Lyndale offering free legal clinic

Mindful of the need for affordable legal services in the neighborhood, the Lyndale Neighborhood Association recently entered into a unique partnership with attorney Emily Cooper, managing partner for Minneapolis-based Cooper & Reid, LLC, to offer free legal consultations to area residents.

According to LNA Executive Director Mark Hinds, residents regularly drop by the Lyndale Neighborhood Association’s office seeking legal advice.

Unfortunately, the neighborhood association typically can’t offer much help. Staffers do their best to direct residents toward legal resources, but there is only so much non-attorneys can do for folks embroiled in disputes with a landlord or cutoff from needed government assistance.

However, thanks to the partnership between Cooper and the LNA, professional help is now available the third Wednesday of every month.

Cooper will answer questions if she is familiar with the pertinent legal area. If she isn’t, she’ll direct folks toward other resources.

Hinds said he anticipates programs like Lyndale’s may spread across Minneapolis as neighborhoods struggle to assist residents who don’t know where to turn for much-needed professional counsel.

“There are a whole lot of people in this neighborhood who need this kind of service and some advice,” he said. “Quite frankly, there are only a handful that can afford a $300-per-hour attorney, so we really think this approach is going to be very valuable for neighborhoods like Lyndale.”

‘It was really helpful’

Terre Thomas, a Lyndale resident and a Southwest Journal columnist, didn’t know where to begin in trying to sort out her family’s legal conundrum.

Thomas’s husband was recently disabled as a result of disease, and the couple was faced with a mountain of insurance and medical paperwork. She wanted to have the power to sign documents on her husband’s behalf but wasn’t sure if she had the legal authority to do so.

Thomas read about the legal clinic in the Lyndale neighborhood’s monthly newsletter and met with Cooper for a consultation last month. Twenty minutes was all it took for Cooper to guide her to a website that allowed Thomas to complete the paperwork herself.

“It was really helpful,” Thomas wrote in an e-mail. “In our family’s case, we’ve never had any need for legal work… I didn’t know how legally complicated our situation was, nor did I know even where to go to ask if I needed a lawyer, so the clinic was perfect.”

Justice for all?

Defendants have a right to legal counsel when charged with a criminal offense, but there is no equivalent entitlement in the civil sphere.

With experienced attorneys charging hundreds of dollars per hour, it’s often impossible for those with limited financial resources to pay for the representation needed to protect them from abusive relationships, secure health care, safe housing or disability payments, and resolve family law issues including child support and custody actions.

Some subsidized legal services are available for those who can’t afford private attorneys, but demand is far greater than the supply.

Lynnhurt resident Cathy Haukedahl is the executive director for Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance (MMLA), a nonprofit that provides free legal aid to low-income individuals and families in 20 counties, including Hennepin.

The MMLA derives its funding from a variety of sources, including interest accruing on Lawyers Trust Accounts, federal grants, the state, foundations like the United Way and donations from private law firms. Almost all of these sources have contributed less as the economy slipped into recession.

Funding for the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis peaked at $6.6 million in 2008, but the organization projects revenue of under $5 million next year.

The decrease in funding “directly affects how many clients we can accept,” Haukedahl explained. “We’ve reduced staff and imposed mandatory furlough days so we can maintain as much client service as we can, but we’ve also had to turn away more people at the very time that more need our help because the recession has driven them into poverty.”

Filling the gaps

The MMLA provides free civil legal counsel only for those who fall below a strict income threshold — $27,928 for a family of four and $13,613 for individuals.

Limited resources mean the MMLA can only help one third of those who seek legal aid and fall below the income threshold, not to mention countless more who make too much to qualify.

This is where Cooper comes in. After a stint as a corporate lawyer, she spent four years working as a Legal Aid attorney before deciding to start a law firm focused on providing legal services for those who make too much to qualify for Legal Aid but too little to afford a private attorney.

“When I left Legal Aid, in my mind I always felt I wasn’t leaving because I wanted to go out and become a $250- or $300-per-hour attorney, only work with rich people and have the best office in the world overlooking the river or something. I left with the idea that there is still a need out there,” she said.

Though she’s worked a number of jobs since graduating from law school in 1996, Cooper said “the best I’ve felt is working with people who really need it — low-income and disadvantaged people.”

Unlike MMLA, Cooper’s law firm doesn’t offer free legal representation. Instead, Cooper & Reid strives to make representation affordable for those with limited means by charging according to a sliding scale based on a client’s income relative to federal poverty guidelines.

Cooper said she hopes the partnership with Lyndale will raise awareness that people don’t have to face legal issues on their own.

“I interviewed a judge who worked in family court and is now head of probate court, and asked him, what happens to people who represent themselves? He said, ‘I have very rarely seen a person who represents themselves who doesn’t screw up their case in some way,’” Cooper said.

“They aren’t getting what they could’ve gotten because they don’t know how to argue,” she said. “And in the long run, if you aren’t getting what you’re entitled to under the law, that’s not justice.”

With MMLA’s resources maxed out, Haukedahl said she supports Cooper’s effort to supply justice for all, not just for those who can afford an attorney.

“Emily is really focused on that next level of income above legal aid, and there are certainly big needs there too,” she said.  

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