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

More Than You Pay For

What is this, another article about the incredible value of being a State Bar member? While it could be, it is not.  This article really is meant to showcase how lucky Minnesota’s citizens, legal professionals, and justice system are to have the support of our legal services organizations, offices, and staff. These highly skilled and dedicated professionals offer top-notch service to low-income individuals day-in and day-out.  While not really deserving to be included in such a group, I wish to personally and on behalf of all of the members of the State Bar send a heartfelt and more than well-deserved hats-off to each and every attorney, legal advocate, director, supervisor, administrator, coordinator, translator, support staff, volunteer, and everyone else who helps our state’s legal services programs provide consistently some of the best legal assistance in the state.

Access to Justice

Those who have read some of my past columns or who have heard me speak may have noticed a pattern in my message.  Yes, you got it: access to justice.  I have mentioned access to justice in my conversations about the Amicus Society, the North Star Attorney Program, the Bar Foundation, and adequate funding for the justice system.  One could even find access to justice mentioned in my article on the taxation of legal services.  You may have guessed it: my focus on access to justice has its roots in who I am and what I do.

I have waited almost a full year to do this article, and hope I can do justice to the subject on behalf of my compatriots in legal services work.  I am proud of the work that I do and I am even more proud of the work that is done by all legal services advocates and support staff.  I realize that the typical day in my office in Bemidji may be a tad different from that in other’s offices in Duluth, St. Cloud, Minneapolis or elsewhere, but I know that the mission in each office is the same: to protect those who without our help may not be able to protect themselves.

What We Do

Let me briefly explain just a bit of what a legal services program does.  Legal services is a core function of the justice system that ensures access to justice for vulnerable Minnesotans. We directly serve those who are financially challenged: generally those whose household incomes are at or below 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, which for a family of four is equal to a monthly income of $2,453 or a yearly income of $29,438.

Legal services providers help in the very most basic avenues of everyday life.  We work in areas such as public benefits, income, food, and housing—including landlord-tenant issues, public housing, homelessness, and foreclosure.  We provide aid in the areas of family law and domestic abuse, not to mention consumer law issues, unemployment compensation, and discrimination.  In every area of law in which legal services programs assist clients, we have attorneys and advocates who are considered to be experts in that area of law.

Not only do Minnesota’s civil legal services programs maintain regular office hours during which potential clients can seek aid, we have developed and maintain technology-based legal resource innovations to help both attorneys and clients around the clock.  These include: LawHelpMN, www.lawhelpmn.org, where members of the public can find law-related information and a directory of legal services offices; ProJusticeMN, www.projusticemn.org, a resource mounted in cooperation with MSBA to support volunteer attorneys; online projects to help with client intake and providing advice to eligible clients in central and northwestern Minnesota, respectively, and an award-winning online document assembly program.

Having such individuals and systems at work benefits not only our clients but the entire legal system.  Legal services organizations make a difference to the state and the justice system.  One benefit that is not often top-of-mind is that having legal services programs available to provide legal advice and counsel for low-income individuals prevents many nonmeritorious cases from entering the court system.  Legal services attorneys working to protect the rights of low-income persons also enhance judicial efficiency by helping to settle thousands of cases before a trial becomes necessary.

Skilled, Dedicated, Necessary

Minnesota is unique in the strength of our legal services providers and we as a profession should be proud of that fact.  Unlike some other models, in Minnesota Civil Legal Services is a network of closely coordinated, private nonprofit organizations.  Five regional programs provide comprehensive legal services to families and individuals in all 87 counties and they are aided by 25 specialty legal service programs.  There are a total of 146 attorney and 156 nonattorneys employed by the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition programs and there are 100 attorneys and 81 nonattorneys working in programs that are not part of the Coalition.  It takes a large number of individuals to provide the high-quality services that are provided to low-income, elderly and disabled individuals throughout Minnesota.

We are all aware of the phrase that it takes a village to raise a child. With that thought in mind, I think it takes a community, such as the legal services community we have in this state, to protect those who most need it.  I again wish to thank all of those dedicated legal services community members for the yeoman work that they perform on a day-to-day basis.  I also do recognize and wish to thank each and every attorney who aids the profession by providing pro bono work for those who cannot afford your services.

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Robert F. Enger

Bob was president of the Minnesota State Bar Association from 2012-2013. A son of northern Minnesota, he serves as Supervising Attorney for Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota, based in Bemidji, and is the first legal services attorney to serve as MSBA President.