The Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN) has provided free legal services to low-income individuals for 50 years. With a network of around 1,400 volunteers, including 800 to 900 attorneys who volunteer on an annual basis, the nonprofit helps an estimated 10,000 people a year. Suzanne Pontinen, who has served as the executive director for the organization since 2008, says that the civil legal aid provided by the VLN is as needed as ever. As one of the largest independent pro bono organizations in the country, VLN manages 21 clinics and offers other resources for lawyers, such as training on poverty. In 2014, the VLN helped 120 people avoid eviction and 68 people get old criminal records expunged, among other work.
Q: How do people access services?
A: The way people access our services is one of two ways. We have about 20 different community clinics where they can walk in, and we have five that are right in the courthouses. We also have intake lines that are open, and people call and do their intake over the phone.
Q: How do you think the organization has changed over the last 50 years in terms of its scope?
A: Our mission used to be focused on Hennepin County, and we did change our mission so that we can expand beyond Hennepin County. We’ve just grown, even in the last 10 years. We’ve just grown so much staffwise, budgetwise, and I think that we are a much, much more proactive organization. We are really trying to be part of the solution on a communitywide basis. I think that we moved from the mind-set of a small organization with really great people doing really good volunteer work to thinking that we really can be a bigger part of the solution to some of the problems in our community. We have the resources to do this.
Q: What are some of the growing services that low-income clients need?
A: A couple of years ago, bankruptcy was huge. Of course, it was the working poor that really needed those services, because their wages are subject to garnishment and so forth. We still do a lot of bankruptcy, but as the economy has improved, bankruptcy filings overall have gone down. We always see these ebbs and flows in our services. Housing and criminal expungement are in great demand right now. With housing, it’s a lot of eviction defense and repairs cases that we see. Criminal expungement since the law changed a year ago and made it a little easier to have offenses expunged. That’s just a huge area for us. It’s been really huge. Family law, that never goes away as a need.
Q: One of the founders’ goals for VLN was to help increase respect for the legal system. How does VLN try to alleviate mistrust of the law?
A: One of the things we are trying to do is really embed our services into social services or partner with social service agencies that the community trusts and, as I said, embed our services into their services. A couple of the things that we are trying right now is our criminal expungement resource attorney is working with Twin Cities Rise, and he’s actually training their job counselors and their one-on-one coaches to help prepare people for criminal expungements because they do job training and they found out that the job training is not sufficient if that person has a criminal record.
Q: How do you track the benefits of providing these services?
A: Because the bulk of our services are being done by volunteers, it’s challenging because what we have is an online form that we ask our attorneys to complete so they can let us know what those benefits are. But as a staff, we also have to follow up with that, so we’ll go in and actually look at the court records. And by outcomes what I mean is not just say, “They got the criminal expungement.” We are trying to move beyond that and say, “Were they then able to get employment?”
Q: Are there any talks of reaching out to areas that are underserved?
A: We are trying to expand our services geographically. That’s really something that our state is encouraging us to do — expanding beyond Hennepin County. When you look at the resources available to people of our state, it’s more concentrated resources in Hennepin County. [The state] would like to see the gap addressed so more people have access to these services. We’re actually applying for funding right now in partnership with some other organizations to increase the services that we are able to provide in southern Minnesota.
Q: If you were trying to convince an attorney to volunteer with VLN, what would you say to him or her?
A: When you become a lawyer, you become part of a community that owes it to the community to give back and you have a special unique skill and you should use that special unique skill to give back to your community, to make your community a better place. It really is what elevates us to a profession. Many of us went to law school because we thought we were going to change the world and then you get out to the world and it’s not quite as easy as what you think it’s going to be.
Q: What are the benefits to volunteering?
A: We have attorneys say this to us all the time: “This improves my business skills.” Attorneys, of course, practice in all different areas of law. We have many attorneys who have never seen the inside of a courtroom. They are corporate attorneys or banking attorneys. They can get into court if they are volunteering through us.