Before you enter Jessie Nicholson’s office at the Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) headquarters in downtown St. Paul, you will see a message posted on her door: “You are now leaving the comfort zone.” It’s a fair heads up from the organization’s chief executive officer, who has spent her entire law career at SMRLS and at its helm for more than a decade.
“We embrace the value that there is not growth in the comfort zone,” said Nicholson, who is also a member of the St. Thomas School of Law Board of Governors. “Staff are encouraged to think that way. Once you become stagnant as a provider for civil legal services, or any business for that matter, the potential to become irrelevant grows. The client population changes, the legal needs of people change, the legal outcome of what those issues are changes, and so we can’t do things the same way we did things five years ago, three years ago or even last year. We have to be able to be nimble and flexible and accountable to our client communities.”
For more than a century, SMRLS has provided free civil legal aid to low-income families and individuals. It currently serves 33 counties in Minnesota through numerous locations and partnerships. Demographics in Minnesota have changed tremendously since the organization began, and SMRLS has grown into a multicultural and multilingual organization with 27 different languages spoken on staff to help people with their legal needs.
While SMRLS attorneys work on behalf of disadvantaged people who don’t readily have access to civil legal services, they don’t do this alone.
“It’s a community effort, meaning not only the legal system but the provider system in general,” Nicholson said. SMRLS works with social service providers, government entities and people in the welfare system in various counties to make sure they are aware of resources for issues they might not recognize as legal ones.
SMRLS has four health care-legal partnerships, so medical staff can refer their patient to SMRLS if the person has a health issue that may be cause for legal intervention. For example, Nicholson said, medical staff at a local hospital were seeing many people from the Karen immigrant community suffering asthmatic symptoms. Thanks to these partnerships, SMRLS was alerted.
“We have paralegals who can go into people’s homes and look at the conditions,” Nicholson said. “Some of the people don’t think they have the right to speak up and say the landlord has not fixed the furnace or has not provided adequate ventilation for the apartment. One of the things we have to do is educate people – you have a right to have an apartment that’s warm enough. The doctors can fix the symptoms [and] we can come and solve the problem.”
Always Give Back
When growing up in Waterloo, Iowa, Nicholson listened to Judge William Parker, a pastor and Iowa’s first black judge, as he addressed the teenagers of her church congregation.
“I remember him [Parker] at one of our church services, looking out at us and telling us young people who were graduating from high school and thinking about going to college: ‘Never forget where you came from. Always look to give something back to the community.’ That made sense to me. That was something that stuck with me, and it’s something I still believe in,” she said.
Nicholson was a Spanish teacher at the University of Northern Iowa when she decided to leave teaching behind to attend law school. She knew she wanted to work in public service, and at one point, she considered a career as a public defender, but decided the civil side of law was a better fit.
When she started at SMRLS, she was involved in housing law. She transitioned to class action work, immigration law and served as deputy executive director before taking over as CEO in 2007.
Laura Orr ’10, a senior attorney in SMRLS’ elder law unit, views Nicholson as a confident leader who has demonstrated to Orr that, “Leadership is empowering others to grow and do their jobs well with a focus on a common mission and values,” she said.
“When I interviewed with Jessie before receiving her offer to work at SMRLS, Jessie stated that her goal for SMRLS was to work itself out of existence,” Orr said. “I was struck by her ability to state so candidly and precisely that true dedication to the work that she loves involves active pursuit of making the work unnecessary.”
One of the joys of Nicholson’s job is the ability to add enthusiastic lawyers to her staff, including St. Thomas Law graduates, who will bring SMRLS to the next level, Nicholson said.
“One of the things I’ve noticed with St. Thomas graduates is that most of them come in looking at the practice of law from a values-based position,” Nicholson said. “I can ask certain kinds of questions and their responses are clear that they actually are looking to give something to the profession based on their values. I’ve never had an experience of interviewing a St. Thomas lawyer where I haven’t come away with it feeling very edified.”
Colin Laffey ’15 is an attorney with SMRLS’ Agricultural Worker Project, where he represents agricultural workers in employment matters, resolving issues such as wage theft, health and safety concerns and inadequate worker housing. He said Nicholson leads her staff with a “quiet confidence and determination.
“She works tirelessly to support our staff members so we can offer our clients the effective, confident and compassionate representation that they deserve,” Laffey said. “It is this strong, committed, selfless leadership that has resonated with me the most.”
As a staff attorney for SMRLS working in the family law practice group, Jonathan Engel ’15 said Nicholson has encouraged him to not be afraid to step out of his comfort zone and to be bold in his professional goals.
“Jessie leads through her passionate service of our clients and the entire staff,” Engel said.
Throughout her time with SMRLS, Nicholson has earned numerous accolades for her work, including being named to AARP Minnesota and Pollen’s 50 Over 50 list last year. Her bio on the SMRLS website includes too many accomplishments to list, but here are some: Nicholson has been recognized by the Minnesota State Bar Association (MSBA) Civil Litigation Section with the Advocate Award (2014) and the MN Black Women Lawyers Network Achievement Award (2013). She was featured in the exhibit “A Celebration of Women in Law,” organized by the Minnesota Chapter of the Federal Bar Association.
While she has every right to boast about her accomplishments, she doesn’t. However, she does share how import her faith is to her, that she sings in the St. Paul Cathedral choir and is a member of the secular Franciscan Order. When she has a chance to travel, she loves going to Italy, where she stays in monasteries and takes the opportunity to explore different communities.
Her faith keeps her humble, she said, as does a black-and-white photo of her as a 6-month old, which sits on a file cabinet in her office.
“I look at that daily because it tells me you’re nothing more or you’re nothing less than what it is that God gave you and that’s the life when you’re just a teeny person. I do a job, but that’s not who I am,” said Nicholson, gesturing to the baby picture. “That’s who I am.”