See more of the story

On death row in Alabama and Louisiana. On a border crossing in California where refugees seek asylum. In a housing court in Minneapolis where tenants try to expunge evictions from court records to get decent apartments.

The settings, while different, share a common bond: Minnesota lawyers, stepping up to do pro bono work — lots of it — for low-income clients in the Twin Cities and across the country.

Minnesota lawyers’ dedication to pro bono, or free, legal work, has made the state a national leader and, recently, an award winner.

In late May, Faegre Baker Daniels was one of two U.S. firms to be honored for outstanding contributions to pro bono work at the annual convention of the American Bar Association (ABA) in August.

“There is a great need for lawyers for low-income people who can’t afford them,” says Jodie Boderman, one of Faegre’s pro bono managers.

John Koneck, president of Minneapolis-based Fredrikson & Byron, attributes the abundance of pro bono activity to the spirit of volunteerism that permeates Minnesota. The state ranked second — only to Utah — in volunteer rates in the United States in 2015.

Minnesota pro bono work was initially fueled in the 1960s by young lawyers influenced by the civil rights movement and general social activism, Koneck said. That activism led to a commitment to pro bono work by several of the largest local firms.

In 1965, young lawyers started the Legal Advice Clinics that later became the Volunteer Lawyers Network. One of those lawyers, Jim Halverson, earned a law degree on a scholarship and said he saw pro bono as “a way to pay back a nation that had been good to me.”

After he was hired by Dorsey & Whitney, he visited law firms and corporations, asking attorneys to offer pro bono services at community centers in the evenings. “I loved the work,” said Halverson.

James Baillie of Fredrikson & Byron started at the Legal Advice Clinics in 1969 and was singled out for his pro bono work in 1984 by the ABA.

“Like most of the people of my age, I was influenced by social activism and became aware of the need that lots of people have for legal assistance,” he said.

Baillie chaired a committee of the ABA in the 1990s that strengthened its language to prioritize the “professional responsibility” of every lawyer to provide legal services to those unable to pay.

Those early efforts, Koneck said, “had a snowballing effect” that today has drawn in most of the large local firms.

The national Pro Bono Institute’s guidelines recommend that law firms contribute 3% or 5% (60 or 100 hours per attorney) of annual paying client billable hours to pro bono activities.

In 2017, 928 Minnesota lawyers contributed 50 or more hours of pro bono work — more than 106,000 hours, said Steve Marchese, public service director for the Minnesota State Bar Association.

“It really isn’t puffery that, with respect to commitment and performance, Minneapolis firms have led the way,” said Reena Glazer, an official at the Pro Bono Institute.

All fired up

On a recent Tuesday morning at North Regional Library in Minneapolis, attorney Larry McDonough, who coordinates Dorsey & Whitney’s pro bono programs, gave a dozen pro bono lawyers for corporations a one-hour crash course on expunging evictions.

At 10:30 a.m., clients turned up for appointments. Barbara White, a lawyer with Target Corp., huddled with Kamarra Johnson, 40, who was seeking to get a 2014 eviction notice expunged.

In December, Johnson stayed in a homeless shelter. Johnson said she withheld rent for a month because a bathroom sink had backed up and wasn’t fixed. The landlord filed to evict her, so Johnson paid her rent and was not evicted. But the eviction notice remained on her record.

These details may help her get it expunged, said White. Johnson will be accompanied to her court appearance by a Faegre lawyer.

“I feel really glad that I can do something important for the clients,” White said. “I come home all fired up. My kids get all excited. We talk a lot about service in our family.”

At another library table, Target attorneys Mary Stanley and Elizabeth Kremenak talked to Antwanesha Amos, 31, also seeking to expunge an eviction.

“I hate where I live now,” Amos said. “There’s shootings going on right outside my door.

“It’s a huge blessing having these attorneys,” Amos said. “The fact that they really care helps a lot.”

The expungement clinic at the library was organized by Volunteer Lawyers Network, which has a budget of $1.4 million and a staff of 21, including 10 attorneys. The network helps direct 700 to 800 lawyers annually to clients with tenant issues, pending divorces, custody questions, bankruptcies and lawsuits filed by debt collectors.

“Our mission is to protect and promote the basic human needs of people in poverty through the power of legal volunteers,” said network executive director Thomas Walsh.

The network runs a legal advice center at Hennepin County Government Center, staffed by network lawyers and volunteer attorneys.

Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid also offers free civil legal services to indigent people in 26 counties and free services statewide on tax and disability issues, said Kirsten Olson, the office’s pro bono director. In addition to 87 staff attorneys, her office has used about 400 pro bono attorneys over the past two years.

It’s still not enough, she said.

In 2018, the office closed 10,651 cases but, due to lack of resources, turned away about 20,000 people, about 60% of those who asked for help and qualified for legal services, Olson said.

Heading to the border

Advocates for Human Rights, an international organization based in Minneapolis, works on local immigration and asylum cases and human rights violations worldwide, including defense of people in the LGBTQ community and those facing the death penalty.

“We have between 600 and 800 lawyers doing projects or taking cases for us at any time, all pro bono,” said Robin Phillips, executive director.

Kara Lynum, a St. Paul immigration lawyer, and Ana Pottratz Acosta, an assistant teaching professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, flew to California in December to help immigrants seeking asylum.

Lynum slept overnight in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk next to a family of five and a man from Honduras, along with two members of Congress. They refused to leave until asylum interviews were granted, which they were.

Some of the most intense work is done by lawyers in death row cases. Kevin Riach of Fredrikson & Byron and two other lawyers are representing Darrell Robinson, convicted of a quadruple homicide in Louisiana. Riach has traveled to the prison in Angola eight or nine times in recent years.

Before he was mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey worked at Faegre and was one of the lawyers who represented Brandyn Benjamin on death row at a prison in Alabama. Frey spent months traveling to and from Alabama, interviewing witnesses and attending court hearings.

“BJ’s photo is right on my desk,” Frey said. “I think about him all the time.”

David March, a Target lawyer, chairs the Minnesota Corporate Pro Bono Council, which he founded with two other lawyers five years ago. The council finds pro bono opportunities for in-house lawyers, paralegals and other staff. The goal, he said, is to “improve access to justice for the underrepresented.”

Another group, LegalCorps, founded in 2004, runs a statewide business law pro bono program. “We don’t do litigation,” said executive director Sally Nankivell, “but we do help low-income business owners, inventors and small nonprofits who otherwise would not be able to access the legal system” due to costs.

While clients are deeply grateful for the free assistance, it is the lawyers who often feel they’re getting the most out of the services they provide.

“Many lawyers are making a good living. They have a nice life and have a stable situation,” said John Gordon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. “They think they owe something to society. There is an opportunity in a lot of pro bono work to make human connections that you do not necessarily find in a high stakes corporate practice.”

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

Twitter: @randyfurst