• Beginnings: 1913 – 1966
    • 1913 - The Legal Aid Department opens for business
    • 1916 – Legal Aid handles 3,029 cases
    • 1917 – Legal Aid successfully advocates for creation of a Conciliation Court in Minneapolis
    • 1926 – Maynard Pirsig becomes the Executive Director
    • 1928 – Board members include Sumner McKnight, J.B Faegre and James Dorsey
    • 1930 – George B. Leonard joins the Board
    • 1931 – The Legal Aid Department is formally incorporated
    • 1946 - The Board minutes note an increase of divorce and custody cases
    • 1947 - The Board minutes note an acute housing shortage
    • 1952 - Minneapolis Star and Minneapolis Tribune Poll
    • 1953 - John D. Dorsey joins the Legal Aid Board
    • 1955 - Delores Orey is hired as a staff attorney
    • 1956 - Don Fraser joins the Board
    • 1960 –The National Legal Aid Association reports
    • 1965 – Susanne Sedgwick is hired as a staff attorney
    • 1966 - Legal Aid its first federal grant
  • Expansion: 1967 – 1980
    • 1967 – Bernard Becker becomes litigation director for Legal Aid
    • 1969 - Luther A. Granquist and Steve Parsons are assigned as Legal Aid’s first Reginald Heber Smith
    • 1970 – Legal Aid initiates litigation to enforce implementation of the In Forma Pauperis process
    • 1972 – Legal Aid files Welsch v. Likins
    • 1973 – Federal funding begins for Legal Aid’s Developmental Disability Law Project
    • 1974 – Eric Janus, Steve Swanson, and Edward Wilson become Legal Aid staff attorneys
    • 1975 – St. Cloud Area Legal Services (SCALS) is incorporated
    • 1976 – Legal aid wins Hoehle v. Likins
    • 1977 – The regional legal aid programs in Minnesota
    • 1979 – Western Minnesota Legal Services (WMLS) is formed
  • Strengthening: 1980 – present
    • 1980 – The Minneapolis Legal Aid Board approves The Fund for the Legal Aid Society
    • 1982 - First Law Day Testimonial Dinner
    • 1983 – Legal Aid files Coleman v. Block and Gamradt v. Block
    • 1986 – The Minnesota Legislature passes new state funding for legal assistance
    • 1987 – Legal Aid, working with private co-counsel, files Hawkins v. Thorp Loan and Thrift
    • 1992 – Legal Aid brings Hollman v. Cisneros
    • 1994 – Legal Aid objects to the settlement in Buchet v. ITT Financial Services
    • 1997 - The Minnesota Supreme Court increases the annual registration fee
    • 1999 - Legal Aid brings Yang v. Department of Human Services
    • 2003 - Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center files Masterman v. Goodno
    • 2004 - Legal Aid files Dahl v. Department of Human Services
    • 2009 - Legal Aid files Brayton v. Pawlenty
    • 2012 - Two Legal Aid attorneys are appointed to the bench
    • 2013 - Legal Aid celebrates its centennial year

Beginnings: 1913 – 1966

Opening for business on April 15, 1913, Legal Aid quickly experienced a significant caseload. In this time period, Legal Aid handled a range of cases, especially wage disputes, divorce and custody, and housing. Legal Aid received its first federal grant in 1966, in the amount of $42,030.

1913

The Legal Aid Department opens for business on April 15, 1913, in Minneapolis with John Benson (Co-founder of Faegre & Benson, now Faegre Baker Daniels LLP), as its full-time attorney. Contributors included Gustav Bachman, John Crosby, George P. Flannery, Cyrus Northrup, A.F. Pillsbury, Charles Pillsbury, and C.J. Winton.

In 1912, John Cabot Benson graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School, and traveled to Chicago to study the new legal aid program in that city. He returned to Minneapolis later that year and founded the Legal Aid Department of the Family Welfare Association, handling over 3,000 cases that first year.

In 1914, Benson joined Cobb & Wheelwright, eventually renamed Faegre & Benson in his honor.  In addition to 66 years as a trial leader in one of Minnesota's most successful law firms, Benson was president of the Hennepin County Bar Association and the Minneapolis Civic Council, and involved with many other corporate and civic organizations. In 1982, John Benson was The Fund for the Legal Aid Society's first Law Day Testimonial Dinner Honoree.

