Celebrating our 110th Anniversary
An oral history of SMRLS: Part I
When staff joke that Bruce Beneke has been with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) since the beginning, there’s some truth in what they’re saying.
After serving as a lawyer in Vietnam, Bruce joined Legal Assistance of Ramsey County (LARC), SMRLS’ predecessor law firm, as a Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) attorney. At the time, VISTA attorneys helped grow legal aid staff, community programs (such as battered women’s shelters), and pro bono programs to meet the increasing need for legal aid across the country.
Due to limited local resources, the scope of LARC’s services was much narrower than what SMRLS offers today. LARC typically handled family law, social security, and landlord-tenant cases for clients in Ramsey County. As the demand for legal aid continued to rise, it became clear that LARC needed to secure a dependable source of funding. With the help of the Ramsey County Bar Association and Ramsey Actions Program, LARC became the first legal aid provider in the country in 1964 to secure federal funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity.
In 1974, the federal government established the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to fund non-profit legal aid providers across the country, a move supported by bar associations, client groups, and national legal aid leaders. Locally, and with the support of the LARC Board, client/community leaders and local pro bono lawyers, Bruce traveled to Minnesota’s southern counties to recruit support from local and District Bars.
“Having grown up in a small town [Glencoe], and with my dad’s solo practitioner background; and having in earlier years played high school sports against some of the younger rural lawyers, meetings with local bar associations turned out to be very interesting, and at times, a lot of fun, though not without a few challenging moments,” Bruce remembers. “At one such meeting in Brown County, local lawyers voiced their significant concerns about LARC competing with their firms for business, and were not sure they could support LARC’s expansion.”
[Pictured: Bruce Beneke (left); Paul Onkka, first managing attorney (second from right); Martha Eaves, former SMRLS attorney and Bruce's wife (far right) circa 1977.]
Bruce recalls explaining at the Brown County meeting that LARC would not compete with private practice business because they could not take fee-generating cases. Bruce added, “Besides, legal aid will sue your clients in legal areas they never dreamed of!” The county bar president, a leading statewide litigator from New Ulm, recognizing the possible future opportunities, said with a big grin on his face, “We have nothing to fear in supporting them!”
“With that strong endorsement, the bar group voted nearly unanimously to support LARC and I was greatly relieved,” Bruce says.
Similar partnerships across the country became a driving force in convincing Congress to federally fund rural legal services in all counties in the U.S. and Migrant and Native American legal services. With LSC funding in place, LARC had the resources to expand its services to the southern third of the state and was renamed Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) to accurately reflect its new coverage area.
In addition to bar and client/community support, Bruce credits bipartisanship that’s spanned decades as one secret to SMRLS’ growth and longevity. In the 1970s, SMRLS area congressmen, Republican Rep. Al Quie and Democrat Rep. Bruce Vento, advocated strongly for LSC to expand legal aid to rural areas. However, by the early 1980s, LSC faced elimination by national leaders from other states. Thanks to help from the American Bar Association, state bars like the Minnesota State Bar Association (MSBA), existing bipartisan community partnerships like SMRLS and others, the National Legal Aid Defenders Association, and major corporations such as 3M, Congress eventually limited the cuts to LSC to 25 percent, though this had a harsh impact on low-income people seeking equal justice.
A bipartisan approach also helped mitigate the impact of the LSC cuts. Working in coordination with the Minnesota Supreme Court and the MSBA, the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition program became the second legal aid network, nationally, to receive state funds with strong support from both sides of the aisle.
SMRLS’ good fortune continued, Bruce recalls, when state Reps. Mark Piepho (Mankato Republican) and Tom Pugh (South St. Paul Democrat) cast the key votes in 1982 to create state funding for legal aid. A decade later, Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone and Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad, working together, fiercely defended legal aid in Congress, when there was another serious attempt to end LSC funding.
Bruce firmly believes that the deep dedication, outstanding day-to day legal work, creative community lawyering and systemic work of LARC/SMRLS staff, and pro bono attorneys since the 1960s, are major factors in the funding success that SMRLS continues to enjoy to this day.
For example, when Bruce co-founded the Campaign for Legal Aid (CLA) in 1989-90, it grew in significant part, out of the respect by private and corporate attorneys for legal aid staff and pro bono legal work. Early Campaign committee volunteers came from across the spectrum of attorneys, including volunteers from large firms including Briggs and Morgan and Robins Kaplan, smaller firms like the Murnane, O’Neill, Oppenheimer and Penn law firms, and corporate legal departments such as 3M. With matching funds from the St. Paul Foundation, these Campaign volunteers recruited local firms to pledge $200 dollars per attorney for three years in an effort to establish SMRLS as a perennial beneficiary of charitable support. It’s safe to say their plan worked. Since 1991, the CLA has raised more than $13 million dollars for SMRLS.
[Pictured: Steve Kirsch, CLA Chair (left) and Bruce Beneke (right) at the 2019 Lawyers on Ice hockey event.]
In his four decades with SMRLS, including service as executive director from 1977-2007, Bruce has seen many changes, but many important things have remained consistent.
“I’m most proud of the people who’ve been a part of SMRLS,” Bruce says. “The courage and strength of our clients; the dedication, compassion and outstanding work of our staff, board, pro bono, and Campaign lawyers; and the critical support of bar, judicial, corporate, community, legislative and local public and private funding leaders have, together, created a wonderful equal justice village and brought hope, empowerment and opportunity to persons in great need.”