The VLN Tip of the Month Turns 10!

This month’s Tip of the Month is on… the Tip of the Month. Launched in March 2006, the VLN Tip of the Month provides succinct and practical information about topics impacting low-income clients, poverty law, and pro bono service. Little did we know at the time that almost 10 years and 118 tips later, the Tip of the Month would still be going strong.

The idea for the Tip of the Month was to provide an easy to use reference for volunteers who are assisting clients outside their normal area of practice. The Tip of the Month is commonly used to notify volunteers about new laws or changes to existing statutes relevant to VLN’s clients. The first Tip of the Month provided information about the Certificate of Rent Paid and Renter’s Rebate. Since that time almost 50 volunteers and VLN staff members have contributed to one or more tips. The most popular topic area for a tip relate to general civil and consumer debtor issues followed closely by housing and family law tips.

VLN maintains an archive of over 95 tips at: on topics ranging from Working with Clients Experiencing Mental Illness to Houseguests Who Overstay Their Welcome. The Tips of the Month are reviewed on a regular basis to make sure they remain accurate and relevant for our volunteers and community partners. Over the years we have retired some tips and updated others.

As the Tip of the Month enters its second decade, we need your help! We would love to hear from you either that you are interested in writing a tip or to let us know of a topic you would like us to address. Topics can range from general, such as building effective client relationships to the very specific such as emergency relief in family court.

Please feel free to contact VLN Staff to share your ideas or to express interest in writing a tip.

Tip Submitted by VLN Staff

Criminal Expungement Law Update

Minnesotans are facing one of the toughest housing markets and employment markets since we started tracking the statistics.  Criminal records prevent people from competing for jobs or obtaining safe, affordable housing and force them to rely on public assistance to survive. Expungement provides a second chance for those who have rehabilitated, allowing them to become productive members of our community. The June 2014 Tip of the Month highlights recent legislative changes to the expungement law, tips on how you can apply the new law to your client’s case to help give him or her a second chance. Read more >>

Submitted by: Chris Hanrahan, Resource Attorney, Volunteer Lawyers Network

Download the Tip of the Month:

pdfdownload2 June Tip of the Month – New Criminal Expungement Law Update

Making the Case For Legal Services

What difference do your pro bono legal services make?

Thanks to you who completed our online case closing form in 2013, we know that in full representation cases alone, we protected or recovered a combined total of more than $3 million of our clients’ scarce resources – through bankruptcy discharges, establishment of child support, garnishment prevention, judgment prevention, etc. – and that’s a conservative estimate.i Given that keeping cash in the homes of struggling families is an effective anti-poverty tool,ii we are having a profound impact on the families in our community.

Furthermore, regardless of any monies protected or recovered, in 84% of applicable cases, you thought it likely that the client’s life was tangibly improved as a result of your legal work, including improved housing, improved ability to find or keep a job, better quality of life, etc.iii

Beginning January 2014, most Minnesota legal services programs are required to gather this type of essential data as we collectively work to educate our funders and community about the benefits of legal. Since VLN is the largest volunteer-based legal service provider in the state, we face some unique challenges as we work to gather this valuable data. This is why your help is so important to us.

Below are a few pointers about the online form, which takes about 10 minutes to complete (please add that to the estimate of your pro bono time). And, if you have any suggestions or questions about the form, please contact me at 612-752-6676 or [@[email protected] email=”[email protected]” display=”[email protected]”].

As always, thank you for the work that you do to promote equal justice for all! Read More>>

Download the Tip of the Month

pdfdownload2 January Tip of the Month – Helping Victims of Identity Theft

iA significant number of attorneys indicated on the case closing form that they had protected or recovered money for their clients but did not provide the specific dollar amount.

iiSee, e.g.,

iiiThis is also most likely a somewhat conservative estimate as, when we compare attorney answers and client answers, clients tend to report more concrete benefits.