1916

Legal Aid handles 3,029 cases. Half of the cases related to wages.

In 2012, Legal Aid handled more than 10,115 cases. The largest category was housing law.

1917

Legal Aid successfully advocates for creation of a Conciliation Court in Minneapolis for matters not exceeding $50.

1926

Maynard Pirsig becomes the Executive Director, serving until 1931. (Mr. Pirsig served on the Minnesota Supreme Court and became Dean of the University of Minnesota Law School.) Everett Fraser, Dean of the University of Minnesota Law School, is on the LASM Board.

Justice Maynard Pirsig was the fourth Chief Counsel/Executive Director of Legal Aid, serving from 1926-1931. He continued his ties with Legal Aid, serving on the Board of Directors from 1931 until well into the 1950s.

Justice Pirsig joined the University of Minnesota Law School faculty in 1933. In 1942, he was temporarily appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, writing more than a dozen opinions during his short tenure, several of which later became important legal precedents. Justice Pirsig also helped develop the state's county and juvenile court systems.

Justice Pirsig was Dean of the University of Minnesota Law School from 1948 to 1955, retiring from the U. in 1970, and teaching at William Mitchell until 1993. He received an honorary doctorate from William Mitchell, and the University of Minnesota's Outstanding Achievement Award.

Dean Fraser’s grandson, Tom Fraser, is now a member of The Fund for Legal Aid’s Emeritus Board.

1928

Board members include Sumner McKnight, J.B Faegre and James Dorsey.

1930

George B. Leonard joins the Board. The Legal Aid budget is about $8,500.

Legal Aid’s current budget is about $11 million.

1931

The Legal Aid Department is formally incorporated as the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis. The first Board of Directors includes: Sumner T. McKnight, Wilbur Cherry, J.B. Faegre, Daniel F. Foley, and George B. Leonard.

Board Member Wilbur Cherry also incorporated the Hennepin County Bar Association.

1946

The Board minutes note an increase of divorce and custody cases. 

In 2012, family law was Legal Aid’s third largest area of client service.

1947

John Pillsbury, Jr., joins the Board.

The Board minutes note an acute housing shortage which “has resulted in this society’s representation of many tenants in these matters.”

In 2012, Legal Aid represented and advised almost 3,300 clients with housing matters.

1952

A Minneapolis Star and Minneapolis Tribune poll for the Minnesota State Bar Association shows that 52 percent of Minnesotans do not think there is a place a low-income person can go for free legal advice.

1953

John D. Dorsey joins the Legal Aid Board.

1955

Delores Orey is hired as a staff attorney.

Ms. Orey went on to become a Hennepin County District Court Judge known for leading efforts on the bench regarding the rights of abused women.

1956

Don Fraser joins the Board.

Don Fraser, son of Dean Everett Fraser, became Mayor of Minneapolis and a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

1960

The National Legal Aid Association reports that between 1950 and 1960 the number of legal aid offices nationally went from 87 to 210.

An international legal aid organization is formed.

The Ford Foundation funds the National Council on Legal Aid clinics to build support for law school clinics.

1965

Susanne Sedgwick is hired as a staff attorney.

Ms. Sedgwick went on to serve as a district court judge and on the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Legal Aid hired Susanne C. Sedgwick as a staff attorney in 1965. A pioneer in law throughout her career, she became Minnesota's first female Assistant County Attorney in 1968. In 1970, she was the first female attorney elected to serve as a Minnesota trial court judge. In 1974, Judge Sedgwick was appointed to Hennepin County District Court, the first woman to serve there. In 1983, she was appointed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Judge Sedgwick, attended the University of Minnesota and William Mitchell College of Law (1956, cum laude. She was a founding member of the Minnesota Women's Political Caucus, and of the National Association of Women Judges. In 1984 she was the first recipient of the Myra Bradwell Award for expressing the highest ideals of the legal profession and possessing the qualities of courage, perseverance, and leadership on issues of concern to women.

Her last position was Vice Chair of the Minnesota Supreme Court's Gender Fairness Task Force. She died in 1988; the Task Force's final report in September of 1989 was dedicated to her memory.

1966

The federal Office of Economic Opportunity gives Legal Aid its first federal grant in the amount of $42,030.

In 2012, Legal Aid received federal grants totaling more than $3 million from the Department of Justice, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, and the Social Security Administration.

