Dorsey & Whitney Ends Misdemeanor Prosecutions Program

In response to the death of George Floyd while in police custody, the local law firm reexamines its own operations.

Dorsey & Whitney Ends Misdemeanor Prosecutions Program

After the death of George Floyd, Dorsey & Whitney announced the end of its Minneapolis City Attorney’s program.

Operating since the late ‘70s, the program saw Dorsey attorneys providing legal services and prosecuting misdemeanors. The idea was to provide services to the city while giving courtroom experience to lawyers early in their careers, said Dorsey’s managing partner Bill Stoeri. At a private firm with paying clients, senior associates and partners will typically get those experiences, he said.

“After the killing of George Floyd, we had a lot of discussions here on what we can do other than simply condemn what happened and talk about it,” Stoeri said. “[We’re] trying to really take a look at what our role is in any aspect of this, and that's from our own internal firm workings to what role we play in the community.”

In thinking about that impact coupled with the studies and data demonstrating the disproportionate impact of misdemeanor prosecutions on the black community, the Minneapolis-based law firm decided to end the program.

Most of the work the lawyers did for city attorneys was with the Minneapolis Police Department, Stoeri said.

“Everyone is trying to figure out a way that this won't simply be something that eventually dissipates and things don't change. And one of the things I think is people tend to feel the problems are so deeply rooted and so huge as to be insurmountable,” he said.

But just like anything that seems like a big task, one has to start somewhere. 

“Let's take our first steps here, and let's deal with and have open and honest discussions about all issues of injustice and race and everything else, and really work towar a change within our own community,” Stoeri. “That is not insurmountable, that is something we can do.”

Instead of working with the city attorneys, Dorsey is looking at opportunities to provide pro bono legal services to help victims of injustice and rebuild impacted communities.

“We're looking right now at things such as housing court, and providing services to some of those who are unrepresented in times when they're really having difficulty,” he said. “Or even public defenders, work like that. There's a whole range. I've challenged our people to look at all the options and figure out all the best ones. It doesn't have to be just one.”

The pro bono and diversity and inclusion chairs are leading these collaborative efforts.

Dorsey has also approved a $50,000 matching grant to charities, racial justice organizations, and organizations providing community support, Stoeri said.

“This is an action we can take and hopefully it starts more such thoughtfulness on our part, behind other ways in which we participate in the community,” he said. “Hopefully, among other actions, ours helps bring some light to the inequities and disproportionate impact of misdemeanor prosecution.”

Dorsey joins a growing list of businesses that are pledging steps to address racial inequity. Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group has promised funds and volunteer hours to the Twin Cities. And U.S. Bank’s chief diversity officer Greg Cunningham has called for companies to focus on advancing black leaders, developing relationships with black-owned businesses, and actively denouncing systemic racism and acknowledging privilege.

In line with that, local leaders say there are concrete ways businesses can impact policing as Minneapolis and the country grapples with the reality of racism and police brutality.

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