CLE Credit for Pro Bono

Did you know that you can report one CLE credit for every six hours of pro bono work you do through VLN? Every three-year reporting cycle, you can claim up to six credits this way.

Follow these steps to ensure your hours are recorded at VLN and to apply for CLE Credit:

If your client is a full representation client:

  1. Ensure that a VLN staff person referred the client to you.
  2. Report to us the hours you have worked on the case on the “Full Representation Case Closing” form here.
  3. If you would like to claim hours prior to a case’s completion, please email your Case Placement Coordinator reporting the hours you have worked on the case(s) thus far.
  4. Complete the Minnesota State Board of Continuing Legal Education form “Affidavit of Pro Bono Representation to the Board” located here and referenced as “Appendix II” and submit this to the CLE Board.  List VLN as the “legal services provider.” You may list on the reporting affidavit as your contact any VLN staff person with whom you have been working.

VLN address: 600 Nicollet Mall, Ste 390A, Minneapolis, MN 55402

If you volunteer at a VLN clinic:

  1. Be sure to complete the clinic data sheets provided at the clinic.
  2. Complete the Minnesota State Board of Continuing Legal Education form “Affidavit of Pro Bono Representation to the Board” and submit this to the CLE Board.  List VLN as the “legal services provider.”

Note: if you volunteer at a VLN clinic in partnership with your law firm: you may be able to list your firm and pro bono coordinator as the “legal services provider”

To read the entire rule/s and see lists of approved organizations, please click here to visit the Minnesota Board of Continuing Legal Education Pro Bono page.

Effective July 1, 2010, the Rules of the CLE Board require that a Minnesota lawyer who files a paper affidavit to report the lawyer’s CLE attendance must pay a $10.00 filing fee.  This filing fee is waived for the Pro Bono Credit which must be applied for by filing a paper affidavit.  

Download the Tip of the Month:

pdfdownload2 June Tip of the Month – CLE Credit for Pro Bono

New Tool to Learn about Working with People in Poverty

A pro bono representation is often a cross-cultural relationship between an attorney from middle class  and a client from generational poverty. An attorney’s failure to understand the challenges that people living in poverty face, and what strategies can overcome those challenges, can complicate, and maybe even derail, a pro bono representation.

To help address this, we have created an interactive educational “Working with Pro Bono Clients” wiki.   Topics include:

 * Seeing/Bridging Differences * Poverty 101 * Promoting Understanding *
* Empowerment *  Strategies for Success * Learn More *

Below is a screen shot of the first page of the wiki which provides information about the various ways to use the tool.  Please email [@[email protected] email=”[email protected]” display=”[email protected]”] with any suggestions or questions you may have.


Download the Tip of the Month:

pdfdownload2 May Tip of the Month – New Tool to Learn about Working with People in Poverty

Emeritus Attorney Program

Effective July 1, 2013, new rule changes allow retired Minnesota attorneys to provide pro bono legal services in certain circumstances.  Under the authority of rules of the Minnesota State Board of Continuing Legal Education and of the Supreme Court on Lawyer Registration, retired attorneys can provide pro bono legal services through approved providers, including VLN, without having to pay the annual registration fee necessary for an active license to practice law.

Retired attorneys1 who wish to provide pro bono representation need to submit a completed “affidavit of emeritus status” to the CLE Board.  The affidavit must include:

A list of approved CLE credits attended in the last 90 days, including:

  • At least 3 hours in the area of law the attorney plans to do pro bono work in;
  • At least 1 hour in ethics; and
  • At least 1 hour in elimination of bias.
  • Affirmation that, if service is to be provided in multiple areas of law, such as a clinic setting, the lawyer will obtain the necessary training to do so competently.

Additional Information:

  • Emeritus status last for three years, then expires;
  • Attorneys granted emeritus status will be posted publically on the CLE Board’s website;
  • Renewal can take place prior to expiration using the same affidavit.

To read the Supreme Court’s Order, the amendments to the Rules and the Affidavit of Emeritus Status, visit the Supreme Court website.