Expansion: 1967 – 1980

Continued building and growth characterized this period, with Legal Aid enjoying significant staff, program and funding expansion. Key victories were also achieved in areas such as equal access to justice for the poor, race discrimination and protections for people with developmental disabililities and people with mental illness.

1967

Bernard Becker becomes litigation director for Legal Aid.

Mr. Becker went on to become a law school professor, U.S. Magistrate, and the President of the Legal Aid Board.

Serving as Legal Aid's Litigation Director from 1967 to 1973, Bernard Becker oversaw the successful filing of federal class actions Carter v. Gallagher (challenging race discrimination in employment by the Minneapolis Fire Department) and Welsch v. Likins (challenging the unacceptable living conditions and lack of treatment of persons with mental retardation in Minnesota's state hospitals).

Becker obtained his law degree at University of Minnesota Law School, quickly establishing a reputation for high standards and fierce advocacy at Legal Aid. He taught at the William Mitchell College of Law starting in 1973 through the rest of his life. Appointed a part-time United States Magistrate in 1986, he specialized in prisoners' rights cases at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester. He also taught at University of Minnesota Law School from 1986 to 1991, remembered as an expert on Native American law.

Becker served as MMLA board president from 1984 to 1986, and the Minnesota State Bar Association annually recognizes the dedicated service and outstanding achievements of civil legal services staff and volunteer law students with the Bernard P. Becker Award.

1969

Luther A. Granquist and Steve Parsons are assigned as Legal Aid’s first Reginald Heber Smith Fellows.

Legal Aid has since been fortunate to receive numerous additional attorney Fellows from programs such as Equal Justice Works, Liman (Yale University), and Robina (University of Minnesota Law School).

1970

Legal Aid initiates litigation to enforce implementation of the In Forma Pauperis process which waives court filing fees and some costs for people with low incomes.

Legal Aid files Carter v. Gallagher, a federal class action challenging race discrimination in employment by the Minneapolis Fire Department.

This case, which resulted in desegregation of the department, continued to have court oversight until 2000.

1972

Legal Aid files Welsch v. Likins, a federal class action successfully challenging the unacceptable living conditions and lack of treatment of persons with mental retardation in Minnesota’s state hospitals.

1973

Federal funding begins for Legal Aid’s Developmental Disability Law Project.

In 2012, Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center received federal funds totaling $1.7 million and served 1,178 clients with a wide range of disabilities throughout the state.

1974

Eric Janus, Steve Swanson, and Edward Wilson become Legal Aid staff attorneys.

Legal Aid wins Bennett v. Butz, a federal class action challenging the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s failure to spend $278 million of appropriated funds on the food stamp program.

The federal Legal Services Corporation Act is signed by President Nixon.

Mr. Janus is now Dean of William Mitchell College of Law. Mr. Swanson became a Hennepin County District Court Judge. Mr. Wilson became a Ramsey County District Court Judge.

In 1972, Harvard Law School student Eric Janus flew to Minneapolis to interview with a prestigious firm and with the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, discovering that Legal Aid “embodied precisely the values of lawyering I sought."

Janus finished at Harvard (cum laude), and worked at Legal Aid for the next eleven years, including seven as a managing attorney. As part of the William Mitchell Faculty he became nationally known for his pioneering legal and legislative efforts on behalf of constitutional rights for the mentally disabled. Janus and wife Carolyn Chalmers have continued to be strong and consistent supporters of Legal Aid.

In 2008, William Mitchell College of Law named Janus as its 24th president and dean. William Mitchell and Legal Aid enjoy a strong relationship, to the mutual benefit of our clients and many generations of law students.

Mr. Janus is now Dean of William Mitchell College of Law. Mr. Swanson became a Hennepin County District Court Judge. Mr. Wilson became a Ramsey County District Court Judge.

1975

St. Cloud Area Legal Services (SCALS) is incorporated to serve Stearns, Sherburne and Benton Counties.

SCALS and Minneapolis Legal Aid joined together in 1976. In 2012, Legal Aid’s St. Cloud office served 2,655 clients in 9 central Minnesota counties.

1976

Legal aid wins Hoehle v. Likins, a class action challenging the incorrect calculation of  Federal Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) grants received by persons having a shared household with Social Security Insurance (SSI) recipients.

