Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance lawyers fight to close the “justice gap” for society’s most vulnerable.
Cathy Haukedahl, a veteran Minnesota deputy attorney general and business lawyer at Felhaber, Larson, Fenlon & Vogt, was a longtime volunteer at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid before she joined the nonprofit as deputy director in 2002. She was named executive director in 2011.
She’s spent a lot of time at the Minnesota Legislature recently, lobbying for more funding for an agency that’s endured budget cuts in previous years. Mid-Minnesota serves the indigent and working poor through several offices in 20 mid-state counties, including Hennepin, and also operates the Minnesota Disability Law Center and two other statewide programs.
Q: How many people do you employ and what is the biggest challenge for your organization?
A: We have 62 attorneys, and 67 additional staff such as advocates, interpreters, legal assistants, intake specialists and administrative/support staff. The biggest challenge we face is the lack of adequate resources to meet the legal needs of people with low incomes to obtain … protection from domestic violence, stable and safe housing, food, health care, basic income, etc.
There has always existed what legal aid offices across the country call a “justice gap” — inadequate access to justice for people with low incomes who need help with civil law. But the recession dramatically increased this gap. When people have the legal help they need to enforce these basic rights, it helps the entire community by setting people on the pathway out of poverty.
Q: How big is your annual budget and how is it funded?
A: Our annual budget is $11.5 million. We receive funding from multiple sources. We have several grants from the federal government to support the Minnesota Disability Law Center and our work in the areas of housing discrimination, mortgage foreclosure defense, immigration and tax. We also receive funding from Minnesota … part of this is a legislative appropriation to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which is then used to fund civil legal services programs across the state. This funding has declined dramatically since 2006.
We also receive funding from Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) and the attorney registration fee through the Minnesota Supreme Court. The IOLTA funds available have decreased by 80 percent with the level of interest rates during the past several years. We receive funding from the United Ways in our service area and from foundations. We receive funding from law firms, corporations and individual donors. This source of funding has been our most stable source during the recession.
Q: Why did you want this job?
A: I grew up in a family where service was a way of life. My father spent his career in the U.S. Army … serving in World War II and Korea. My mother did lots of volunteer work. I started doing volunteer service work at a young age and loved it. This included volunteer work for civil legal services from the time I left law school. At Legal Aid, I get to work toward justice for all every day. I feel lucky to do so.
Q: To what extent do private attorneys aid your mission through pro bono services and donations?
A: The private bar is an essential partner in Legal Aid’s service to clients and has been since Legal Aid opened its doors in Minneapolis 100 years ago, in April of 1913.
Legal Aid’s first attorney in 1913 was John Benson, who later went on to found what is now Faegre Baker Daniels. The Fund for Legal Aid was founded in 1980 as a fundraising arm for Legal Aid to reach private lawyers, and it now gives Legal Aid $1.1 million a year. Private lawyers are also very generous with their time doing pro bono volunteer work for Legal Aid’s clients. They participate in our Housing Court Project every day at Hennepin County Housing Court, and they work with our volunteer programs helping clients with family, immigration, tax and elder law.
Q: How do private volunteer lawyers help?
A: Legal Aid and the Volunteer Lawyers Network connect volunteer attorneys with clients and help them navigate the legal system. They also help court clerks at the Housing Court meet the overwhelming demand for assistance.
Q: Of what work are you most proud?
A: The overarching reason Legal Aid staff come to work each day is to make a difference in the lives of clients. The concept of civil legal aid to the poor can be abstract to many outside of the legal community, but the difference we make is real. For example, a client contacted Legal Aid after an IRS audit assessed a tax of $130,000 for the sale of a house and withdrawal of funds from a 401(k).
The client’s Social Security was going to be garnished. The Legal Aid attorney helped the client to provide the IRS with proper documentation showing the house sale was not taxable. The IRS decided in the client’s favor. The client owes only about $200 as a result of withdrawal of 401(k) money.
There are more client stories at www .mylegalaid.org.
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144