Dana Mckenzie

Picture1Dana McKenzie was nominated by Sharon Jones, Executive Director at Legal Assistance of Dakota County. Besides being a “rock star family law ADR provider” Dana was nominated for her generosity and willingness to push others to contribute. This profile, authored by law student volunteer Jasmin Hernandez Du Bois, covers an interview with Dana where we explore her work with the LADC, and her personal philosophy on giving back.
Born and raised in the Detroit suburbs, Dana completed her undergraduate at Northern Michigan University. From there, she then went on to the University of Missouri at Kansas City where she completed her JD. She decided to move to the Twin Cities after law school, despite knowing no one here, and began her legal career in Dakota County, where she did general litigation including criminal defense, family law, and business litigation. Dana was on the board of directors for LADC for a number of years. She has been an active member of the Dakota County Bar Association (DCBA, or “the best damn bar association in the land” per Dana) for over thirty two years, and now sits on the board for the DCBA where she is active in recruiting new members and planning events, including an annual holiday party that includes a silent auction to benefit LADC.

In practice, Dana specializes in ADR and family law neutral work – evaluations, parenting consulting, arbitrations, and the like. But her work and efforts with the Legal Assistance of Dakota County (LADC) has made Dana an “institution.”  

Presently, the Legal Assistance of Dakota County only staffs two attorneys. Yet every year, nearly a thousand cases are settled due to the pro-bono efforts of attorneys in Dakota County, and donations to LADC. These cases cover a range of issues, from family law to renter’s issues and other issues that impact the poor. When reflecting on what inspired her to get involved in the first place, she drew on the experiences of being a young, inexperienced lawyer in the Minnesota Community. 

“What we do as lawyers is certainly a business, but first and foremost, it’s always been a profession, which has been founded on lawyers working together and helping each other” she says. 

“As a new lawyer, the way you learn to be a good lawyer is not just by getting into a case or going to court. The best way we learn to be good lawyers is to learn from the really good lawyers who started before you who share their knowledge with you. In our profession especially, there is a tradition of lending a helping hand, and helping young lawyers become better” she said. 

And lending a helping hand especially comes into play when needs of the community intensify. Although society is slowly beginning to re-open, Dana noted that now is often when the financial impacts of Covid-19 manifest in the lives of the less fortunate – whether it be through evictions, bankruptcies, or messy divorces. With years of very low interest rates, the resources to solve these continuously dwindle, although the need is still there. 

“Now more than ever, a phrase that is overused but true, the need is so great, but the resources keep getting smaller,” Dana says. In the past, IOLTA’s, or lawyer trust accounts, were a primary funding source as the interest on those pooled accounts went to legal aid programs; now that interest rates are lower than ever, the need for outside funding has increased exponentially.

When I asked Dana how people can get involved, she acknowledged that these are difficult times for attorneys, too.

“But if everyone contributed just one hour of their billable hourly rate to their local legal aid agency, it would be tremendous” Dana said, “and money is just one way to help.”

“For those unable to donate money, I’d encourage them to donate their time. Taking even just one pro-bono case will make a world of difference to that one client. If we each handled just one case, there would be thousands of clients whose lives would be made better, just by the gifts of our time.  

As a closing remark, I asked Dana if there was anything else she’d like to add. She gave me a piece of wisdom that we could all do well to remember. 

“The Grand Canyon was formed one drop at a time.”