Celebrating our 110th Anniversary
An oral history of SMRLS: Part 3
At Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS), Barbara Penn has almost done it all.
Barbara first came to SMRLS has a volunteer attorney in the late 1970’s. At that time, the firm no longer used the name Legal Assistance of Ramsey County. The firm had recently adopted the name SMRLS and began serving clients in the southern third of Minnesota. As its client base grew, the need for funding and volunteer attorneys was great.
“I was proud to be participating in such a good program,” Barbara recalls. “I was always impressed by the people who worked at SMRLS.”
A few years prior in 1974, the federal government founded the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to fund non-profit legal aid providers across the nation. Barbara’s role at SMRLS grew into serving on the Board of Directors. In this new position of leadership, Barbara faced her biggest challenge yet: making sure SMRLS would continue to receive federal funding. In this era of political unrest, the fate of LSC grew uncertain.
An attorney from Washington D.C. visited St. Paul to interview Barbara and others associated with SMRLS – or “grill” as she remembers – about SMRLS’ work and why it should continue to receive federal funding.
“I hoped I didn’t answer her questions in a way that would harm SMRLS,” Barbara says.
Following the interview, Barbara learned the interviewer was favorably impressed by SMRLS all along, although that did not exempt SMRLS from the scrutiny legal aid providers encountered across the country. Fortunately, eventual bipartisan congressional support ensured renewed LSC funding.
Barbara soon became Board President and took on a new challenge – private fundraising. Up until this point, SMRLS had largely relied on the government to fund its services.
“Getting enough money has always been the biggest problem to meet the needs for SMRLS’ client services,” Barbara remembers.
[Pictured right: Barbara receiving the Lifetime Leadership Award in 2008]
Although Barbara admits to not being a natural fundraiser, in the early 2000s she became the part-time Development Director at SMRLS to lead the firm’s private fundraising efforts. Her passion and work ethic led to the creation of a handful of new initiatives, many of which remain today.
“We found ways for volunteers to get involved in other ways than just volunteering. We came up with ‘Lawyers on Ice’ to recruit a younger generation to get involved with SMRLS,” Barbara says.
Barbara also helped establish a fall appreciation luncheon for SMRLS staff and volunteers and legal community. Perhaps Barbara’s most lasting impact was the co-founding of the Campaign for Legal Aid (CLA) fundraising committee in 1989-90. The CLA began its fundraising mission by recruiting local law firms and their attorneys to support SMRLS. Years later, the CLA is prosperous as ever, having raised more than $13 million since its founding.
Although it wasn’t always easy, Barbara’s dedication to SMRLS and her personal commitment to legal aid were always strong.
“I had great satisfaction from volunteering for an organization that I believed in. I got as much as I gave.”
An oral history of SMRLS: Part 2
Georgia Sherman accepted a secretarial position with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) in 1977. At the time, she had not yet realized that this was the same law firm that enforced her tenant rights in a landlord-tenant dispute a few years earlier.
That’s not surprising. Since her introduction to the firm as a client, the location of the office had changed as well as the name of the organization – from Legal Assistance of Ramsey County to SMRLS.
Following SMRLS’ high-profile settlement with the Owatonna Canning Co., Georgia started working as a Clerk Typist at SMRLS. Under the patient and skillful guidance of Bruce Beneke’s Executive Legal Secretary, Shelia Norman, Georgia soon began typing dissolutions and legal briefs on her state-of-the-art IBM Selectric typewriter.
Georgia quickly became caught up in the passion and energy of the young attorneys changing the world (or at least the southern half of Minnesota) by giving voices to those who would not otherwise be heard. A whirlwind of energy encompassed Georgia’s early days with SMRLS, which even after 40 years, has never died down.
“I was struck by how smart the SMRLS attorneys were,” Georgia recalls. “They sparked a passion in me I didn’t know existed.”
Georgia knew her fate was sealed when Sheila Norman announced that she could predict which staff would and would not stand the test of time, proclaiming she knew Georgia would become a SMRLS “lifer”. Sheila was right. Forty years later, Georgia says she remains inspired working alongside the most talented and brightest minds she has ever encountered.
“I once heard that you should surround yourself with people you can learn from and grow with,” Georgia remembers. “I couldn’t have found a better place than SMRLS to learn and grow.”
[Pictured right: Georgia and her daughter in 1977]
Georgia recognized the challenges of working with an organization that consistently had more needs than resources, which ultimately required her to dig deep to be innovative, resourceful, and responsible. These challenges helped Georgia hone her problem-solving skills, leaving her with a long list of proud successes and accomplishments. Georgia created SMRLS’ first screening manual, served as a key player in organizing several office moves, created the central office filing system, and drafted the first set of pro se court forms, all while also working part-time at the Cooperation for the Children Program for Ramsey and Carlton Counties in 1996-97.
Gone are her early days of answering phones and typing legal documents. Today, Georgia conducts client screenings, supervises 10 staff members, manages daily operations of the office, and most importantly, makes sure everything flows.
Although Georgia prefers to remain out of the limelight, others have taken notice of her contributions to SMRLS over the years. She was the first recipient of the Charlton J. Dietz and Bruce A. Beneke Legal Services Outstanding Advocate Award in November 2011. Most recently, on Friday, April 26, 2019, the Minnesota State Bar Association presented Georgia with the 2019 Bernard P. Becker Staff/Advocate Award for her 40 year legacy of commitment, compassion and professionalism toward SMRLS’ clients and staff.
[Pictured right: Georgia presenting her 2019 Bernard P. Becker Staff/Advocate Award]
After four decades with SMRLS, a common theme remains since her first day on the job.
“I’m proud to be a part of a group of people who are dedicated and passionate about their work,” she says. “The frosting on the cake is that we get life from each other’s passion, which motivates each of us to do the best job possible and feel good about our work at the end of the day.”
An oral history of SMRLS: Part 1
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); Charles Willoughby (Second from 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.”