Partner Profile:  Minnesota Legal Services Coalition

VOLUME 7 ISSUE 3November 2009
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Partner Profile: Minnesota Legal Services Coalition

As the foreclosure crisis heated up, Minnesota’s Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN) was prepared with hundreds of resources to help pro bono and legal aid attorneys working on foreclosure defense and equity stripping cases.  But with access to the material the responsibility of a VLN staff attorney, distributing it was inefficient, to say the least.  The solution?, Minnesota’s statewide advocate site.

VLN approached Minnesota Legal Services Coalition (MLSC), which coordinates ProJusticeMN, and they partnered to create a Real Estate practice area on the site.  “It’s been very successful,” said Maureen O’Connell, Director at MLSC, who oversees ProJusticeMN.

“It couldn’t be a better fit both in terms of the technical capability of organizing resources but also in terms of the partnership between legal aid and pro bono attorneys,” she added.

John Freeman and Maureen O'Connell

Partnerships have always played a significant role in ProJusticeMN, which was the first site to launch outside of New York, in 2000.  The site was developed as a joint project of MLSC – itself a coalition of seven regional legal aid programs – and the Minnesota State Bar Association. 

As much as a decade ago, MLSC and the State Bar were looking for ways that technology could help improve service delivery and reduce costs.  Nancy Kleeman, former Access to Justice Director at the State Bar, heard Pro Bono Net co-founder Michael Hertz describe the model at a conference.

“Before he even finished speaking I got up and made sure I was the first person to talk to him,” said Nancy, who now works with nonprofits to help them achieve their social justice mission.  “It fit perfectly with the structure in Minnesota of working statewide and the interest in using technology.”

Today ProJusticeMN has upwards of 2,000 members, and continues to grow.  “The tools really help us respond to new and emerging issues that our clients face and give us a way to approach those collaboratively with legal and non-legal organizations,” said John Freeman, Staff Attorney at MLSC, who does much of the day-to-day work on ProJusticeMN and is “used a great deal by low-income people and as a resource by attorneys looking at a new area or helping people find resources to help explain the basics of the law,” John says.  The site recently received attention when it launched a Somali-language version.  Minnesota has the largest population of Somali speakers in the United States, so legal aid organizations in the state had already translated a fair amount of material.  A grant from a local Bar Foundation paid for further translation, and MLSC staff used the LawHelp program site to create the new site.

MLSC continues to look for ways that technology and collaboration can further its mission.  The state was an early adopter of LiveHelp, Pro Bono Net’s real-time chat support service, which helps LawHelp users navigate the site.  MLSC is now working to develop multimedia material for low-literacy LawHelp users, in English as well as other languages. 

Another innovation is an online advice project now under development, where those with legal problems can receive advice online from volunteer attorneys.  Ideally, this will one day be something that users can reach from the LawHelpMN site.  “It has a lot of promise for early intervention into legal problems,” John said.

MLSC is also partnering with courts and other organizations to create online forms using Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive online document assembly service.  The initial focus was on forms for domestic abuse and divorce, and expansion into others such as power of attorney and healthcare directives is underway.

The newest initiative on ProJusticeMN is the creation of resources around expungement, in partnership with VLN and the Council on Crime & Justice, another Minnesota nonprofit.  “This is an issue that impacts our clients across all legal topics,” John said.  Since a complex set of pleadings and materials is involved, having the website as a framework is crucial, he added.

“Overall, we’re really trying to focus on projects that will draw both legal aid and private attorneys to the site,” Maureen said.  “It’s a really exciting time.  Now that we’ve got some tools, how can we use them to address unmet needs?”

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