In a brief and insightful interview with Bench & Bar of Minnesota, Jessie Nicholson, chief executive officer of Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS), talks about her decision to pursue a legal career and the youthful inspiration that still influences her today. Read Meet Jessie Nicholson: ‘Never forget where you came from.’
The Minnesota State Bar Association’s (MSBA) Access to Justice Committee has conferred its annual Bernard P. Becker honors for outstanding legal work for low-income clients to five winners. The awards were presented to the 2019 honorees at the MSBA Assembly meeting in Minneapolis on April 26, 2019.
Advocate: Georgia Sherman, Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services
Law Student: Kim Boche, University of St. Thomas
Emerging Leader: Jocylyn Poehler, Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services
Legacy of Excellence: Michele Garnett McKenzie, Advocates for Human Rights;
Steve Wolfe, Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services
Legacy of Excellence: Michele Garnett McKenzie and Steve Wolfe
The committee recommended two awardees because the strength of the nominations in this category made it impossible to select just one winner.
Michele Garnett McKenzie: For nearly two decades Michele has been an advocate for low-income and vulnerable communities at Advocates for Human Rights. Michele has provided pro bono legal assistance to asylum seekers and detained immigrants, and advocated for policy change in the areas of immigration and trafficking. She is now the Director of Advocacy and one of the organization’s Deputy Directors. Her advocacy efforts have led to broader systemic changes that improve the lives of trafficking victims in Minnesota. While serving clients and contributing to the larger community, Michele also inspires volunteers to join the effort, expanding her impact exponentially.
Steve Wolfe: For 40 years, Steve has served at Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) in St. Paul, touching the lives of thousands of low-income seniors. Early in his career, Steve breathed new life into SMRLS’ Seniors Law Program. He has advocated at the legislature and co-counseled on major senior law cases. When massive budget cuts in the early 1980s took a toll on staffing at SMRLS, Steve worked with the Ramsey County Bar Association to strengthen the volunteer attorney program, making it into one of the best volunteer programs in the Midwest. He also helped create the second phone hotline in the country. Steve has made a positive difference not only in the lives of low-income people, but also within SMRLS, the broader legal services community and the organized bar of Minnesota.
Advocate: Georgia Sherman
Georgia began working at the St. Paul office of Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services 40 years ago, before computers, FAX machines and voicemail. She was soon promoted from secretary to supervisor of all support staff, and supervision of intake and physical plant management as well. Georgia is flexible, creative, and innovative. She is a master fixer, whether she is repairing office furniture, organizing space for volunteers, moving the entire office - twice, or organizing holiday parties. She shows her compassion every day, which helps her staff and coworkers do the same for SMRLS clients. SMRLS places its highest priority on being client-centered and Georgia epitomizes this ideal.
Emerging Leader: Jocylyn Poehler
Jocylyn has worked at the Winona office of Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services for seven years, serving first as a family law attorney, then as a senior attorney and now as a Lead Family Law attorney. In addition to the difference she has made representing clients in contested courtroom matters, Jocylyn manages the SMRLS Winona office, serves as co-chair of the SMRLS Racial Justice Committee, and was appointed by the City of Winona to serve on the city’s Human Rights Commission. According to her nominators, Jocylyn embodies all the qualities one hopes for in a legal aid attorney: a tireless determination, a passion for justice and a dedication to serving low-income clients.
Law Student: Kim Boche
Kim, a second-year law student at the University of St. Thomas, was nominated by The Advocates for Human Rights for her work as a legal intern in their Refugee and Immigrant Program. Kim has used her organizational skills, fluent command of Spanish, and passion for protecting asylum seekers who survived abuse, abandonment and neglect to complete often difficult asylum applications and briefs for clients. She also planned a trip to the US-Mexico border with several other UST students where thy advocated for asylum seekers.
Congratulations to the 2019 award winners!
Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) is excited to announce its 110th anniversary this year. SMRLS has experienced incredible growth since its humble beginnings in 1909. In the early days, SMRLS (then known as Legal Assistance of Ramsey County) typically only handled family law, social security, and landlord-tenant cases for clients in Ramsey County. Today, SMRLS is the largest provider of legal aid in Minnesota, closing more than 9,000 cases annually and serving an additional twenty thousand low-income residents through community outreach and training opportunities.
Former executive director Bruce Beneke has seen many changes In his four decades with SMRLS, but many important things have remained consistent.
“I’m most proud of the people who’ve been a part of SMRLS,” Bruce says. “The courage and strength of our clients; the dedication, compassion and outstanding work of our staff, board, pro bono, and Campaign lawyers; and the critical support of bar, judicial, corporate, community, legislative and local public and private funding leaders have, together, created a wonderful equal justice village and brought hope, empowerment and opportunity to persons in great need.”
SMRLS is commemorating this milestone anniversary by sharing the memories of some of SMRLS' longest-serving volunteers and staff on its website. Stories will be posted throughout the year at smrls.org/anniversary. Supporters and community partners are encouraged to visit the page each month to learn about SMRLS’ history, as told by the people who know it best. If you wish to share your story, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition, SMRLS’ celebration of “110 Years of Providing Access to Justice” will take on a festive note at its June 6th fundraiser Social Justice Uncorked. Tickets are available here.
By Betsy Parrell, Supervising Attorney
Starting today, staff from sixteen Minnesota legal services organizations are working toward better coordination and referrals through access to a new online tool: LOON (Legal Organizations Online Network).
As an integral part of the LawHelpMN.org rebuild project, LOON is a password-protected, online database developed to house up-to-date information about legal services available across Minnesota. Service listings in the database include information about case types and priorities, case acceptance guidelines, clinics, and eligibility criteria.
LOON aims to improve client referrals by enabling legal services providers to make more accurate referrals amongst each other through access to detailed, real-time data. LOON will also power the referral information that will be available to everyone on the new LawHelpMN.org, once launched. In addition, because of LOON, staff at individual organizations no longer need to maintain and update their own legal services referral information, which can easily fall out-of-date.
The organizations currently participating in LOON are:
Anishinabe Legal Services
Central Minnesota Legal Services
Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota
Judicare of Anoka County
Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota
Legal Assistance of Dakota County
Legal Assistance of Olmsted County
Legal Rights Center
Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota, Inc.
Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid
Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services
The Advocates for Human Rights
Volunteer Attorney Program
Volunteer Lawyers Network
These sixteen organizations have password access to LOON, and the ability to update and maintain their own service listings. For organizations that do not currently have password access – such as specialty legal service providers, law libraries, court-based self-help services, bar association referral programs, and community mediation – State Support will gradually add their services to LOON and coordinate with them to maintain and update their listings.
State Support is grateful for the expertise shared by staff members of the sixteen participating organizations. Their feedback was used to guide the development of LOON’s technical infrastructure and user interface. Staff from these organizations also worked diligently to update and verify the accuracy of their listings in anticipation of LOON’s launch today. Additionally, over 100 individuals at these organizations registered for trainings offered by State Support on how to search service listings, in order to be prepared to use LOON effectively to make referrals.
Continued coordination and communication will be critical to LOON’s success. Staff members from the participating organizations will need to communicate with each other, and with State Support, to ensure that the accuracy and quality of information in LOON, and the tool itself, can continue to improve. Working together, we can make LOON a robust, reliable tool that helps all of us better serve client needs across the legal services delivery system.