Heron Lake woman recognized by Minnesota State Bar Association
WORTHINGTON -- Catherine Bushard, known to friends and family as Katie, was dumbstruck when she received a phone call notifying her she had been chosen as the 2012 Bernard P. Becker Award for legal services staff by the Minnesota State Bar Association.
"I just kept saying, 'What?' I couldn't process it," Bushard admitted with a laugh. "It has been given to attorneys and paralegals. I never thought I'd be a candidate for it."
Bushard, who lives in Heron Lake, has worked as an administrative secretary for Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) in the Worthington office since 1979. The office provides no-cost legal help to people who qualify, either for low-income or older than age 60, for certain types of civil cases.
According to the nomination letter written by SMRLS Staff Attorney Margaret Erickson, Bushard has served the legal profession for more than 50 years, holding the office together through changes and challenges.
She has worked primarily as a legal secretary for SMRLS, but fulfills other duties as well, Erickson stated. She was Worthington's first volunteer attorney coordinator when the program began in 1982, did community legal education presentations for senior citizens, spends time on the rural hotline doing intake interviews, drafts affidavits and handles whatever comes up.
"I do whatever needs to be done," Bushard said. "From drafting documents to ordering toilet paper."
Erickson's letter is more detailed.
"I have never seen Katie shirk or refuse a task, large or small, that she had been asked to do.
She has worked extra hours when needed, cut back her hours when she was requested to do that," the letter states.
"She has been able to stay centered and focused during increases and decreases in funds and staff. ... Her common sense and good humor have made a difference through difficult times. (She) has been improving the lives of low-income clients for over 30 years."
Bushard almost didn't go to the MSBA Assembly to receive her award, because she was recovering from cataract surgery.
"My son-in-law and daughter insisted I had to go," she said. "My daughter left her home at 6 a.m. to drive me to the Cities and didn't get home until late that night. She had a long day."
Before the Assembly meeting, the awards were given out, she said. Erickson introduced her, then Bushard accepted her plaque and a $1,000 prize.
"Then I gave a short acceptance speech, trying not to quiver," she said. "I'm used to public speaking, but I'm not used to being noticed in that regard."
The Bernard P. Becker Legal Services Staff Award is presented to attorneys, paralegals, administrators or other staff employed by a private, non-profit agency that provides legal services to low-income and disadvantaged eligible clients. Recipients must have a demonstrated commitment to provision of zealous and skilled legal representation. Becker, a U.S. Magistrate, was well known as a champion of the rights of the disadvantaged. He taught at William Mitchell College of Law, and was a tenured member of the faculty at the time of his death in 1991.
Erickson's nomination letter states Bushard is fair and respectful to everyone, takes the time to listen and is highly sympathetic to the needs of clients, many of whom are dealing with language barriers, unemployment, abuse, hunger or homelessness.
When performing intake interviews, Bushard said she is often saddened by hearing about the problems people are having, and it bothers her when people who don't meet the financial guidelines have to be turned away. Sometimes she helps refer those people to someone who can help.
The guidelines state SMRLS can only help those over 60 or those who are in 125 percent poverty, which means a family of four with legal problems would have to make less than $28,813 to qualify for help.
The office handles cases regarding housing, disability, health program, immigration related to family reunification, Social Security and a lot of family law cases, such as abuse or child custody cases.
"It is gratifying when you've got a woman who has gone through being battered and you see her getting things in place and getting out of a bad situation," Bushard said. "You get to see them grow and find security."
The office also deals with farm law, school expulsion, safety planning, unemployment and assistance programs and consumer help.
Prospective clients are given the intake hotline phone number, 1-888-575-2954, and asked about their case after it is established that financial guidelines are met. According to Bushard, Erickson handles the hotline on a regular basis. Staff Attorney Lora Hopp specializes in family law and housing, while paralegal Sheryl Riemersma handles public benefits, housing and tenant remedies.
SMRLS has offices in Albert Lea, Mankato, Rochester, Winona and Worthington. More information about the offices can be found on their website at www.smrls.org.
Daily Globe Reporter Justine Wettschreck may be reached at