Breaking the Ice: Legal aid lawyer puts mission over pay — MinnLawyer

Woman with long brown hair wearing black high-collar sweater

By Todd Nelson, Minnesota Lawyer

Sarah McGuire, supervising attorney with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid (MMLA) in St. Cloud, said she’s “never had a job where the primary goal was the pay.”

Before law school and MMLA, she worked with children in a psychiatric hospital and was a social worker for families that faced entering the foster care system.

“I’m more drawn to a mission and what the organization wants to accomplish,” McGuire said.

At MMLA, McGuire oversees family law attorneys, keeps track of their caseloads and runs office-wide family law meetings that include attorneys in the agency’s Minneapolis and Wilmar offices. She also represents victims in Stearns County Felony Domestic Violence Court.

McGuire recently received the Bernard P. Becker Emerging Leader Award from the Minnesota State Bar Association. Recipients are attorneys with up to 10 years of legal aid experience and “a record of outstanding service and/or extraordinary accomplishments in the field.”

Name: Sarah McGuire
Title: Supervising attorney, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, St. Cloud
Education: B.A., sociology, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; J.D., Hamline University School of Law

Q: Best way to start a conversation with you?
A: Email. Love an email. I have a lot going on, so email is nice in that I can see it, digest it and then respond when I have a moment or the wherewithal to respond.

Q: Why law school?
A: When I was a social worker, one of my cases involved a family with a hoarder. In every court hearing, I’d watch the state’s attorney and think to myself, “I could absolutely do your job better than you.” After I thought that several times, I was like, “OK, I need to go do it.” I went to Hamline because my dad went to law school there.

Q: What are you reading?
A: I’m working my way through a list of the 15 novels written by women that all women should read. I’m about a third of the way through the list and am on “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë.

Q: Pet peeve?
A: Hearing people chew.

Q: Best part of your work?
A: Riding out a case with the client and by the end of it, they have their feet underneath them again and feel empowered. It’s an incredible thing to watch, because you meet someone at the worst time and then you get to be a part of their journey of rebuilding.

Q: Most challenging?
A: There’s a lot of trauma. A lot of second-hand trauma. You meet some lovely people who have been through things that they absolutely did not deserve. Being strong for them, but also being compassionate to them, can get really hard and really heavy. From a nonprofit perspective, we don’t have enough funds to take everybody’s case.

Q: Favorite activity away from work?
A: Now that we’re coming into summer, I love a good farmers market. I love baking, so I enjoy bringing home whatever little goodies I can find.

Q: Where would you take someone visiting your hometown?
A: If you like corn, my hometown is the place for you. I grew up in central Illinois, in a very small town. There’s a nice botanical garden and walking and running path where, when I was growing up, everybody would get their senior pictures taken because that was the only photogenic place to go.

Q: Legal figure you admire?
A: My deputy director, Ann Cofell. She’s been the face of this office and she’s really dedicated to the legal aid mission. She has such poise and grace when she deals with clients and coworkers. She cares about everyone.

Q: Misconception about your work?
A: Every legal aid lawyer and every public defender has heard that we’re not real lawyers, because we don’t charge, which is incredibly infuriating. It’s just so wildly untrue. I know how hard I’m willing to work for a client, so that’s really frustrating.

Q: Favorite book, movie or TV show about lawyers?
A: “My Cousin Vinny.” There are lots of funny moments that we go through as lawyers in court or with opposing counsel, or even with our clients.