1977

The regional legal aid programs in Minnesota create the Legal Services Advocacy Project (LSAP). LSAP advocates with the legislature and state agencies on the impact of existing and proposed laws and regulations on low-income and other vulnerable populations.

1979

Western Minnesota Legal Services (WMLS) is formed.

WMLS later incorporated and became part of Legal Aid. In 2012, Legal Aid’s Willmar office served 1,254 clients in 10 western Minnesota counties.

Strengthening: 1980 – present

Important funding sources were established, including The Fund for the Legal Aid Society and funding from the state of Minnesota, interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) and more. Significant legal victories continue to be achieved, along with organizational progress with the merging of previous member corporations into one corporation.

1980

The Minneapolis Legal Aid Board approves creation of a separately incorporated funding arm called The Fund for the Legal Aid Society.

Legal Aid is formally designated as the Protection & Advocacy organization in Minnesota for people with developmental disabilities. The designation was subsequently amended to add advocacy for people with mental illness and physical disabilities, among others. Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center does this work for people with disabilities statewide. Legal Aid is formally designated as the Protection & Advocacy organization in Minnesota for people with developmental disabilities.

The Minnesota Legal Services Coalition is formed by the regional legal services programs that together provide comprehensive civil legal services to people with low incomes in all 87 Minnesota counties.

Since 1980, The Fund has raised more than $16.5 million for Legal Aid.

1982

The Fund for the Legal Aid Society holds its initial Law Day Testimonial Dinner, honoring John C. Benson.

With the support of the Minnesota State Bar Association and a number of banking institutions, the Minnesota Supreme Court amends the Rules of Professional Conduct to create the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program. Pursuant to this rule, lawyers with small or short-term deposits of client funds deposit them in a joint interest-bearing account. The interest is turned over to the Supreme Court, primarily to support civil legal assistance to low-income persons.The Minnesota Legislature provides the first state funding for civil legal services in Minnesota, supported by a $10 surcharge on most civil court filing fees. (The Legislature later changed the funding to a specific appropriation out of the General Fund.)

Proposed restrictions on the use of federal Legal Services Corporation funds prompts the Minneapolis, St. Cloud and Western organizations to create a new, non-LSC funded corporation, Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance (MMLA).

In 2013, the Law Day Testimonial Dinner celebrating Legal Aid's centennial had more than 1,000 attendees and honored Legal Aid Staff.

1983

Legal Aid files Coleman v. Block and Gamradt v. Block, successful class actions challenging the federal government’s foreclosure practices regarding family farms in Minnesota.

1986

The Minnesota Legislature passes new state funding for legal assistance to financially distressed family farmers. Some of these funds will be subcontracted by Legal Aid to Farmers Legal Action Group, formed and led by former Legal Aid Litigation Director Jim Massey.

Legal Aid files Murray and Houle v. Lyng, a class action challenging rules that reduced food stamps for low-income foster families. After losses in district court and before the 8th Circuit, the USDA adopted regulations that increased food stamp payments to low income foster families by 20 million dollars a year.

1987

Legal Aid, working with private co-counsel, files Hawkins v. Thorp Loan and Thrift, companion consumer class actions in state and federal court challenging defendant’s sale of costly credit life insurance in conjunction with its loans. The Minnesota Supreme Court held this practice unlawful. The case then settled with payments to the consumer class and an injunction regulating the defendant’s sales practices when making these loans. The defendant stopped making the loans.

1992

Legal Aid brings Hollman v. Cisneros, a federal class action on behalf of a group of African American and Southeast Asian families, challenging historical patterns of race discrimination in the siting of public housing in Minneapolis. A consent decree in 1995 provided for the demolition and reconstruction of public housing, a community planning process, and new Section 8 vouchers to provide broader geographic choice and better living conditions for class members.

Legal Aid, working with private co-counsel, files Miller v. Colortyme, a state court class action on behalf of thousands of low-income consumers who entered “Rent to Own (RTO)” contracts to purchase goods at extremely high interest rates. The Minnesota Supreme Court held the contracts were subject to the caps on interest rates.

Working with private counsel, Legal Aid files Fogie v. Rent-A-Center, a federal class action challenging defendant’s RTO sales. The federal court held the contracts usurious, ordering refund of all payments of principal, interest, and fees. In 1999, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s damage awards in excess of $30 million.

