Hiring a lawyer is out of reach for more than 60 million Americans. Measured against any disease, environmental crisis or national emergency, the justice gap is an epidemic, according to Lisa Montpetit Brabbit, associate dean for external relations and programs at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. That’s why the School of Law is working hard to find ways to close the gap.
And for the people living in this justice gap (such as seniors, people with disabilities, veterans, survivors of domestic violence, parents or guardians, and rural residents), research shows that 70-80% will experience a significant and life-altering civil legal issue. These concerns commonly include stable and safe housing, freedom from physical and emotional violence, fair employment practices, child welfare and personal health. And some subjects are not identified accurately as legal issues. Consequently, 86% of the civil legal problems experienced by low-income Americans receive inadequate or no legal help, according to Legal Services Corp. (LSC).
School of Law faculty and staff are dedicated to fighting injustices. They continually discuss how to help meet the most pressing legal needs.
“Our law school’s mission compels us to help provide a voice for the voiceless, empowering those on society’s margins to stay in their homes, with their kids and in their jobs,” said Robert Vischer, dean of St. Thomas Law.
Brabbit realized that the School of Law was filled with “fabulous legal talent,” but there was still so much legal need. To help fill this gap, she introduced the idea of a post-graduate fellowship.
With the support of John and Sue Morrison, the law school launched its pilot program in 2014, originally called the Access to Justice Fellowships program. It supported five graduates in the program (through 2018) and of those five, three transitioned into permanent public service employment. Kate and Jack Helms sponsored a sixth placement in 2019 and then expanded the effort.
Instrumental to the success of the recently renamed Archbishop Ireland Justice Fellows (named to honor the founder of the University of St. Thomas) has been its innovative funding model, which maximizes the resources of the law school, donors and legal aid organizations.
Ireland Fellows at Central Minnesota Legal Services
The fellows program places licensed School of Law graduates in one-year, full-time jobs with Minnesota organizations working to address the civil legal needs of individuals who otherwise could not afford assistance from an attorney.
Emily Ginsburg ’18 J.D. is a fellowship attorney at Central Minnesota Legal Services (CMLS), which provides free legal services in the areas of family law, housing, criminal expungement, public benefits and licensure.
Ginsburg said her passion to work in legal aid was strengthened by her experience working as a law clerk at the Public Defender’s Office in Anoka County and at Legal Assistance of Dakota County. She knew the fellowship would expand her litigation experience, while helping CMLS increase the number of people it serves.
Through her work, she’s become more aware of the disparities within the structure of the legal system as it relates to legal services.
“Civil cases often involve matters which are of the utmost importance to clients, including custody rights to their children, housing, and access to and maintenance of benefits,” Ginsburg said. “These areas of law, especially family law, can be highly complex and are not designed for pro se litigants, despite the fact that most parties are self-represented.”
Ginsburg’s fellowship is funded by Jack and Kate Helms. Jack, a School of Law board of governors member and founder of Helms Capital, said he and his wife are interested in the legal access issue for two primary reasons: They want to support the School of Law and “for us, the best way is to find a cause that both assists the school and also serves our primary charitable goal of assisting the least advantaged members of society and helping serve the ‘common good,’” he said.
The second reason is that “the legal system is confusing at best and intimidating; yet, without access, these folks face huge issues around housing, health care, family matters, etc., that prevent them from having a fair shot at a dignified, if not fulfilling life,” he continued.
The first fellowship recipient at CMLS, Jessica Melheim ’15 J.D., is now a permanent member of the team.
“I knew I was in the right place and didn’t want to leave,” she said. “It is a privilege to be part of a law firm that works toward access to justice.”
CMLS provides legal representation and advice to hundreds of domestic abuse survivors every year and Melheim said she’s most proud of the work CMLS does with orders for protection cases.
“Having legal representation or even legal advice prior to an order for protection trial or hearing significantly increases the likelihood that the client will be successful in their case,” she said.
“For example, I was referred a client who had an order for Protection hearing the same day. The client was terrified to see her abuser. She was trembling and having a difficult time articulating the facts of her case,” Melheim said.
With about 30 minutes to prepare, Melheim gathered relevant criminal history information on the opposing party, interviewed her client’s adult son who had observed the abuse and outlined her client’s testimony.
“Because of the serious physical abuse and continued fear my client experienced, I requested that the judge grant a 10-year order for protection instead of the traditional two-year order,” she said. The judge granted her request. “Having legal counsel helped my client clearly present her story to the judge with corroboration from her son and resulted in a substantially longer order.”
CMLS Executive Director Jean Lastine said she appreciates Melheim’s work “because she brings a passion for serving low-income clients to the position along with law school experiences that enabled her to quickly develop an independent caseload.”
The Archbishop Ireland Justice Fellowship provides programs like CMLS the flexibility to take on new attorneys in a way that is mutually beneficial to the organization and the fellowship attorney.
“Civil legal aid programs in Minnesota can only represent 40% of the clients eligible for our services,” Lastine said. “Overall, funding sources are not keeping up with our program costs including salaries and health insurance. The fellowship program has enabled CMLS to leverage our resources and add a position to our office to represent clients when we would otherwise not be able to hire additional staff.”
Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid Fellow Hired Full Time
Like Melheim, Ben Cichanski ’13, ’16 J.D. also transitioned to long-term employment after his fellowship ended with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid (MMLA) in St. Cloud.
“I feel that we do meaningful work,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to get a great deal of courtroom experience working on family law and housing cases. I also represent our clients as part of a new partnership started in 2019 with the pediatric clinic at CentraCare Health with the goal of tackling the legal issues that are adversely impacting health.”
MMLA’s work addresses access to justice issues such as domestic violence, immigration, public benefits and housing rights.
“I’ve worked on unique and challenging cases in counties across our service area in central Minnesota, and our office has made an impact at both a community and individual level,” Cichanski said. “For example, after one of the area’s largest employers laid off nearly 1,000 workers, we had an open house to address their health care and legal issues moving forward. On an individual level, we have represented many individuals and helped them at critical times, whether it’s fighting back against an unjust eviction or advocating for them in family court against an abusive former partner.”
He admitted that it can be difficult to hear clients’ stories, but it provides motivation for him to advocate for them and to “balance the scales for someone who would usually have a terrible time navigating the legal system on their own.”
The motivation to help those in the justice gap is shared by the partners involved in the Archbishop Ireland Justice Fellowships – the recipient, the employer and the donors.
“Our goal is to build the program to provide all the legal aid groups in Minnesota who want and need additional professional help with talented and committed grads from St. Thomas Law, via recurring and revolving one-year placements,” Helms said. “We hope to build an enduring program of recruiting, training, placing and overseeing young lawyers in all these positions.”
He gave a nod to Brabbit, whose idea to create the fellowships and “endless energy and vision” keep the program thriving.