In high school, Ann Cofell loved to argue and wanted to do public service. After law school, she applied only for legal aid positions with direct client contact. Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid offered her a position at the St. Cloud office in 1980, so she moved back to her hometown and has been there ever since. Now deputy director, she manages the St. Cloud and Willmar offices, mentors young attorneys, and continues to serve clients directly.
Cofell has been recognized numerous times for her contributions in the St. Cloud community. She played a key role in developing the innovative Stearns County Domestic Violence Court, an award-winning initiative that brings together the criminal and civil justice systems and provides safety for victims of felony level domestic violence.
AALM: What did you learn in your early days at Legal Aid?
Cofell: I still enjoy a good debate, but I’ve found that the most interesting challenge comes with looking beyond the conflict to the underlying issues. My goal, no matter who I’m working with, is to see if we can work together. When someone says, “I can’t do that,” my first question is, “What’s the challenge? Help me to understand.” That shift in perspective changes the whole dynamic, and it’s so much more satisfying than winning an argument.
AALM: Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall says that your work with the Domestic Violence Court (DVC) has changed the entire criminal justice response to domestic violence in this community and beyond. Can you tell us a bit about that work?
Cofell: Holistic legal representation helps the victims to trust a system that has not worked for them in the past. Before the DVC, reporting abuse often added new problems such as loss of income, health insurance, or housing, without necessarily stopping the abuse. Victims had no one to speak with confidentially about the criminal prosecution of their abusers. I have learned to have tremendous respect for domestic violence victims’ courage and gratitude for their trust in us.
AALM: How has the increased immigration to central Minnesota affected your work?
Cofell: Many of our clients are immigrant families from Somalia or Central or South America. Personal details may be different from our clients of 30 years ago, but the concerns are the same. People want to work and provide for their families, and they want their children to get an education and feel safe and secure.
When the DACA termination date of March 5, 2018, was announced, Willmar and St. Cloud staff immediately reviewed every DACA file and contacted clients to help them meet the Oct. 5 renewal deadline. Volunteer lawyers from Rinke Noonan Law Firm and Quinlivan & Hughes P.A. staff our naturalization clinics to serve clients who would otherwise be turned away. Working in community with partners who care about their neighbors, new and old, has enabled us to expand our services at this crucial time.
AALM: What is the hardest part of your role at Legal Aid?
Cofell: Sometimes I have to tell someone they don’t have a legal case. That can be hard, but it’s reality. Sometimes they do have a case and need a lawyer, and we send them to court alone because we don’t have enough staff. That’s the worst.
AALM: What is the best part of your job?
Cofell: I work with a lot of people who haven’t seen our justice system work for them. I get to stand with them, and together we see outcomes that change lives – theirs, and others in similar situations. That brings me a lot of joy.
Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid provides free civil legal advice and representation to Minnesotans who cannot afford an attorney. Legal Aid serves people with low incomes in 20 counties and people with disabilities.