HEIDI HOVIS worked as an Ameri-Corps VISTA and licensed social worker before going to law school. As an attorney, Heidi practiced in White Earth Band of Ojibwe’s tribal court before becoming a legal aid attorney in rural Minnesota. In her current role, Heidi is an enforcement officer with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.
Tell us about your work and goals at the St. Cloud office of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.
The goal of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights is to make Minnesota discrimination-free. The St. Cloud office is focused on achieving that goal by education and outreach to our diverse community. We hold “Know Your Rights” events where we explain the Human Rights Act. Our office also investigates instances of discrimination in the community and holds those who engaged in discrimination accountable. Our office depends on citizens reporting when discrimination has occurred, so it is essential that Minnesotans know about and how to assert their rights.
You previously worked for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid in St. Cloud and Northwest Legal Services in Bemidji. What did you find rewarding and challenging in those positions?
In both roles, I was able to provide free civil representation to indigent clients. I practiced housing law, family law, public benefit law, and in Social Security Disability appeals. At Legal Aid, I started a medical-legal partnership with a local clinic where I represented or counseled over 400 clients in the first two years. While I enjoyed the work, I found my civil litigation practice had a very individualistic focus; I was not making any systemic change.
In my current role, I investigate claims of discrimination under the Human Rights Act. A probable cause of discrimination determination has a two-fold result. The person who was discriminated against will receive damages and the person or entity that engaged in the discriminatory act is held accountable. That accountability can take the form of employers retraining staff, businesses developing or revising antidiscrimination policies, or schools being more transparent in discipline policies. MDHR is able to make systemic change in that it ensures workplaces, apartment complexes, stores, schools, and public services become more accommodating for all Minnesotans.
How does your background as a social worker affect your legal practice?
My social work practice absolutely influences my legal practice. My social work background helps me to be more empathetic to persons with mental illness or those experiencing crisis. My law background helps me to get these same folks to understand their legal options in a fact-based, linear way.
As an attorney who has made a couple of career transitions in the early years of practice, do you have any advice for newer lawyers who want to make a transition?
I think it is important to always be open to the possibility. I graduated in 2010 when the job market for new attorneys was bleak. I accepted a job offer in northern Minnesota, in an area of the state that I had never visited, because it was an opportunity to practice family law. I joined the local bar association and met several established attorneys who became mentors during my first years of practice. I then accepted a position with Legal Services in another unfamiliar area of the state. At Legal Services, I was able to expand my practice beyond family law with the help of great supervisors.
Being open to moving to rural Minnesota allowed me to gain practice skills that I would never have been afforded the opportunity to learn had I stayed in the metro area post-graduation. Then and now, rural communities have many opportunities for new lawyers interested in litigation. I also recommend considering a transition if a new role would help you either diversify your practice or align you with a supervisor or mentor who can help you grow your legal skills.