The Mankato office of Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) has a new and greatly improved look. Just over a year ago, the office moved into its totally remodeled and spacious new home — the top floor of what was formerly known as the Mankato Mall.
While the office itself may have a new look, its mission — to provide legal help to low-income and elderly persons who otherwise could not afford it — has not changed. The dedicated staff of 11 attorneys and 10 legal support professionals, along with much needed volunteer assistance from the local bar, fulfill an important need in the community.
Mankato SMRLS attorney Ardys Korstad feels the office is very fortunate.
“We have lawyers who believe in what we are doing [and] the Legislature believes in what we are doing,” she said. “We’ve just got great support. We couldn’t be operating as well as we do if we didn’t have all of that.”
The Mankato legal aid office is just one component of the larger SMRLS network. The SMRLS organization provides free legal representation and advice to low-income residents in 33 counties in the southern part of the state and to migrant farm workers throughout Minnesota and North Dakota. With about 50 staff attorneys and almost 60 other staff, in the last decade alone SMRLS served over 130,000 families and individuals by providing case representation and advice.
SMRLS has several offices throughout the southern part of state. Mankato has the second biggest SMRLS office. (The largest is in St. Paul.)
The Mankato office is one of the homes to the Family Farm Law Project, which was set up in the mid-’80s to help eligible farmers overcome debt problems and stay in business.
According to Peter Gustafson, an attorney with the farm project, “The project contributes to the economic sustenance of rural Minnesota, promotes good stewardship, helps to furnish consumers with quality food and helps to preserve the virtues of an agrarian way of life.”
Funding is an issue for all legal service organizations and the Mankato SMRLS office is no exception.
Managing attorney Lawrence Nicol explained that the office is supported by a variety of sources, including the federal and state government, the United Way, foundations and contributions from private attorneys.
In addition, much of what the Mankato office does is funded by local lawyers who donate a substantial amount of money and time.
“We have a wonderful private bar in this area,” said Nicol. “[Lawyers] donate financially to help support what we do and a great number of [them] donate a great number of hours every year, representing people we just don’t have the time to represent.”
Nicol is truly amazed at the amount of time that some lawyers donate to pro bono work. In addition to taking cases, many help with fundraisers and serve on the board of directors.
For the last 12 or 13 years, Mankato attorney Mary Anne Wray has been donating a substantial amount of her time to legal aid, primarily by representing clients in family law cases. She speaks highly of the office.
“They are an amazing contribution to the practice of law,” said Wray. “The people who work there work very hard, with very few resources, and with not much credit at all.”
Similarly, Mankato attorney Herbert Kroon has been doing pro bono work for the office for as long as it has been accepting volunteers.
Kroon volunteers his time because he views the practice of law as a service occupation. “I am here to serve people. I have an obligation to help people who can’t afford an attorney.”
The need for representation of the poor in the area cannot be understated, Kroon observed. “It’s wonderful that we have a legal aid organization to help meet that need.”
Despite tremendous help from local attorneys, meeting all of the legal needs of the poor in the area is next to impossible.
“There is a gap of people who are financially eligible [for legal assistance] but that we can’t serve because we just don’t have enough attorney time,” said Nicol, adding that the Mankato office is forced to turn away about half the people that solicit help from them.
“[That] is the toughest part of our job,” said Korstad.
Nicol explained, however, that some of what the office provides is simple legal advice. “There are an awful lot of cases where we make a difference in just a half-hour of advice,” he said.
Nonetheless, as Korstad was quick to point out, “we are not a hotline. We explain to everybody [who calls] that they have to go through the screening process.”
The staff members doing the screening can recognize a crisis where help is needed immediately, but for the most part potential cases are discussed at the agency’s weekly meeting. “Just like on ‘L.A. Law,’ we have [intake] meetings,” Korstad quipped.
Every Thursday morning, the staff meets and considers the cases that require extended representation — something more than just advice. There are priority cases, Nicol explained, which involve issues like safety, shelter, food, child custody and healthcare.
“Generally, we are able to take all the cases that are the highest priority, but sometimes we’re not. Sometimes we have to say ‘look, we just can’t do it,’” said Nicol. Fortunately, he added, private lawyers are sometimes available to help out.
Recognizing the unmet need in the area, Wray noted that if more local attorneys would volunteer, the office wouldn’t have to turn so many cases away. “We have an obligation,” Wray asserted. “More people should be doing work for SMRLS.”
Nicol explained that even though the office cannot help all of the people who call, staff members try to at least provide them with materials that point them in the right direction or give them some basic information. Sometimes that’s all it takes, he added.
Fulfilling the ‘unmet’ need
Recognizing that it is impossible for it to meet the legal needs of all the poor in the community, the Mankato office has undertaken several new projects to help deal with the problem.
