Minnesotans living in poverty has risen from 6.5 percent to 11.6 percent (one out of ten Minnesotans is living below the poverty line, $22,113 for a family of four).  One out of four Minnesotans is surviving on an income below 200 percent of the poverty line ($44,226 for a family of four).  The levels of poverty within Minnesota’s communities of color go much deeper. In 2010, 17.8 percent of Asians were living in poverty, as were 24.4 percent of Latinos and 37.2 percent of African Americans. Although poverty among white non-Hispanic Minnesotans increased from 7.1 percent in 2007 to 8.4 percent in 2010, poverty among Native Americans increased from 30.7 percent to 39.5 percent.  Despite these trends, resources to meet these needs are shrinking.

Shrinking Resources

In 2011, most state governments, including Minnesota, had to grapple with budget shortfalls.  Essential services—like medical care, education, and aid to local governments—felt the pinch.

Funding for civil legal services was not immune from the cuts, despite estimates that 80 percent of the legal needs of the poor are not being met.  According to the ABA, Minnesota is one of 18 states that either reduced or eliminated funding for civil legal aid in 2011.  Not all states cut legal services budgets.  Seven jurisdictions, including Alaska, Delaware, DC, Hawaii, Nevada, New York, and West Virginia, actually increased funding.

Minnesota sliced off approximately 6 percent of the state aid given to civil legal services.

At the federal level, Congress too is considering deep cuts to civil legal services to take effect in Fiscal Year 2012.  The Senate Appropriations Committee has recommended a budget of $396 million (a 2% decrease) while the House Appropriations Committee earlier proposed a budget of $300 million (less than the inflation-adjusted $303-million-dollar budget passed in 1980).

Finally, revenues from IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts), a traditionally important source of funding for Legal Services, are down 80 percent over the past three years.

Enough of the bad news.

Relief Not Coincidental

There is much that we can each do to make the picture look significantly better.  First, Minnesota lawyers should be applauded for stepping up to the plate.  At the urging of the MSBA, the Minnesota Supreme Court authorized an indefinite increase of $25 in attorney registration fees earmarked for civil legal services that will generate $600,000 annually.  Bravo! and thank you all for your generosity.  Second, Minnesota lawyers already donate nearly 200,000 hours of their billable time to serve low-income and disadvantaged clients in our state.

In the last month, a long-awaited  report, officially titled “Overcoming Barriers That Prevent Low-Income Persons from Resolving Civil Legal Problems,” was released. The report offers us all an unprecedented overview of the current statewide system of providing legal services to the poor, as well as opportunities to determine where the system can be improved and develop action plans to move forward.  The MSBA is uniquely positioned to bring together the various groups who work to meet the legal needs of the poor.  The Bar will convene a summit later this month to evaluate the study, review the funding landscape, brainstorm ways to increase capacity, and move forward.  Representatives of the legal services providers, volunteer lawyers groups, large and small law firms, the courts, law schools, and corporations will work cooperatively to make a good system great.

Donating 200,000 hours of pro bono work is good.  We can do better.  If we each increase our pro bono efforts by 25 percent in the next year, we can help make up for the shortfall.

Pro Bono Week

From October 23 through 29, 2011, Minnesotans will join lawyers nationwide celebrating Pro Bono Week.  Sponsored by the ABA, the celebration highlights efforts to meet the ever-growing needs of this country’s most vulnerable citizens, encourages and supports local efforts to expand the delivery of pro bono legal services, and showcases the great difference that pro bono lawyers make to the nation, its system of justice, its communities and, most of all, to the clients they serve.

There are a full range of activities taking place in Minnesota, including a Pro Bono CLE program on Tuesday, October 25 at the Minnesota CLE Center featuring training on criminal expungements.  For more information on activities throughout Minnesota, you can check listings on ProjusticeMN.org. In addition, consider signing up for volunteer case alerts at www.projusticemn.org/civillaw/volunteer.

We are all very lucky indeed.  Thank you all for all you do.

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Brent Routman

Brent Routman was president of the Minnesota State Bar Association from 2011-2012. He is a partner, general counsel, and Asia Regional Trademark Attorney with the intellectual property law firm of Merchant & Gould in Minneapolis.