Alysia Zens: Bold Leadership During Great Change

Alysia Zens
2024 Feature Nominations

For many, 2020 has been a year of uncertainty. For Alysia Zens, Pro Bono Counsel at Dorsey & Whitney LLP, 2020 has also presented new opportunities to adapt, to collaborate and to lead. Now in her 20th year of practice at Dorsey, Zens brings energy, focus and compassionate legal advocacy to the many causes of social justice that are made all the more urgent by this year’s events.

Zens began her legal career as a summer associate at Dorsey, and after her graduation from the University of Minnesota Law School, she stayed on as an attorney. “Originally, I did health law work for nonprofit healthcare systems, making sure they were in compliance with regulations,” Zens says. “One piece was helping with their tax-exempt status. I loved nonprofit law in general, and it’s where I did most of my pro bono work. I enjoyed being able to connect with the people on the ground who were making a difference.”

When Zens became pregnant with twins five years into her practice, she considered leaving the firm to work as a nonprofit administrator. Rather than risk losing a valued colleague, Dorsey worked with Zens to create a new position that amplified her passions and talents. “My role is largely to serve our nonprofit clients in a pro bono context. It’s always been part of our pro bono structure to support nonprofits. We have about 300 nonprofit matters at any time, and I’m a resource to those attorneys who have those files and who sit on boards.”

A connector by nature, Zens is ideally suited for a role in which she is constantly linking people and resources. “It’s phenomenal to be able to touch so many different organizations and issues, and to put people together to talk and learn from each other.”

Providing support to pro bono attorneys is one of Zens’ key responsibilities. She often connects pro bono lawyers with resource attorneys within the firm, specialists who are ready to offer practical guidance in their areas of law when volunteers are doing work outside of their legal wheelhouse. “I’ve observed that while litigation attorneys tend to feel more comfortable rolling up their sleeves and figuring it out, transactional attorneys often have a harder time in the pro bono world because they’re not usually doing the work they would do every day. I have 15 years of helping transactional attorneys feel comfortable doing pro bono.”

Dorsey’s approach to pro bono work differs from that of many other large firms. Rather than selecting a signature project, the firm instead allows attorneys to find and follow their individual passion projects. “What I’ve always really appreciated at Dorsey is our eclectic approach to finding something for everyone. And if we don’t have it, you can build it. The focus is on finding the passion for each of our lawyers. It’s not about getting PR. It could even be a small or unpopular issue, but the firm still wants you to do it. Passion is an important element.”

While Zens is usually involved in ramping up a new pro bono project every four to six weeks, due to the current outcry for racial justice, she assisted with 15 new projects in June alone. “The cool thing is that we were already set up to be able to respond to a lot of different needs, and people were ready to help. We didn’t have to sit down as a collective and determine one place where we could have a big impact. This is an opportunity to pursue projects that aren’t necessarily in line with each other and explore different ways of fixing a problem.”


Change requires courage. Change calls upon individuals and organizations to make difficult, and sometimes, unpopular choices. Dorsey and its lawyers have summoned that courage.

Effective June 2, 2020, Dorsey ended its Minneapolis City Attorney program, under which Dorsey attorneys provided legal services assisting the prosecution of misdemeanor cases in the City of Minneapolis. This decision was motivated by studies demonstrating that prosecution of misdemeanors disproportionately impact the Black community.

Dorsey has refocused its pro bono resources to advance numerous causes that promote criminal justice reform, nonprofit formation and programming support, protester assistance, reform advocacy, and other underrepresented issues. Here are just a few:

  • Formal Partnership with State and Federal Public Defender Programs
  • Human Rights Commission Work on Racially Restrictive Covenants
  • Jim Crow Unanimous Juries Project, LA
  • Ongoing Legal Assistance to Nonprofits
  • Protestor Rights
  • Racially Discriminatory Policing, ACLU LA Project
  • Reentry Collaborative Justice Project
  • Police Reform
  • Election Voting Rights

Dorsey stands with 240 law firms across the world as a charter member of the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance (LFAA). “We’re trying to figure out right now how we can harness the power of big firm lawyers to make the greatest impact. It’s an exciting group to be a part of, with members and law firms across professions and across humanity who all have a desire for this to be a turning point in history — not just a social blip, after which we all carry on.”

Zens also represents Dorsey as a member of the Twin Cities Pro Bono Professionals, a group of representatives from law firms across the metro with paid pro bono staff who meet once a month to collaborate on various projects. “There’s no competition among us. The Twin Cities is a friendly legal market anyway, and it helps to use our collaboration for big, important issues.”

Since the onset of COVID-19 and the crisis of justice after the death of George Floyd, the group has been meeting weekly, in part, just to check in with one another. “Attorney wellness is especially important right now, along with human wellness in general. Recent events have been emotionally taxing for everyone, and it’s hard to be in a position where you feel responsible for harnessing the power of the law field in the right way.”
Zens and a few of her friends and colleagues, including Pro Bono Coordinator Sue Kjelvik, share a gratitude list each morning. “In the last few weeks we’ve added a ‘because of ’ statement, focusing on one thing we did and why it mattered — even if it’s mundane — so we don’t feel so overwhelmed. I’m sitting with my feet in the grass when I do that, so I can really get grounded.”

According to Zens, 2020 has presented everyone with an opportunity to be in action — and this opportunity is a gift. She emphasizes that no one has to stand alone. “Use your collaboratives. It’s why we have the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance, so one firm is not out there all by themselves, so they don’t have to worry about losing billable clients. Our willingness to collaborate gives us all a safety net. We need for our doors to remain open so that we can keep on making a difference.”

For those who want to make a contribution and don’t know where to start, she says that nonprofits make ideal partners, since they are already well-versed on the issues and know where the need is. “There are a lot of advocacy and nonprofit organizations here, and we have a very collaborative environment. If you feel that your area of law doesn’t work for pro bono, they all have mentors to help you get involved. We cannot stop. We must carry this energy forward. This cannot just be a phase. There is a lot of fear out there among many who want change that once everything returns to normal, people will stop talking and caring about racial justice. I promise that when you make room, pro bono will give you back more than it takes. It’s going to fill your soul.”

H.K. Wilson

H.K. Wilson is a contributing writer for Attorney at Law Magazine. She has been writing features for the publication for more than four years.

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