Cargill's law department expands pro bono efforts

The team partners with an outside law firm to help Minneapolis residents with housing needs.

Krisann Kleibacker Lee (R), of counsel at Faegre & Benson, working with a client.

Cargill Inc., a business devoted to providing sustenance and energy products and services to people worldwide, places significant emphasis on giving back to the communities it serves. But finding the right pro bono project for the company’s legal department was a challenge.

In its search for a pro bono program last year, Cargill faced numerous impediments. Not only are the company’s offices miles from the downtown Minneapolis courthouses, but its lawyers all tend to have specialized practice areas related to food and energy commodities, which don’t immediately translate to pro bono work. However, thanks to Mike Skoglund, a senior lawyer at Cargill, the legal department found its solution after approaching one of Cargill’s preferred law firms, Faegre & Benson.

With Faegre’s help, Skoglund got his team involved with the Hennepin County Housing Court Project (HCP), which offers low-income tenants free, walk-in legal advice and, in some matters, full representation. The majority of clients seek advice and assistance with cases that are scheduled for hearing that day, typically dealing with eviction defense, notices to quit, lease violations, repair problems, emergency repairs, lockouts and housing records expungement.

Skoglund, who coordinates Cargill’s involvement in the HCP, manages a group of about 15 lawyers and six paralegals who volunteer regularly. The housing court is open Monday mornings, so volunteers typically only have a small commitment every two months, which Skoglund says is manageable for the lawyers because they never have to take on full-representation cases. Most days, lawyers from both Faegre and Cargill attend the housing court along with paralegals from either firm. “Depending on the workload, we’ll either collaborate when we give advice to a client, or if it’s really busy, we’ll divide and conquer,” Skoglund explains.

While Cargill and its legal department also regularly work with United Way, Habitat for Humanity and numerous food organizations, Skoglund says he believes the HCP clinic has truly helped the legal department to expand its horizons, and has provided valuable experience for lawyers to appear in court and interact with clients with whom they normally would never work. 

“As lawyers, we have an ethical obligation to do pro bono work where we can,” Skoglund says. “The clinic has been a great opportunity to do that and to learn about an area of law with which I’d never had any experience.” 

The experience the legal department gains from working in the housing court is as valuable to Skoglund as the services it renders to the community. In a recent case, one of Cargill’s intellectual property lawyers—who had never been in court before—received a client who had been served an eviction notice. After the initial consultation, the attorney realized that there was a defense to the eviction, and she appeared in court on his behalf, argued the motion to dismiss the eviction and won. “It was a great result for the client, but it also was a really good opportunity for our lawyers,” Skoglund says. 

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