Law is one thing in theory, and another in practice. In every practice area, Legal Aid attorneys encounter statutes where gaps or ambiguity leave broad room for interpretation and create unintended impediments to justice. Legal Aid’s Legal Services Advocacy Project (LSAP) is one of the state’s major conduits between theory and practice, seeking to make the written law work fairly for everyone.
LSAP Staff Attorneys Ron Elwood, Jessica Webster, and Maren Hulden meet with a substantial number of the 201 Minnesota legislators each session. They participate in multiple content area committees on a multitude of issues and work closely with agency heads. They are also in frequent communication with agency and legislative staff, evaluating the effects of statutes and administrative actions on Legal Aid’s clients. No one person can be an expert on everything, but the LSAP attorneys are able to tap the expertise of legal services attorneys throughout the state.
“When a new idea that affects our clients is introduced, we call on our Legal Aid colleagues and ask what they think the bill would do,” says Elwood. “The attorneys who work in that area can see what impact it would have – positive or negative – and thus provide clarity on what position to take in our conversations with lawmakers.”
The attorneys who work in that area can see what impact it would have – positive or negative – and thus provide clarity on what position to take in our conversations with lawmakers.”
Unlike many lobbyists and advocates, LSAP attorneys have no direct interest – financial or otherwise – in legislative outcomes at the Capitol. LSAP’s mission is legislative advocacy to educate the legislature about the needs of Legal Aid’s clients.
In 2011, Webster heard about low-income children who had their lunches publicly dumped in the garbage if parents hadn’t paid the bill. She called on the pro bono programs at several large local law firms to research school lunch practices at school districts throughout the state. That research helped immensely in getting legislation passed that protects school children from being stigmatized or punished for unpaid lunch bills. Now, schools that receive state lunch subsidies may not refuse lunch for a low-income child who lacks funds.
“We try to leverage work in coalitions,” says Webster. “Those pro bono research hours were an incredible gift from the law firm community. They provided us with important data we could call upon at the legislature. Since there are only three of us, we depend on partnerships to extend our reach.”
LSAP attorneys work with legislators across the political spectrum, and Legal Aid is well-respected on both sides of the aisle.
“If we tell them something, they know it is credible,” Elwood says. “They can feel comfortable repeating that fact or legal analysis.”
“We have solid relationships with both Democrats and Republicans,” adds Webster. “We work hard to gain everyone’s support for our positions and every issue is different. We respect the process and all of the people involved in that process. You never know who has personal experience or deep knowledge on a given issue, and alliances are sometimes unpredictable.”
In the same way that courtrooms can be inaccessible to individuals with a lack of legal training, the Capitol is not set up as an accessible place for the working public. LSAP is the voice for Legal Aid clients at the legislature.
“Just as Legal Aid fulfills the access to justice promise that is at the heart of our democracy in the court system, Legal Services Advocacy Project does in the public policy arena,” Webster says. “It’s the perfect complement to individual representation. We provide equal access to justice in a policy forum.” Leykn Schmatz