Six people currently serving state prison sentences are to begin studying to become paralegals later this year thanks to a $50,000 donation from the Barnes & Thornburg Racial and Social Justice Foundation.
The foundation made the grant to All Square, a Minneapolis nonprofit that works to reduce recidivism through employment, professional development, legal education and a planned law firm.
Connie Lahn, managing partner of Barnes & Thornburg’s Minneapolis office, said she and the other managing partners serving on the firm’s management committee established the foundation last year in response to the death of George Floyd. The foundation’s mission is “to promote, advocate and effect racial and social justice in our local communities and nationally.”
All Square has garnered national attention for offering people who have been incarcerated employment through a 12-month fellowship at its craft grilled cheese restaurant in south Minneapolis. Its latest initiative is a Prison-to-Law Pipeline Program that enables incarcerated people to earn paralegal and law degrees with work opportunities through the planned legal firm.
“We’ve always been committed to diversity,” said Lahn, who serves as president of the Barnes & Thornburg Racial and Social Justice Foundation. “Many of our partners support these causes independently. We thought if we all pool our money on behalf of the firm, we can make a much bigger, much more impactful difference for these organizations to promote racial and social justice.”
Leaders of Barnes & Thornburg’s offices around the country donated $75,000 to establish the foundation, Lahn said. Donations from the firm’s more than 700 attorneys and legal professionals boosted the total to more than $200,000.
In addition to the $50,000 donation to All Square, the Barnes & Thornburg foundation made $50,000 grants to nonprofit organizations in three of the firm’s other markets — Indianapolis, Atlanta and Los Angeles. The foundation’s leadership looked at more than 200 organizations nationally as possible recipients and closely examined 30 to 40 candidates, Lahn said.
More than 75 percent of the 33 attorneys and 65 total employees in Barnes & Thornburg’s Minneapolis office made donations, Lahn said. An office-wide vote determined that All Square would receive the Minneapolis donation from a field of three local organizations.
Lahn said the foundation and the firm’s local offices will stay involved with and track the progress of organizations that receive donations.
“We are introducing All Square to our entire firm through a firm-wide meet-and-greet,” Lahn said. “We’re putting together a plan for very specific pro bono and mentorship efforts with All Square going forward. It’s not just the check but it’s our commitment that we’re going to be working with this organization on a going-forward basis.”
All Square founder and CEO Emily Hunt Turner, who also is a civil rights attorney, said she had been in touch with a Barnes & Thornburg partner in Indianapolis who connected her with Lahn as the foundation in the planning stages.
“It’s a direct affirmation from a sizable private Minnesota law firm of this program, that (participants) are needed, that they are valued and they will be supported,” Turner said.
Elizer Darris, an All Square Steering Committee member who was formerly incarcerated, said the Prison-to-Law Pipeline Program will help counter inmates’ shrinking access to legal research. Searching online legal databases on computers that Darris said have largely replaced law books in prison libraries poses a barrier for those who are less tech-savvy. Older inmates who shared legal knowledge they had accumulated from studying law books are getting released.
Darris was convicted of first-degree murder in 1999 when he was 15 but studied law in prison and worked with state-appointed counsel to get his sentence reversed on appeal. Darris said “jailhouse lawyers” and his own legal studies in prison contributed to his successful appeal. In January, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison appointed Darris, organizer in charge of the ACLU of Minnesota’s Smart Justice Campaign, to the advisory board of the newly formed Minnesota Conviction Review Unit. Gov. Tim Walz appointed Darris to the state Board of Public Defense in in August.
“A program like this is going to fill a lot of gaps,” Darris said. “It’s going to help fill knowledge gaps and it’s going to help fill programmatic gaps and it’s going to help provide for jailhouse lawyers. Quite frankly those so-called jailhouse lawyers saved my life and are the only reason that I work for the ALCU and that I’m going to be entering into law school. They helped to provide a level of understanding of law, they made it accessible.”
John Geoppinger, a forthcoming associate of the planned nonprofit All Square civil rights law firm, said the Barnes & Thornburg foundation’s $50,000 grant to All Square also will support a market analysis to determine what the community needs the law firm to be. The All Square firm will focus on impact litigation and offer experiential learning and employment opportunities for paralegal and legal students enrolled in the Prison-to-Law Pipeline Program. The paralegal classes are to begin in June through North Hennepin Community College.
Mitchell Hamline School of Law will offer classes beginning in August to the two law students in the Prison-to-Law Pipeline Program, Turner said. Dean Anthony Niedwiecki agreed to have Mitchell Hamline serve as All Square’s law school partner after meeting recently with Turner.
“This is a big step toward dividing and dissolving some of these walls that prisons tend to create in communities,” Turner said. “We have had legal programming as part of our institute but with COVID and the murder of George Floyd, the pulse of the community has shifted. This has been a response to meeting and convening with some of the city’s finest leaders and hearing what would be a benefit to the community and a step forward in the legal discipline.”
All Square’s mission was unique among the organizations the Barnes & Thornburg Racial and Social Justice Foundation examined, Lahn said.
“What I think stood out (about All Square) for our Minneapolis office was this was a program that could really help the criminal justice system from the inside out,” Lahn said. “A number of our partners even outside of Minneapolis thought that this was a very important initiative from what they had seen in their education or practice about the lack of adequate legal help for people who are incarcerated. It could help people get access to adequate representation. It could change the lives of people who would in turn give back.”