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Law firm marks 10 years of service to Phillips neighborhood
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Keith Moheban is co-chair of the legal clinic. He says his law firm opened the office in the clinic, because the clinic's director found that many of the patients were suffering from conditions that stemmed from legal issues. (MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)
Most law firms in the Twin Cities provide pro bono, or free, legal services for the poor. But only the six major law firms offer free legal clinics. Leonard, Street and Deinard was the first to open an office in one of the poorest areas of Minneapolis. The one-room office serves clients that are mostly poor people of color, many of whom are immigrants who don't speak English. Recently, the firm celebrated the 10th anniversary of its clinic.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The lobby of the Community University Health Care Clinic buzzes with African, Asian and Latin voices.

The clinic is located in Phillips, a Minneapolis neighborhood with a large number of immigrants and refugees. People from all over the metro area come here for medical, dental and mental health services.

In 1993, officials from the clinic and Leonard, Street and Deinard were convinced that clients could also use help with legal matters. Keith Moheban, a partner at the firm and the co-chair of the legal clinic, says the firm opened the office in the clinic building because the clinic's director found that many of the patients suffered from conditions that stemmed from legal issues.

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Image Lawyer, interpreter and client

"For example, children would come in with asthma or respiratory conditions," Moheban says. "The doctors could treat the symptoms, but the cause was really substandard housing."

Cases typically involve family, government benefits, immigration, and housing law. They do not take on criminal cases. Moheban says their lawyers see more than 100 clients a year and average more than 3,000 hours of pro bono service. Most of their clients are referred by health clinic staff, like Geu Lee.

"I came to this clinic and it's been very helpful," says Lee through an interpreter. "They helped me from the bottoms of their heart. And I'm very happy, so you know they treated me very good."

Lee is in her mid-50s and has four adult children. She came from Laos in 1978, and became an American citizen in 1992. Last year, Lee came to the clinic for treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and depression. She was working two jobs that required her to stand for well over 12 hours a day and work with her hands. Lee says her hands and feet were swollen and painful, and she couldn't work anymore.

Lee applied for disability benefits but was turned down. So health clinic staff referred her to attorney Susan Humiston.

It's difficult for people who are non-native English speakers -- actually for anyone -- to negotiate the bureaucracy of the American government.
- Attorney Susan Humiston

"It's difficult for people who are non-native English speakers -- actually for anyone -- to negotiate the bureaucracy of the American government to get Social Security benefits," says Humiston.

Humiston says Geu Lee's case is common. Often immigrants haven't established a paper trail of documentation required for government benefits.

"And so when she did finally have that straw that broke the camel's back, went in to apply for disability benefits, they said, 'You've been working hard all of your life and you haven't been to the doctor, and you haven't been complaining. We don't think you're disabled,'" Humiston says.

Humiston represented Lee at a Social Security Administration hearing earlier this year. Several weeks later, an administrative law judge ruled in Lee's favor and she was granted full disability benefits.

Keith Moheban says he's not sure what the success rate is for their clients. But he says the important thing is that their clients are getting legal representation by skilled lawyers.

"Like any population of legal clients, you may have a great case, you may not have a great case," Moheban says. "A lot of times our advice is to let them know they may not have a legal remedy. But we do keep track of our successes and we have lots of them."

Moheban says the law clinic is also popular among the firm's lawyers. They like the opportunity to practice in areas of law outside their specialties. Moheban says the firm is planning to expand its services as the health clinic opens satellite clinics in other parts of the Phillips neighborhood.

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