One such project involves training local lawyers to handle order for protection proceedings on a pro bono basis.
Attorneys can go in, do the hearing, and be done with the case, Nicol observed, adding that lawyers are receptive to this idea because it allows them to avoid dealing with cases that drag out over a long period of time.
The office is also experimenting with pro se clinics in which staff members train people to represent themselves in child support proceedings.
“Child support proceedings now are set up so that it is much easier to go it on your own,” said Nichols. “You’d always be better off with a lawyer, but if you can’t afford a lawyer or there’s not one available, [it helps] at least if you know what you are doing a little bit.”
A statewide legal services project aimed at dealing with the unmet legal needs of the poor has been the development of booklets and fact sheets that can be sent to people with
specific questions. These booklets range in topic from landlord-tenant and family law to orders for protection. Other booklets include information on government programs, issues important to the elderly, as well as what people can and should do if they lose their jobs.
“Those have been really well received,” Nicol observed.
Through the years
The Mankato office — SMRLS’s first rural site — was opened in 1977. While the first several months of its existence were spent in a house, it eventually made its way to an office building. The office has moved several times over its 24-year history.
The office’s current site in the old mall was totally remodeled before staff members moved in. With its bright, sunny reception area, ample room for children to play, and plenty of space throughout, staff members are very pleased with their new quarters.
The only downside, according to Nicol, is that being up on the third floor, relatively hidden away, the office doesn’t have the visibility and walk-by traffic that it used to have.
Nicol, who has been with the Mankato office since 1980, said that the organization has also undergone an extensive change in its relationship with the community over the years.
At the time the Mankato office first opened, it was not very well connected with the community or the bar and the only source of funding for rural offices was the federal Legal Services Corporation.
In 1981, the Reagan administration came in and immediately cut funding by 25 percent, Nicol explained. “That was, in some ways, one of the best things that ever happened to us. It really got us to reach out to foundations, to the private bar, to the Legislature, and really build partnerships.”
Further, unlike when Nicol joined the office, today the legal aid attorneys are very experienced and are part of the community. “The bar accepts us as a part of their legal community. It’s really changed a lot,” he said.
Another major change the office has undergone over the years is its clientele.
“We have large numbers of Hispanic and Spanish-speaking clients now. Much, much more than we did 20 years ago,” said Nicol. He also noted that the Asian population has increased dramatically, particularly in the Rochester and Worthington areas, and more recently, the Somali and Sudanese populations have “skyrocketed.”
Nicol contends that one of the reasons Minnesota has such a large Somali population — hovering around 40,000 — is because it has traditionally been receptive to immigrants. In addition, employment opportunities within the state are generally very good. Many employers are willing to work with language barriers because they need good employees, he observed.
Rural legal aid practitioners face unique challenges that many of those working in metro regions do not.
“There are some positives and negatives,” said Korstad regarding working in a rural legal aid office. “But I think a chunk of them are negatives … because we’ve got more barriers.”
Distances and lack of access to resources make it harder to serve people, Korstad observed. Many of her clients do not have cars. While that may be true in metro areas as well, it does not cause the same problems because of the availability of other methods of transportation to metro clients.
In addition, Korstad continued, it is much harder to find daycare in rural areas, the jobs pay less, and there are fewer services available. Getting people in for family counseling or psychological evaluation all take a lot longer in rural areas, she noted.
Nicol added that the rural nature of Mankato’s legal aid practice also makes it a challenge to get word out about the services it offers.
“The positive side of being out here,” Korstad acknowledged, however, “is that if you are here long enough, you get to know the case workers in the county.”
By having a history and positive relationship with case workers and local agencies, an attorney can get a lot more done in a lot less time, Korstad observed. “From talking to friends that work in the metro area, that doesn’t happen. The system is more rigid there.”
Tough but meaningful
With the lack of access to resources, the distances that separate them from their clients, the heartache of having to turn people away, and the knowledge that they will never meet all of the need out there, one may wonder why these legal aid attorneys keep doing it. The answer, it seems, lies in their strong commitment to public service.
“It really is enjoyable work,” said Nicol. “To me [doing legal aid work] is like a mission. … I find that we are really accomplishing something for people. … I don’t know that I would be a lawyer if I wasn’t doing this. We make such a difference in the lives of our clients that it’s hard for me to imagine doing something else.”
Korstad readily agreed. “I grew up poor,” she said. “So when we are sitting around doing our case acceptance meetings, it’s like I am listening to the stories about my family and friends. I can just directly connect with them. That’s what keeps me here.”
Korstad, who practices in the area of Social Security and disability law, added that when she is able to help her clients receive much needed benefits, they always go away happy. “They go away happy not only with me, but with Legal Aid in general.”