Look for further announcements from VLN regarding CLE resources soon!

1 Attorney has filed a retirement affidavit with the Lawyer Registration Office.

Filing for Criminal Expungement as a VLN Volunteer

The process of helping a client obtain an expungement of criminal records in Minnesota can be broken down into the following three phases:

Preparing the client: First, you will meet with your client to outline your representation and get to know his situation and goals. You will analyze a client’s case and determine what paperwork will need to be gathered prior to creating the petition. Experienced attorneys screen all potential clients, so as a VLN volunteer, you will not be asked to take a case until we have already made the determination that a client has a reasonable basis for requesting expungement.1

Creating the Petition: Next, you must generate the petition to be filed with the court. This is the most involved portion of the process, and the most important. Fortunately for you, as a VLN volunteer you have access to our award-winning2 HotDocs tool, which can generate a petition and all additional materials for you to serve and file. For more details, see below.

Attending the Hearing: Finally, you will attend a hearing with your client. Primarily, the judge will inquire about the circumstances surrounding the offense and the client’s rehabilitative efforts. These hearings tend to be low pressure and brief, lasting only about 10-25 minutes per case. You will present the case, but the judge will likely speak directly to your client as well.

For each of these phases, VLN offers a myriad of support tools. The greatest in the criminal expungement field is our HotDocs tool, and the remainder of this tip will focus on it. Read More>>

Submitted by J.C. Horvath, Criminal Expungement Vista Attorney 

Download the Tip of the Month:

pdfdownload2 January Tip of the Month – Filing for Criminal Expungement as a VLN Volunteer

Communicating for Success with Pro Bono Clients

Lawyers tend to be both results- and service-oriented. We work hard to make a concrete difference in our clients’ lives which is why it can be frustrating when a client fails to heed our legal advice or follow through on recommended next steps. We might attribute the client’s behavior to a lack of motivation, an intervening crisis, or even a failure to appreciate our services. However, another cause of our pro bono client’s behavior might be that we used unfamiliar legal terms or abstract language that our client did not understand. To a large extent, our success with pro bono clients will depend on our ability to step out of our legal culture and speak plainly and concretely.

Using Plain English

After years of learning and using legal terms, we can forget that many of our pro bono clients have little exposure to words like “motion,” “service,” and “affidavit.” Consider the below examples that your colleague would understand, but your pro bono client might not.

• If you don’t draft an answer and serve it on the plaintiff within 20 days of the date he served you, he can get a default judgment.

• To unfreeze your bank account, complete the garnishment exemption form and sign it in front of a notary. Then, send a copy to your bank and the plaintiff.

• If you insist that I pursue a frivolous claim, I will need to withdraw.

The same concept in the last sentence might be communicated in plain English as follows:

• There are some rules I have to follow, as a lawyer, and I cannot disregard them for any client. One of the rules is to avoid asking the judge to make a decision on something that I think we have no chance of winning. If you insist that I do something against this rule, then I would need to stop being your attorney.

As important as clear communication is, it is difficult to catch ourselves using legal terms. Some lawyers ask their clients for help in letting them know if they’re falling into legal terminology that the client does not understand.

Explaining Concretely

Compared to the general population, lawyers are especially practiced in abstract communication. Not only can we hold and analyze concepts in our head, but we can often hold many ideas in our heads at once. The below examples of advice do not have legalese, but still may be difficult for a non-lawyer to follow.

• Write a letter to your landlord explaining that he has three weeks to send back your security deposit, or in the alternative, to tell you why he is not returning your security deposit. If he doesn’t do this, he might be ordered to pay you an amount of money equal to double your initial security deposit plus interest.

• To serve documents on a plaintiff, first make two copies. Put one of the copies into an envelope with sufficient postage, ensuring you have a correct address, and put it in the mail. Complete the affidavit of service in front of a notary public, and retain a copy in case you need to prove the mailing to the court.

