An affinity for robust argument drew a young Ann Cofell to a law career.
She still enjoys a good debate. But she relishes more the challenge of looking beyond conflicts and to the underlying issues that create problems for her clients at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.
For 35 years in St. Cloud she has helped thousands of people who are victims of domestic violence or who face problems with employment, housing and child custody. Her clients are those who can't afford a lawyer, who often have nowhere else to turn for help.
They often come to her — and her staff of 35 in the St. Cloud and Willmar officers — ready to argue, because they think they have to in order to resolve their problems. It's at that moment that the arguer-turned-problem-solver gets the most satisfaction from her job.
"I tell clients 'Let's look at it instead about what problems you have, and let's see if we can work together to solve some of those problems.' It kind of changes the whole dynamic of why people are here to see a lawyer and about where this problem fits in their life," Cofell told the St. Cloud Times.
Cofell's tireless work on behalf of those less fortunate recently earned her the 2015 Athena Award from the Women's Fund of the Central Minnesota Community Foundation. The prestigious award recognizes someone who has achieved career excellence by helping improve the lives of others in their community and helping assist women in realizing their full leadership potential.
It's an honor that Cofell accepted, albeit somewhat uncomfortably. She'd rather talk about the work her staff does to help immigrant families get housing, domestic violence victims see their kids, disabled clients keep their housing.
She's quick to point out her own faults and equally quick to credit her co-workers. She cringed when a reporter called and suggested an article about her.
Make no mistake, Ann Cofell would rather not have this article in the newspaper.
You can imagine what she said when she was told that a photographer was coming to her office to take her picture.
"She's inspiring. She's really humble and one of the more modest people that works in the legal field, I think," said Sarah Hennesy, who worked with Cofell before becoming a district court judge in Mille Lacs County. "She just cares deeply about the people that work for her and that she is serving in the community. She doesn't seem to do it because she wants recognition."
Well, Ann, here goes.
Cofell grew up in a house near St. John's University, where her father taught child and adolescent development and her mother worked at the library. She attended mostly Benedictine schools, including graduating from College of St. Benedict.
She described her childhood as "an idyllic world where the neighbors told on you." It was a world in which her parents were the center and vice versa. People who were told they couldn't go to college, but did. People who were models for seeking out what others needed and being involved in the community around them, giving back.
"The only time I can think of them telling me they were disappointed in me was when I treated another student poorly. Now, I think the nuns called and told them," she said with a chuckle. "But I'll never forget that day they sat me down in the living room and said out loud 'I'm disappointed in you.' It crushed me and it's words I never wanted to hear again, because they are wonderful people and I didn't want to disappoint them ever again."
She went to law school in Cleveland, and as a student helped represent a client in an employment discrimination action. It was a client she never got the chance to meet. That non-meeting was the one thing she didn't like about that case, and she said so when she applied for a job at legal aid in Cleveland. And the people at legal aid assured her that she would definitely be talking to her clients if she worked there.
A legal aid job opened in Minnesota and she transferred home, eventually becoming deputy director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid in 1983. She manages a budget for the St. Cloud office that is about $2 million.
Legal Aid provides a wide array of services for clients who can't afford attorneys. Their clients' problems can range from being evicted, not having their heat turned on by their landlord, family and child custody issues and getting disability benefits. It's people worried about not having enough food for their kids, people already strapped for cash who are getting garnishment notices.
An attorney in that line of work can see 20 to 30 clients a week.
"If they're in our office they're almost always in a really tough spot," Cofell said. "It's dealing with people in crisis, people who've been served divorce papers, people who are being served eviction papers or being told they're going to lose their kids."
And she keeps Benedictine values such as hospitality front of mind when she meets those who are struggling. Because clients are in crisis, she learned quickly not to greet them with "how are you doing?"
"When I serve clients, I am intentionally thinking about being hospitable," she said. "So I will say 'I'm so glad you came to our office. Thank you for trusting me with your story.' And not taking that for granted."
"She really does try to look at things holistically and try to get to the root of what the problem is," Hennesy said. "She actually listens to them, not just to think about how to respond but to figure out where they're coming from and to understand and empathize with them."
And while Cofell spends more time these days supervising office staff, writing grants to keep their work viable and being an integral part of the Stearns County Domestic Violence Court, she still talks to clients. And listens.
When Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall went to see how a New York city's domestic violence program functioned, she learned that it utilized a legal aid attorney to help the victims.
"I said 'What's a legal aid attorney? And the room laughed," Kendall said. "I honest-to-God didn't know."
