In the wake of George Floyd's killing, some of Minnesota's marquee law firms are suing cities and racing to give free legal aid to those facing racial inequities.
Twin Cities firms such as Dorsey & Whitney, Fish & Richardson, Ballard Spahr and Fredrikson & Byron are stepping up efforts or starting new ones to represent, free of charge, those who say they are victims of police violence or partnering with unions and community groups to challenge racial disparities in police arrests, housing, hiring and voting access.
In some cases, the firms are suing cities and police officers. Others are adopting the approach of Dorsey & Whitney, which last month terminated its decadeslong Minneapolis city attorney's program that helped prosecute misdemeanor cases in the city. Still others are marshaling attorneys to expunge old criminal records, to staff voting polls and to end housing discrimination.
"The murder of George Floyd magnified the need to focus on inequities," said Pamela Wandzel, director of Pro Bono & Community Service at Fredrikson & Byron (F&B) in Minneapolis. "People of color are impacted. … So, we look at it under a different lens and say, 'How can we change the laws and policies and rules that are really feeding into these racial injustices?' "
In June, F&B sued the city of Minneapolis and police officials on behalf of the Communications Workers of America for arresting reporters during protests that broke out after Floyd's May 25 killing. This month, the firm is working with protesters in Des Moines who allege police there cornered them and then sprayed them with chemicals when they could not disperse. A lawsuit has not yet been filed.
Last month, the intellectual property firm Fish & Richardson launched its pro bono racial justice legal program.
In July, Fish & Richardson partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union and sued the city of Minneapolis, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and police union head Lt. Bob Kroll on behalf of four protesters who said they were hurt by police rubber-coated bullets, tear gas and pepper spray in May while peacefully protesting on Lake Street in Minneapolis three days after Floyd's killing.
"Law enforcement often fired without constitutionally sufficient warning or orders to leave, thereby violating their due-process rights," said Ahmed Davis, the firm's national diversity director who is leading the case. "The police in Minnesota, and throughout our country, should be protecting and serving those who exercise their [freedom of assembly] rights under the law, not impeding and chilling such actions."
This month, the firm is interviewing potential victims of police brutality in Louisiana.
The 400-attorney firm with offices in Minneapolis, D.C., Europe and China is better known for patent and intellectual-property litigation. It also does work on veteran, child welfare, voter suppression and death row issues, but is now ramping up racial-justice work as a specialty.
"We plan to continue fighting for basic constitutional and human rights," Davis said.
The firm has company. After Floyd's death "Dorsey is immediately placing an even greater emphasis on pro bono work that helps rebuild communities, and will no longer support misdemeanor prosecutions in Minneapolis," said Bill Stoeri, the Dorsey & Whitney managing partner.
Black and Latino communities across the city have long complained of being targeted by police for infractions that do not attract the same attention or result in the same level of charges when committed by white people. Law partners said Floyd's recorded killing and the conversations that followed have shifted perspectives.
"Healing can only occur by addressing the systemic racism that plagues us," Stoeri said.
Three weeks ago, Ballard Spahr's offices in Philadelphia and Minneapolis launched their own Racial Justice and Equality Initiative, a pro bono plan dedicated to combating racial disparities via a mix of lawsuits and volunteer work.
Karla Vehrs, Ballard Spahr's Minnesota office managing partner, is rounding up attorneys to volunteer as election workers so voting stations in poorer neighborhoods have enough staff to stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The firm also is corralling legal pros to get old felony records expunged to allow former inmates a better shot at getting jobs and housing in the Twin Cities. Another push: looking at potential lawsuits against lenders and landlords who refuse to deal with former nonviolent inmates even when the offense is old and had nothing to do with money or housing.
Vehrs said such work will be done by partnering with All Square, a gourmet grilled-cheese restaurant in Minneapolis that hires, counsels and trains Minnesotans with criminal records. The entity is about to open its own legal firm with help from pro bono programs like the one at Ballard Spahr, said All Square CEO Emily Hunt Turner.
Vehrs, who first arranged pro bono legal assistance for All Square following a contract dispute in 2018, said she's "excited" to do more after seeing its employee "fellows" at work.
"We're trying to do our part to address that we have these enormous disparities in Minnesota and other places," Vehrs said. The firm hopes to litigate cases that can bring relief to larger groups of marginalized people, Vehrs said. "With a robust legal team, there are issues where we can make a difference."
Raygne Parker, a Black employee at All Square, spent time in prison for a theft committed as a teenager.
Released five years ago, she learned her record wouldn't be expunged for at least 12 years.
"You can't find any housing and what you can find is a slumlord. It took me a year and a half to find housing when I got out," she said. "Nobody would rent to me. And when they did my apartment had mice and roaches and bedbugs."
Jobs were also hard to get. She felt her treatment was unfair, "but a lot of us can't afford an attorney."
Hunt Turner said that kind of barrier is where pro bono programs can help. "Using criminal records to deny housing has segregated America," she said.
As for Vehrs, she's all in. "This is exactly the kind of stuff we are interested in taking on."
The new racial focus builds on Ballard Spahr's past work giving free legal advice to immigrant business owners in Austin, Minn., and sending attorneys annually to represent immigrants detained in Southern border states by U.S. immigration officials.
"We recognize that as professionals, we are in positions of privilege, and with this privilege comes the responsibility to both acknowledge the inequities of our system and to fight them actively," said Ballard Spahr Chairman Mark Stewart.
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725