Press Release 3/22/23
Legal Assistance of Olmsted County celebrates half a century of expanding access to justice
March 22, 2023
Rochester, Minn.—Legal Assistance of Olmsted County (LAOC) is marking a major milestone: 50 years of providing meaningful access to justice to people who need it most.
Since 1973, volunteer lawyers, board members and staff with LAOC have helped thousands of people through difficult life events—eviction, domestic violence, custody disputes—ensuring poverty does not stand in the way of having a legitimate voice in the legal system.
Today LAOC is one of only two single-county legal organizations in Minnesota helping people in poverty and those who are marginalized resolve critical life-altering legal issues.
“The legal assistance that LAOC provides to those in poverty is critical to our community,” shares Karen Fairbairn Nath, Executive Director of LAOC. “Our purpose is to improve legal outcomes and stability for families and individuals living in poverty in the community. Providing civil legal aid services strengthens and stabilizes not merely the individual and the family, but the community as a whole. There is no doubt that the impact of providing legal aid has a deep, far reaching and lasting impact on the individual and family and has a ripple effect to the community itself as a whole. This community is only as strong as its weakest link.”
To recognize five decades of service, LAOC will host a ribbon-cutting with the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, March 23, 4 p.m., at 1700 N Broadway Ave, Suite 124 (Door A). The event, which will include remarks from Nath and others, is open to the media.
LAOC is also marking its 50th anniversary with a year-long fundraising campaign, with the goal of raising $50,000 to support the critical work it does in the community. Though LAOC was able to assist more than 2,400 people in 2022, the organization continues to experience a waitlist.
“Now more than ever legal aid is critical for those in need,” says Nath. “The pandemic impacted our communities of color, especially those in poverty, disproportionately. The incredible increase in applications to LAOC since March 2020 reflects that.”
‘A critical component of our local justice system’
In the early 1970s, a group of lawyers from the Olmsted County Bar Association—including John Gowan, Larry Collins, A. M. “Sandy” Keith, Ben Hippe, Bob Patterson, Ron Seeger, and Don Steiner—came together to address a growing community need. Too often, they observed, people with limited resources were struggling to navigate the legal system on their own.
To meet the demand, the lawyers decided to take it upon themselves to provide pro bono work to people in need. Soon after, other volunteers, part-time attorneys, and interns joined the effort. By the early 1980s, LAOC obtained the funding necessary to hire a second attorney. Since then, the organization has maintained two to four attorneys providing representation to eligible clients.
Retired Family Court Referee Gail Baker was fresh out of law school when she became LAOC’s Executive Director in 1982. She reflects on the collective effort it took from the legal community to make LAOC’s mission a reality—establishing a legacy of service that endures decades later.
“Being the only attorney at LAOC, I was encouraged and relied on all the attorneys in the county for advice and help,” shares Referee Baker. “I began calling them at the beginning of the alphabet and not one of them ever refused to take my call or help. Over the long run, those contacts with local attorneys were invaluable to me. Whether they served on the Board, took volunteer cases or just helped out with a LAOC case, they were and continue to be an invaluable resource.”
Referee Baker later served as a Family Court Referee where she saw first-hand the community-wide impact of LAOC’s work. When individuals show up to represent themselves in civil cases, it can slow down the court’s work—by as much as 3-4 times.
LAOC’s services, however, allow the legal system to function more efficiently and effectively—all while improving legal outcomes and stability for families and individuals living in poverty.
“As someone who was engaged in the private practice of law for 19 years and then served on the Olmsted County District Court Bench for over 21 years, I consider LAOC to be a vital, integral and critical component of our local justice system,” says Senior Judge Kevin A. Lund. “The expertise, sensitivity, and advocacy their lawyers provide to the poor and powerless brings a measure of hope to those navigating a complex, confusing and, at times, impersonal legal system. Our entire Olmsted County community owes this important organization a tremendous debt of gratitude.”
To learn more about LAOC, visit the organization’s new website, laocmn.org. Media interviews can be coordinated with Nath and other longtime LAOC contributors.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Karen Fairbairn Nath