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Lawyers step in as pro bono referees

Dorsey & Whitney attorneys help address small-claims backlogs

Laura Brown//June 21, 2023//

A man with hands in the lock and looks at the scales with green and red figures. conflict resolution and search for a compromise. image

Lawyers step in as pro bono referees

Dorsey & Whitney attorneys help address small-claims backlogs

Laura Brown//June 21, 2023//

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RJ Zayed
RJ Zayed

The COVID-19 pandemic, and its associated shutdowns, only exacerbated backlogs in the courts here in Minnesota and across the country. This prompted action in some Minnesota courts that attorneys think can serve as a model for other counties across the nation.

RJ Zayed, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney, witnessed Minnesota courts buckling under an increasingly heavy caseload. “Chisago County has three judges and those three judges are supposed to handle all of the matters — criminal, probate, civil commitments — the system was just inundated,” Zayed stated.

This caused Zayed to consider that some Dorsey attorneys could be sworn in to serve as volunteer Conciliation Court referees.

Conciliation Court, commonly known as small claims court, is where claims of less than $15,000 are filed. Conciliation courts were enacted by statute in Minnesota in the early 1990s, where each district court was required to open a conciliation court.

Zayed reports that, in fall of 2020, Judge Bridgid Dowdal of Chisago County approached Dorsey, which has a strong reputation for pro bono work, about serving as referees to help alleviate the backlog. While other counties have hired attorneys to serve as referees, Chisago County did not have the funds to do so.

“Court referees are generally paid positions within the judicial system but Chisago did not have the funds to hire referees so the judges had to do it themselves,” Zayed said.

Sixteen attorneys from Dorsey have been trained, sworn in, and are serving as referees. They have spent 1,000 hours of pro bono time doing this work. Together, they have heard over 1,000 individual cases. Sue Kjelvik, the Dorsey administrator who manages the logistics and scheduling for each case, stated, “In the beginning of the program in December 2020, the time between when a case was filed to when the parties had their hearing was between four to seven months. Now, Dorsey’s most recent calendars show that a hearing date is on average between 30 and 40 days after the case is filed.”

The program was so successful in Chisago County that Pine, Isanti, and Kanabec counties are now part of the effort.

“Because the referee program was so successful for Chisago, at the request of the other three counties (Pine, Isanti, and Kanabec), we expanded the program in June 2021 to include all four counties, referred to as the PICK,” Zayed reports. “Dorsey currently covers six calendars a month for the combined PICK — each calendar is a half-day commitment taking place in a Zoom courtroom.”

Sue Kjelvik (left) and Peter Lancaster
Sue Kjelvik (left) and Peter Lancaster

“The Conciliation Court partnership with Dorsey attorneys came at a time when the pandemic caused a significant backlog within the court,” 10th District Chief Judge Stoney Hiljus said. “With four counties now utilizing this partnership, it serves as an example on how law firms and courts can work together to alleviate systemic issues.”

Attorneys involved in the project think other firms could further alleviate backlogs if they are willing to help. “If another firm is interested in this same model, they have to be ready to commit resources such as tech support (we created our own Extranet so the Courts can give us all of the documents to each case), and someone managing the day-to-day requirements for each calendar,” Zayed said. “As a note, one calendar is about 25 cases. But this is very doable for other firms — and incredibly rewarding.”

Overburdened courts were an issue both pre- and post-pandemic. Zayed sees this model as evergreen. “This is a great solution for an ongoing problem,” Zayed insisted. “The courts are understaffed and underfunded and are overwhelmed with cases as it is, so a pro bono Conciliation Court program is a way to free up the judges to handle other more serious and pressing matters.”

The process has also strongly benefited low-income people who were able to receive help with their filings without having to hire an attorney. “Low-income people were especially impacted by the pandemic shutdowns in the court system, and by the ongoing under-resourced judicial system,” Zayed noted. He reports that the new process has “been a phenomenal way to help the systemic problem of low-income persons not having prompt access to the judicial system.”

Zayed also says that the experience has given attorneys a unique perspective: that of the judge. “Rarely do we get the opportunity to sit where the judge sits and view the world from where they sit,” Zayed acknowledged. “It’s really eye-opening to see such a variety of cases come before you. It’s a fantastic opportunity for attorneys to get that perspective.”

It has also fostered compassion. “There is a certain sensitivity they gain in helping people with everyday problems where what might seem like a small amount of money or issue is someone’s rent or food on their table or of great importance to them,” Zayed said.

Peter Lancaster, a partner at Dorsey, has volunteered 250 pro bono hours as a Conciliation Court referee, the most hours donated to this cause. “This is the most gratifying public service work I’ve done as a lawyer,” Lancaster asserted. “You’re dealing with people on day-to-day issues, that are really important to them and you’re in a position to allow them to feel heard and dealt with fairly.”

“If other firms have resources to dedicate to a program like this in other parts of the country, I would highly recommend starting the relationship with the Court and begin training attorneys to get sworn in — it shows what can happen when two parties work together to help a community and give everyone the opportunity to have their cases heard,” Zayed affirmed.

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