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Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid

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Black and white photograph of John Benson.

Minneapolis lawyer John Benson, founder of the law office that became Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.

On April 15, 1913, John Benson opened a Minneapolis law office to offer legal help to the poor. By 2013, the office had morphed into Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. It has served hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans.

Benson was an attorney with the law firm that became Faegre & Benson (now Faegre Baker Daniels). In 1913, he was the new Legal Aid Department's sole lawyer.

At the time, the group's mission was limited to Minneapolis. Some of the city's top business leaders, including John Crosby and Charles Pillsbury, donated money to the effort.

Today, the group covers more than twenty counties in central Minnesota. Dozens of attorneys work in its offices in Minneapolis, St. Cloud, and Willmar.

Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid also runs The website provides legal forms and information in several languages. Its topics include family law, public benefits, housing discrimination, and scams aimed at seniors and the disabled. In 2012, the site had 250,000 visitors.

Legal Aid has also taken on large social problems. In 1970, it filed a federal class-action lawsuit alleging race-based job discrimination at the Minneapolis Fire Department. The case resulted in the integration of the department.

In 1972, Legal Aid challenged poor living conditions for people with developmental disabilities in Minnesota's state hospitals. Its suit led to new patient protections and created local service centers.
Legal Aid was named a Protection and Advocacy of Individual Rights (PAIR) organization for Minnesotans with developmental disabilities in 1980. Advocacy for people with mental illnesses and physical disabilities, among others, was added later. Legal Aid's Minnesota Disability Law Center does this work statewide.

Legal Aid filed a suit in 1992 that uncovered race discrimination in the Minneapolis public housing system. A consent decree issued in 1995 provided for building renovations. It also outlined a community planning process and granted new housing vouchers. The vouchers offered residents more options and better living conditions.

In 2003, Legal Aid's Minnesota Disability Law Center fought the state's plan to cut a Medicaid waiver program. The program served people with developmental disabilities. As a result, the state restored more than $50 million to the program. It also protected against future cuts.

In 2004, Legal Aid blocked a state statute that allowed medical providers to refuse services to low-income people.

Legal Aid sued then-Governor Tim Pawlenty in 2009. An action he took to balance the budget had canceled a program used by low-income Minnesotans to meet medical diet needs. The state Supreme Court held that Pawlenty's action exceeded his authority, and the diet funds were restored.

These and other cases were high profile, but Legal Aid has done much of its work below the radar. It helps people with a wide range of legal problems, from divorce and child support to mortgage scams and evictions.

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Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid ,1913–2013.

Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.

David Chanon. "Maynard Pirsig, 95, oldest law school teacher in U.S., dies." Star Tribune, February 7, 1997.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of John Benson.
Black and white photograph of John Benson.
Color image of Cathy Haukedahl.
Color image of Cathy Haukedahl.

Turning Point

In 1972, Legal Aid moves from being a Twin Cities-based support group to the statewide arena when it files a federal class action lawsuit. The lawsuit successfully challenges unacceptable living conditions for people with developmental disabilities in Minnesota's state hospitals.



Attorney John Benson opens Legal Aid, a new Minneapolis law office.


Legal Aid handles 3,029 cases, half of which are wage-related.


Legal Aid's budget is $8,500.


The Legal Aid Department is formally incorporated as the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis.


Legal Aid's Board of Directors' minutes note a rise in divorce and custody cases.


The Legal Aid Board's minutes note a housing shortage, which results in the group representing many tenants.


Legal Aid receives its first federal grant: $42,030 from the Office of Economic Opportunity.


The federal government begins supporting Legal Aid's Developmental Disability Law Project.


St. Cloud Area Legal Services is incorporated to serve Stearns, Sherburne, and Benton counties.


Western Minnesota Legal Services is formed in Willmar.


Aid's member corporations formally merge into Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, which handles more than 10,115 cases. The largest category is housing law. It's budget is about $11 million. It receives federal grants of more than $3 milllion from several agencies.