Minnesota Chapter of the Federal Bar Association Receives 2011 Harrison Tweed Award

The Minnesota Chapter of the Federal Bar Association received the 2011 Harrison Tweed Award during the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Toronto. Created in 1956, this award is given annually by the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. It recognizes the extraordinary achievements of U.S. state and local bar associations that develop or significantly expand projects or programs to increase access to civil legal services for poor persons or criminal defense services for indigents.

The Minnesota Chapter was specifically recognized for its Pro Se Project, which is a collaboration between the U.S. District Court and the Minnesota Chapter. Federal judges refer civil pro se litigants to the Project for an opportunity to consult with private attorneys about their cases and often, those attorneys become pro bono counsel for the litigants. Volunteer attorneys receive pro bono CLE credits for their time spent on Project cases. While there are no strict income guidelines for the Project, during its two years of operation the majority of project clients have been low income individuals.

The Project also engages law students to assist pro bono attorneys. These volunteer positions give students the opportunity to experience "real world" legal practice and make important contacts while providing valuable assistance to volunteer attorneys and the individuals they are serving. The student volunteers have been instrumental in helping to place challenging Project cases because of the law students’ ability and willingness to perform research, draft briefs, and assist with time consuming components of cases that may otherwise preclude a volunteer attorney from accepting the referral.

The Project has placed cases in a wide range of areas including employment discrimination, civil rights and consumer matters. Recently, the Project has focused on increasing the level of assistance in Social Security disability appeals. To this end, it has sponsored events to train volunteer lawyers to handle these cases. The training has been a collaboration among the Project, private law firms, and members of the federal bench, all of whom have provided panelists for the training events.

Pro se litigants pose a special challenge to the court system because they require more time and attention than litigants represented by counsel. They also pose a challenge to our sense of fundamental fairness, as a pro se litigant is most often at a severe disadvantage when the opposing party has counsel. The Minnesota Chapter of the Federal Bar Association’s Pro Se Project has made justice more accessible to those litigants by providing advice, focusing their claims or defenses, and guiding their cases through the court system.