Pro Bono at a Crossroads

2104ProBono

Countless Minnesotans continue to struggle with the after-effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns and unrest that followed George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Among the populations coming to grips with the new reality are Minnesotans who cannot afford an attorney to access justice. Given these challenges, attorneys in Minnesota are at a crossroads when serving others and fulfilling aspirational goals in providing pro bono legal services.

Notwithstanding state and local bar associations’ efforts to promote and encourage pro bono activities, the number of attorneys providing these free services to low-income families and individuals has been on a steady decline. According to Sherri Knuth, Minnesota State Bar Association Access to Justice Director, 2014 saw a peak in service hours related to Minnesota attorneys’ pro bono activities. Since that time, there has been a 19% decline in service hours among attorneys in this state. While it is unclear what pro bono participation numbers were in 2020, Knuth indicated, “There will likely be some decline.”

Notwithstanding the social and political turbulence over the past year, Knuth remains hopeful for attorney engagement in 2021. “There is a level of commitment by many lawyers that has continued through the challenges of the last year in terms of accessibility of clients and attorneys as to what needs to be done.” Knuth continued, “There was an outpouring of attorneys supporting some of the work to help people who were impacted with civil unrest following the death of George Floyd.”

The challenges of meeting with and accepting pro bono cases have been significantly hampered with government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions that limit attorneys’ ability to meet their clients in-person. To meet these demands, Congress responded with the CARES Act’s passage, which went beyond direct stimulus payments by including funds to promote legal access.

One such access point resulting from the CARES Act was installing legal kiosks that mainly assist tenants with housing evictions and other systemic racism issues such as poverty. “We have a disproportionate number of people of color—and women—especially in the housing arena who need help with their basic legal needs.” Knuth continued, “Some attorneys feel very strongly in how they can help a make positive impact on these issues that have been created in these communities.”

While these kiosks are in the process of being rolled out, Tom Walsh, executive director of Volunteer Lawyers Network, envisions a lot of promise for serving all people. He explained two models that will be placed in more public locations for quick touch screen interaction of essential legal services. The other model will be essentially a workstation with a computer screen, web camera, printer, and scanner. This model will be located in more private locations such as a conference room. Users will be able to interact with attorneys and attend court hearings.

Addressing the Housing Crisis During COVID-19

One of the challenges pro bono attorneys and advocacy programs have faced is the homeless  and housing crisis. The Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans (MACV) is a homeless veterans advocacy group with the mission of removing obstacles and providing housing security. According to Sara Sommarstrom, VetLaw Director for MACV, the global pandemic has significantly impacted its ability to provide free legal services.

Before government-imposed stay-at-home orders, MACV operated monthly law clinics at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs hospital and other government centers around the state. A majority of the clients served were veterans and active-duty military personnel seeking legal services. In 2019, MACV served over 2,400 veterans. “With the shutdown of legal clinics, it created a huge change in our service model. We were not able to do our in-person events anymore,” said Sommarstrom. “Usually, we would see between 85 to 100 veterans per clinic. Losing that [in-person clinics] as a resource changed our service model.”

Under MACV’s current model, Sommarstrom and staff counsel Walter Burke will speak with any veteran inquiring, generally over the telephone or email. Notwithstanding the loss of volunteers, they served over 1,700 clients in 2020. “One of the things we miss the most is that the clinics were an outlet where veterans could bring their paperwork, and we could get assistance in screening the case,” said Sommarstrom. “A lot of work has to go into screening a case before putting it with a pro bono volunteer. One of the challenges has been the time consideration in leveraging pro bono on a case-by-case basis.”

MACV also serves as a landlord in some situations to provide housing for homeless veterans. Sommarstrom explained that MACV has partnered with like-minded attorneys to develop policy guidance for the legislature to include a “statutory off-ramp” that will limit the number of housing evictions that can proceed once restrictions are lifted. “We are now trying to get as many of our folks into permanent or transitional housing options to leverage having them in one place to work more intensely on housing stability issues,” said Sommarstrom.

The reduction in COVID-19 cases statewide does present a host of different problems for MACV. According to Sommarstrom, “The nightmare is the eviction moratorium ends abruptly and all the landlords who have not been getting their full rent rush the court system.” She continued, “How do we find veterans? Their veteran status is not in the summons. Is there a way to identify people in the 87 counties?”

A Call to Action–How You Can Get Involved

Providing free legal services to low-income community members is an aspirational goal for members of the bar, based on the unique role attorneys have in society and the court’s officers. Attorneys can use pro bono service as an opportunity to be more fully engaged within the bar and with the people we serve.

Notwithstanding the decreased offerings of in-person pro bono clinics and other offerings, there are many ways for attorneys statewide to get involved in pro bono efforts.

It has to start at the top. Law firms and corporate leaders should engage and challenge the attorneys in their offices to embrace pro bono legal opportunities.

Take action now. Although there are limitations in meeting clients directly, legal service organizations are waiting for you to reach out.

Engage people in your community. Taking to the streets, but more importantly, helping clients in the courtrooms will make a difference.

“Paying attention is important,” said Walsh. “We had a lot in interest and continue to have a lot of interest in pro bono work. There are things like eviction mortarium, and some of the work we do in that area is on hold at this point. Once things start to loosen up, things will move very quickly.” Walsh continued, “People can be getting prepared now for work we know is coming.”

All attorneys in Minnesota can prepare to assist in pro bono legal work by becoming familiar with the Lawyers Step Up for Minnesota campaign that the Minnesota State Bar Association launched in late March. The program seeks to streamline the process to connect attorneys with a legal aid program that utilizes pro bono volunteers. These organizations provide their volunteers with resources and mentorship to be successful in legal advocacy. According to Knuth, “This program allows attorneys to be first responders just like in the healthcare field and other essential workers—step up and take a role in helping our communities.”

Walsh echoed these comments. “Support can come in many ways. One way is pro bono legal work and volunteering.” Walsh continued, “Another way is financial support for VLN and other legal service organizations. It is crucial because these groups face a lot of funding and other pressures.”

Attorneys who participate in the Lawyers Step Up for Minnesota initiative (lawyersstepupmn.org) will receive recognition from the MSBA and judicial branch.

Aaron FredericksonFredericksonAaron

aaron@mspcompliancesolutions.com
Aaron Frederickson is the founder of MSP Compliance Solutions, based out of Minneapolis/St. Paul. He has nearly two decades of legal practice experience in workers’ compensation, personal injury, and Medicare/Medicaid compliance. He has also been certified as a North Star Lawyer since 2016.