To make communication more concrete, include sensory aids to assist understanding, such as specific examples, analogies, diagrams, flow charts, written instructions and body language. For example, consider how litigators prepare for a jury trial. Litigators and their prepared witnesses incorporate visuals, anecdotes, and analogies to aid the jury in understanding the case. They are careful to avoid long periods of testimony or argument without some concrete counterpart. (Similarly, effective presenters typically use handouts or Power Point presentations.)

Here are some ways to communicate more concretely:

• Provide your client with written step-by-step instructions (writing them as you say them), so the client does not have to try to keep track of the steps in his or her head.

• Consider creating a simple diagram that illustrates your recommendations in a step-by- step manner.

• Speak in short sentences. Avoid long uninterrupted monologues.

• Break up an explanation with questions (either questions from you to the client to check

for understanding or questions from the client to you).

• Repeat instructions several times.

It is challenging to explain legal concepts without using abstract terms, but it will greatly increase many of your pro bono clients’ understanding of your advice.

Focusing on Relationship

Linguists and advocates have identified at least two types of communication styles: print culture (in which attorneys are heavily immersed) and oral culture (more common among those in poverty and who have less exposure to reading and effective education). One leader in the field, Donna Beagle, Ph.D., came from generational poverty and has, for the past 19 years, worked nationally with educators, justice professionals, health care providers, social service agencies, and others who want to make a difference for those living in the crisis of poverty. She describes the two cultures1 as follows:2

Oral culture (orality) is a natural state in which we are highly attuned to our senses (touch, smell, sight, sound, and taste) and devote a great deal of attention to sensory information. Orality emphasizes our interconnection with the environment and the people in it. Some characteristics of orality are spontaneity, connectedness, present orientation, comfort with emotions, ability to see “the big picture,” and holistic.

Print culture (literacy) is a learned way of relating to the world where people learn to process and analyze information collected through sight, sound, hearing, touch, and smell according to categories, classifications, and styles of reasoning developed by reading. Some characteristics of print culture are: self-discipline (ability to focus on a single idea), separation and disconnection, ability to delay gratification, ability to strategize and plan ahead, ability to set goals, ability to develop technology, ability to break things down into parts, and ability to organize efforts according to predetermined goals.

Those who are most effective in working with people in poverty know how to connect and communicate in ways important to oral culture. The following are the “Ten Commandments for Improving Communication and Relationships” from Dr. Donna Beagle.3

  1. Develop relationships and trust based on identification.
  2. Help the client see you as a real person by self-disclosing something that is not known to others.
  3. Ensure that that there is a communication feedback loop by paraphrasing, restating, and asking clarifying questions to best understand client needs.
  4. End power dynamics, role conflicts, and stereotypes by sharing information that you know and following through on what you say you are going to do.
  5. Do not expect those you are working with to know what may be obvious to you. Use your expertise to coach or mentor them to get their needs met.
  6. Hearing and actively listening is not the same thing. Active listening requires putting yourself in the position of the person you are working with.
  7. One solution does not fit everyone. Obtain enough information to customize your services to those you are working with.
  8. Promote two-way communication (not just what you think would work for those you are working with, but what do they think would work best for them).
  9. Use familiar words and examples that people you work with can relate to.
  10. Ask open-ended questions to discover motives and passion. Try to stay away from questions that ask “why” because they can put people on the defense. Instead, use “I” statements that allow for other perspectives.
Submitted by Martha Delaney, VLN 

1 See, last visited December 11, 2011. Walter Ong was the scholar who first linked, about 15 years ago, oral culture to poverty, and his research was conducted around the world.
2 See also Walter Ong, Orality and literacy: The Technologizing of the World (London, Methuen & Co., Ltd. 1982). And Lynda Coates, Breaking Barriers: Concrete Communication Tools for Working with People in Poverty at 1 (last visited Oct. 10 2011) (claiming that people in poverty use “word of mouth” as their tool to gain information).

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pdfdownload2  December Tip of the Month – Communicating for Success with Pro Bono Clients