Now she credits Cofell with being a crucial part of the Stearns County DVC. That program, which started in 2008, uses intensive supervision and close collaboration among criminal justice and community organizations to increase offender accountability.
Kendall was one of multiple people who nominated Cofell for the Athena Award.
Cofell helps provide attorneys for victims who often are dependent on their abusers for child support. Those attorneys help victims file orders for protection and paperwork to prevent their abusers from evicting them.
"She saw what we were doing, and she saw the opportunity," Kendall said. "And now we are doing beyond what anyone else in the country is doing with legal aid access (in domestic violence court)."
Her role became so integral that the second grant the DVC got was for a legal aid attorney position. She's dramatically changed how the domestic violence court works, Kendall said, knowing when to get pointed about something, when to pick the proper battles.
"She is just class personified," Kendall said. "She is just a very classy, circumspect, not going to step on toes, but if there is something that has to be said, she's going to say them. And to be a good lawyer on top of that and apply the legal training to that human being. Wow."
Cofell said she couldn't have imagined how meaningful her work with the DVC would be until she started. She learned that victims previously didn't have someone to speak to confidentially about their case who could help them when their abuser lied to them about the consequences he could face or the threats he made to prevent her from testifying.
"Without having a place to speak confidentiality, she would never have told the story," Cofell said. "Because it would have been more risky than getting beat up by her boyfriend. I've learned so much more about the victims and choices they have to make because of this project."
Said Kendall: "She has given a voice to people who did not have a voice in this community in that way ever before, especially the children."
She's a parent of a daughter she adopted 18 years ago. The girl was nine years old at the time and was a foster child after her parents' rights had been terminated to their daughter.
Working for 35 years helping people who have so little and who are often at their lowest point doesn't seem to have taken its toll on Cofell. She is an avid biker and credits that for taking away stresses of the job.
She still awakens every day excited about finding new ways to help her clients, she said. Those clients face many of the same problems they did when she started working for legal aid. They might not look the same, though.
"When I started here I can remember talking to people about how there wasn't housing available for their families, and they were Catholic families like the one my parents raised, with seven or eight or nine kids," she said. "And now we have people coming in saying 'I'm having trouble finding housing that's large enough for my family.' And they're Somali and immigrant families. So it's different clothes and different skin color but sometimes, in some ways, the same problems that people have."
Her worst days are when she has to tell clients that they have a legitimate case, but that there is a backlog that means they have to wait, or that they can't be helped in time.
Legal aid has a wait list, but it's not nearly as long as it's been in the past, she said.
"When I have to tell somebody that they don't have a case because the law says they don't have a case, that's what we do and people feel bad," she said. "If they don't have a case, they don't have a case. But when I have to tell a victim of violence who's worried about losing custody of her children that you've got a good case but we don't have enough staff, and I don't have anybody who can take your case, that's the hard part."
She's working on expanding the DVC to Mille Lacs County and on championing a new medical-legal partnership. The latter, funded by a grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield, partners doctors and legal aid attorneys.
The attorneys train doctors to recognize patient needs with issues such as domestic violence, food assistance, poor living conditions, reimbursement for transportation and other issues. The attorneys work to find solutions to those problems.
Seeing so many people in such difficult straits and with life-changing challenges can be draining to some. It seems to give Cofell energy.
How does she make it through the difficult stuff she sees every day?
"In some ways I see people at their best. Parents who are so scared of losing their kids but who are really good parents despite incredible odds and having very little money and still have the skills and energy to be amazing parents," she said. "I see people who, when they're faced with an eviction, are worried about their kids."
She admits that it once did get her down.
"I learned it's OK to feel joy about doing good," she said. "And I feel a lot of joy about my work."
As she talks about Cofell, Hennesy — the Mille Lacs County judge — recalls a New York Times article by David Brooks. The article "The Moral Bucket List" discusses people Brooks said he meets about once a month, people he describes as radiating an inner light.
"These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude," Brooks wrote. "They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all."
That describes Cofell to a T, Hennesy said. She allowed Hennesy to go from a stay-at-home mother to bringing her infant son — and his crib — to work with her when Hennesy wanted to resume her career as a lawyer. Hennesy's work as a volunteer would turn into full-time employment at legal aid and eventually an appointment to a judgeship.
"She was not only interested in trying to help me figure out how to move forward in my career, if I wanted to come back to my career, but very helpful and supportive of me as a parent," Hennesy said. "She's just an amazing person."
An AP Exchange feature by David Unze, St Cloud Times.