1994

Legal Aid objects to the settlement in Buchet v. ITT Financial Services, a federal class action, on the grounds that the settlement did not provide any money damages to the plaintiff class, but only provided coupons that could be used to make certain purchases – and half of the class members would not be eligible to use the coupons. The court rejected the settlement, and Legal Aid negotiated a new settlement providing for approximately $6.5 million for the plaintiff class.

1997

The Minnesota Supreme Court, with the support of the MSBA, increases the annual registration fee of most lawyers by $50, and the revenue is used to support civil legal services programs. Minnesota is the first state in the U.S. to do this.

In 2011, this was permanently increased to $75. This raises almost $1.5 million per year statewide.

1999

Legal Aid brings Yang v. Department of Human Services, successfully challenging the publication by DHS of the application for various low income health care programs in English only, thus violating federal law requiring access to information in services in multiple languages.

2003

Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center files Masterman v. Goodno, challenging the state’s plan for massive cuts to the Medicaid waiver program serving people with developmental disabilities. As a result, the state restored over $50 million to the waiver program and provided protection against future cuts.

Starting with Perish v. Allina-Abbott Northwestern, Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center brings and settles actions against 8 major hospitals over the next few years, challenging their failure to provide American Sign Language interpreters for deaf patients. All of the cases settled with defendants agreeing to detailed, systemic corrective action.

Case Studies

2004

Legal Aid files Dahl v. Department of Human Services, successfully challenging a state Medical Assistance statute that allowed medical providers to refuse services to persons who couldn’t afford co-payments.

2009

Legal Aid files Brayton v. Pawlenty, challenging the Governor’s use of the unallotment statute to balance the budget, which included elimination of the Special Diet Program used by low-income Minnesotans to meet medically-required diet needs. The Minnesota Supreme Court held the Governor’s action exceeded his authority, and the special diet funds were reinstated.

2012

Two Legal Aid attorneys are appointed to the bench: Sarah Hennesy is appointed as a judge in the Seventh Judicial District; and Kristin Siegesmund is appointed as a judge in the Fourth Judicial District.

Legal Aid’s member corporations (Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, St. Cloud Area Legal Services, and Western Minnesota Legal Services) dissolve and formally merge into Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid to form one corporation with one board of directors.

Sarah Hennesy came to St. Cloud Legal Aid in 2007. After receiving her J.D. with honors from Drake Law School in Des Moines, she served as an Assistant Appellate Defender in Iowa, Deputy Public Defender in Virginia, and represented English and Spanish-speaking children and adults in private practice in criminal, family, juvenile, personal injury, special education, contracts, and landlord/tenant law.

At Legal Aid, Sarah was a partner on the highly recognized Stearns County Domestic Violence Court Project. As the civil legal attorney, she worked closely with victims who survived repeated severe violence. Sarah excelled at building trust through her calm and focused dedication, her ability to listen and advise without judging the victims.

In 2012, Sarah was appointed as a judge in the Seventh Judicial District.

Kristin Siegesmund started as a staff attorney at Legal Aid in 1989. She lived her passionate commitment to equal justice throughout her 24 years at Legal Aid, with equal focus and attention on individual clients and national multi-district litigation in federal court. She practiced multiple areas of law – housing, housing discrimination, debt collection defense, special education advocacy, mortgage foreclosure defense – leading most of these practice areas at different points as well.

Kristin earned her law degree from University of Michigan cum laude, and practiced with the Department of Justice and Faegre Baker Daniels. She has taught numerous courses at William Mitchell College of Law and served as Chair of the St. Louis Park Human Rights Commission. She was a member of the Governor’s Advisory Council for Technology for Persons with Disabilities.

In 2012, Kristin was appointed as a judge in the Fourth Judicial District.

Legal Aid appointees to the Bench

Legal Aid has a long tradition of judicial appointments, with former staff going to District, State Courts and Federal Courts.

Maynard Pirsig Minnesota Supreme Court Judge
Delores Orey Hennepin County District Court Judge
Susanne Sedgwick Hennepin County District Court Judge, Minnesota Court of Appeals Justice
Bernard Becker U.S. Magistrate Judge
Edward Wilson Second Judicial District Court Judge
Steve Swanson Hennepin County District Court Judge
Lyonel Norris Fourth Judicial District Court Judge

In 2012, two more Legal Aid attorneys were appointed as District Court Judges.

2013

Legal Aid celebrates its centennial year and begins its second century of service.