Mimi Levin’s service to the Volunteer Lawyers Network is just the latest entry on a lengthy record of service work that has spanned both decades and continents. Her experience with the VLN is what led to her recognition April 20 by the Minnesota State Bar Association as the 2018 recipient of the Bernard P. Becker Legal Services Award — which recognizes a Minnesota law student who demonstrates a commitment to providing skilled and zealous legal representation and advocacy to low-income Minnesotans — but her commitment to service began long before law school.

Levin, a second-year law student at St. Thomas, answered a few questions ahead of the MSBA award ceremony to share more about her background and her experience as a law student serving with the Volunteer Lawyers Network.

Q: Tell us about your work with the Volunteer Lawyers Network. What are you doing and how long have you been working with VLN? Are there any particularly remarkable or meaningful experiences you could share?

A: In May of 2017, I was placed with the Volunteer Lawyers Network through the Fredrikson & Byron Public Interest Externship program at St. Thomas law school. During my first couple of months with VLN, I worked as a clinic assistant at VLN’s Legal Access Point Clinic, Conciliation Clinic and Family Law Clinic. After completing the hours required for the externship, I continued to volunteer with VLN as both a clinic assistant for the Family Law Clinic and as a certified student attorney. As a certified student attorney, I received my first client, handling a divorce case from start to finish under the supervision of VLN Family Law Resource Attorney Kara Rieke.

Taking on an entire case was informative and meaningful; it also marked the beginning of my interest in family law. It was a rewarding experience for both my client and for me: through helping her, I was able to develop a more profound understanding of the law and she was able to move on from something that had burdened her for many years.

I also value each day that I volunteer at the Family Justice Center. Every time I leave work, I feel great knowing that we helped people who couldn’t otherwise afford competent legal advice. I have seen a number of individuals at the clinic who are wary of attorneys or highly skeptical of the legal system in general. The most remarkable feeling is getting a sincere thank you and handshake from those individuals after their consultations, knowing that we may very well have changed their minds.  

Q: You’ve mentioned that service work and volunteering are fundamental aspects of your value system. How and why did that come to be? How has that value system played out so far in your life and early legal career, and how do you expect to continue to carry it out in your professional career?

A: Dedication to service work and volunteering was instilled in me at a young age. My parents always emphasized the importance of giving back both through monetary donations and through acts of service. Growing up, my family consistently volunteered locally, nationally and internationally, and service became a natural and fundamental aspect of my value system.

The importance of this work led me to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake; to Belize to assist in an AIDS outreach program; to Mexico to build homes for the needy; to the Dominican Republic to teach English; to Namibia to work on black rhino conservation; and more. The fundamentality of volunteering led me to attend Villanova University, an Augustinian school with a strong emphasis on service to others. This value system guided me through my career in advertising, producing videos for an agency’s pro bono account, the Children’s Defense Fund.

This value system was the reason I applied to law school: to provide legal services to those who couldn’t otherwise afford them. Since I started law school, I have continued to make service work a priority. Currently, I am a volunteer for the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and for VLN. After law school I will be applying to business school; my goal is to eventually start a mission-based business with a global focus on giving back.

Q: A key component of our mission as a law school is a commitment to social justice. How has that affected you thus far? Was it a primary factor in your choice to attend St. Thomas for law school?

A: The primary reason I chose to attend the University of St. Thomas School of Law is because of the school’s focus on social justice. I didn’t want to go to law school to improve the circumstances of my own life; I wanted to go to law school to improve the circumstances of other people’s lives. I believe that many of the students that choose to attend St. Thomas Law do so because of the school’s emphasis on social justice and its sense of community. The law school cultivates a uniquely supportive environment for students, faculty and staff within the school, and in turn, we can aim to promote this type of environment outside of the school.

Q: Share a bit about your vision for your professional career. What do you hope to be doing after law school and beyond?

A: After law school, I plan on getting my MBA as the next step in eventually starting a mission-driven business. While I am in business school, I plan on practicing law.

Q: What does it mean to you to be the 2018 law student recipient of the Bernard P. Becker Legal Services Award?

A: Winning this award was an indescribable feeling. First of all, I was surprised to hear that I had been nominated—it was recognition for something that I never sought recognition for. Additionally, this award made me realize that the work that I do has a broader impact than I realized. I knew that I was positively impacting the lives of the people that I served; I didn’t know that other people were paying attention. The award was an indication that what I do matters and that my work is appreciated. That I am appreciated. Finally, winning this award was a simple affirmation of something I care deeply about: living a life in service to others.

University of St. Thomas law student Mimi Levin (far right) is pictured with other 2018 recipients of the Bernard P. Becker Award, including, from left, Anne Applebaum (Emerging Leader), Irene Opsahl (Legacy of Excellence), and Gerald Kaluzny (Legacy of Excellence). Not shown: Ruth Ruch (Advocate)

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