More than a century ago, the lawyers of Ramsey County began a volunteer initiative to provide free legal services to area residents in need. In the years since, Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, widely known as SMRLS, has remained a beacon of civil justice for Minnesotans.
SMRLS’ mission is to provide a full range of high-quality legal services to low-income persons and eligible client groups in civil matters, in a respectful manner which enables clients to (1) enforce their legal rights; (2) obtain effective access to the courts, administrative agencies and forums which constitute our system of justice; (3) maintain freedom from hunger, homelessness, sickness and abuse; (4) empower persons and assure equal opportunity, thus, helping people to help themselves and become economically self-reliant, to the extent their individual abilities and circumstances permit.
In 1974, the founders’ vision expanded when the United States Congress formed the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). This publicly funded, 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation ensures equal access to justice under the law by providing funding for civil legal aid to those who otherwise would not be able to afford it. As a result, SMRLS now serves residents in all 33 Southern Minnesota counties and is one of six such organizations funded by the LSC statewide.
A fiery young attorney named Jessie Nicholson joined SMRLS’ ranks in 1989. Nicholson, now the organization’s CEO, was inspired to transition from her career as an educator to the law by an associate pastor at the church she attended in Iowa.
“He was the only African American judge in the state at the time,” she recalls. “He would come to church services wearing his robe, and I thought it was cool. It was the early ‘70s, and I remember him telling young people going off to college, ‘Remember where you came from. Whatever you do with your careers, give something back.’ I never thought about the law as something that was just for my benefit, but rather, something I could do for the broader community.”
Nicholson and her husband relocated to Minnesota, where she completed her law degree. Springing from a low-income community, her first thought was that she would go to work for the public defender’s office. But after serving a clerkship there, she decided it was not her true calling.
“I admire public defenders; it just wasn’t for me,” Nicholson says. “Civil legal aid was next, and it was the right choice.”
Ever since, Nicholson has served SMRLS with a dedication equal to her passion for civil justice. Under her oversight, staff and volunteers in eight offices assist area residents and agricultural workers throughout North Dakota and Minnesota with matters relating to family law, government benefits, housing, immigration, education law, senior law, employment law, consumer law, and more.
SMRLS seeks justice for the low income, the elderly, the trafficked and others who feel voiceless in the legal system. A significant percentage of the organization’s resources are spent on rectifying housing issues.
“People of color and immigrant populations often face issues that fall under the Fair Housing Act,” she says. “Issues of discrimination impact people’s ability to secure and maintain affordable, safe housing. These issues have been further exacerbated through the pandemic. Since the federal funds for housing expired and eviction moratoriums were lifted, unscrupulous landlords have filed eviction actions against tenants even though their rent arrearages were reimbursed. We have a lot of staff working on those issues.”
Currently, SMRLS staffs roughly 100 people, 60 of them lawyers. The hours and expertise required to assist people with complex legal issues means that often, the organization is limited to simply giving advice to those in need rather than accepting cases for full representation.
The contributions of volunteers and donors are vital to SMRLS’ ability to continue its work. By means of SMRLS’ Volunteer Attorney Program, attorneys can sign up to assist people with legal counsel or full representation relating to their primary areas of practice. “Some don’t mind taking on cases for representation in contested matters,” Nicholson says. “Some work on behalf of seniors and do wills, trusts and powers of attorney. Others do bankruptcy work simply because that is what they do in their own practice. Whatever someone is most comfortable doing or they have experience in, we’re glad to have the help. We also have law students who come in to help over the summer or during the year. It’s a great opportunity for them to see if this is the career path for them.”
Peter A. Schmit is a partner at Robins Kaplan LLP and chair of the firm’s national personal injury and medical malpractice group. He is also chair of SMRLS Campaign for Legal Aid. Schmit was first introduced to SMRLS by former practice partner and mentor, Terry Wade. “Terry had been involved in the Campaign for Legal Aid for years, and when an opening on the committee appeared, he recruited me.”
Currently, Schmit and the Campaign for Legal Aid are busy finalizing preparations for this year’s UnCorked event — SMRLS’ largest fundraiser of the year.
“It will be held July 13 at the Event Center in St. Paul,” Schmit says. “The campaign has been recruiting law firms, businesses and individuals to be sponsors, and we likely will reach $150,000 in sponsorships this year. It is a fun event, combining a short program with wine tasting, an auction and good food. It is a great way to learn about SMRLS, its mission and how everyone can participate at whatever level they are comfortable with.”
Schmit and his colleagues hope to net close to $200,000 from the event. “The money is used to support SMRLS’ overall mission of expanding or at least maintaining legal access to those who can’t afford to hire a lawyer. SMRLS handles thousands of cases a year and just as many are turned away, often due to a lack of funding.”
Robins Kaplan has long been a supporter of SMRLS and has helped to sponsor UnCorked since its inception. “We also field a team of hockey players for SMRLS on Ice, where teams compete at the XCEL Energy center (rink donated by the Wild). We sponsor that event as well as provide an annual funding contribution,”
According to Schmit, attorneys who give to SMRLS get out of it a lot more than they put in. “To see the legal and business community come together to support a great organization like SMRLS is very rewarding and satisfying. To hear a former SMRLS client, who now is a successful businessperson, tell their story about how SMRLS helped them during their darkest hours is fantastic. There are many ways to get involved. Join the committee, volunteer at one of the SMRLS clinics, attend UnCorked, play hockey, donate time or money — the list is long. SMRLS is a great organization and needs our help.”
With the help of national law firm Fredrikson & Byron P.A., SMRLS and the state’s five other legal aid groups spent the last legislative session lobbying for an increase in state funding. On May 19, SMRLS received some tremendous news, when Governor Walz signed off on the Legislative Conference Committee’s vote to increase funding for civil legal services statewide by $30 million.
“Minnesota has a budget surplus, so this was the year to try to do it,” Nicholson says. “A lot of work went into this whole process from January to now. With these funds, we can increase salaries and attract additional talent. We can also increase our capacity to provide more assistance to the people who come to us.”
When asked if this windfall from the state means that SMRLS will no longer need the support of the local community, Schmit answered, “Absolutely not. Over the last decade, support from the federal and state level have dropped considerably, so SMRLS is playing catch up, and the funds are needed now more than ever.”
With increased funding, Nicholson and her executive team are looking to the future with renewed excitement. Together with SMRLS Director of Business Administration Lara Otsuka, Nicholson is streamlining internal processes and implementing new technologies that will allow the organization to grow for years to come. “She is also a lawyer with great business acumen,” Nicholson says.
SMRLS has also expanded its department of litigation advocacy to a team of three focused on “making sure we’re working on the most critical civil legal issues,” Nicholson says. “The department is revving up how we’re training our lawyers so they can take on more robust cases. We want our attorneys to feel they have challenging work here, especially with complex cases that we might want to take to the appellate or federal courts. We want our attorneys to be well prepared when they go into these proceedings so they can do a great job on behalf of the community.”
Nicholson’s journey at SMRLS is now coming full circle. “The most exciting thing now is that we are poised to bring in new talent — the next generation of lawyers who want to do this work, who have the passion to do this work. We have some very passionate non-lawyer staff as well. All this new talent will take us to the next level as a successful provider of civil legal services.”
She concludes, “I believe that Minnesota’s legal community embraces the value of access to civil legal services for all Minnesotans, regardless of means. Many attorneys assist legal aid providers like SMRLS by providing needed pro bono legal services for individual clients as well as other kinds of assistance. The need for assistance is great, and we welcome the partnerships of the legal community as we continue to serve the legal needs of the disadvantaged.”