New Mid-Missouri Legal Services director wants to build on predecessor’s legacy
Kirsten F. Dunham says she wants to build on the legacy of predecessor Susan Lutton as executive director of Mid-Missouri Legal Services.
Dunham took on the role July 1 following Lutton’s retirement from the organization.
Lutton served as director for the past 15 years.
“(Lutton) is leaving (MMLS) in a very strong position, and we very much appreciate all of her hard work to build and develop its practice areas,” Dunham said. “I’m looking for more ways to be community-based in our approach, whether that is more clinics or participating in more community events in our rural counties.”
A recent strategic planning process aims for further service expansions, Dunham said.
MMLS provides free legal assistance to low-income and vulnerable individuals within an 11-county service regionincluding Boone County.
Dunham joined MMLS in 2017 to craft its consumer law project for community redevelopment and foreclosure prevention. She was promoted to program development director in late 2021 and now executive director.
The community redevelopment and foreclosure prevention project “was at removing legal barriers to employment, which does involve a lot of consumer cases,” Dunham said, adding the project went after predatory lenders whose practices lead to wage garnishment or vehicle repossession.
The focus was on stabilizing communities through preventing foreclosures and assisting with loan modifications.
“We wanted to cover a full range of legal assistance advice and help people keep their homes,” Dunham said.
Dunham wants to expand the organization’s connections with the University of Missouri School of Law and have students aid its housing and uncontested divorce clinics.
A recent $10 million state appropriation will help with MMLS’ expansion.
“We’ll have the funds to reach and serve more people and not curtail services in the future. We may catch up legal services back to where it was in the ’90s,” Dunham said.
Lutton is planning a move out of state. She will keep her hand in legal aid by volunteering for legal clinics, she wrote in an email to the Tribune. She also plans to volunteer at a local state park after her move, using her skills as a master naturalist.
From policy adviser to a legal career
Dunham is a graduate of the MU School of Law and has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from Washington University in St. Louis.
“I started realizing the inequalities in our society, the disadvantages and barriers to economic opportunities,” Dunham said of her experience in her undergraduate and graduate programs at Washington University. “I became interested in social work to impact those areas.”
Her focus was less in direct practice and more on community development and policy. Dunham participated in a program that allowed her to get her bachelor’s and master’s degrees almost simultaneously. She graduated in five years, and her first post-graduate job was with Paraquad, a disability advocacy organization based in St. Louis.
She was there for 16 years as a policy analyst, associate policy director and eventual director of policy and advocacy.
The work she did there had statewide impacts on disability and health care policy, such as an expansion of consumer-directed personal attendant programs.
“Paraquad was not about doing things for people with disabilities. It was about organizing people with disabilities to have opportunities to live independently and direct their own lives,” Dunham said.
Even though Dunham was able to get lawmakers to change policy, she started to realize that in some cases, those changes either were not enforced properly or people did not know they knew had certain rights because of policy updates.
“I started thinking about going back to law school as a nontraditional student,” she said.
Dunham graduated from the MU School of Law in 2015. She then served as a law clerk in the Missouri Supreme Court and as an assistant attorney general in the labor division of the Missouri Attorney General’s Office before joining MMLS.
Removing legal access barriers
Dunham is focused on removing legal access barriers, such as through technology.
The organization works with individuals and families no matter what their access picture looks like, including traditional communication methods, she said.
“In order to increase access to services, we need resources, attorneys and intake staff to support that work,” Dunham said. “A big goal of mine is to hire and retain a diverse, qualified and talented staff.”
Dunham wants to close the access-to-justice gap. The Legal Service Corp., she noted, issued its access-to-justice report in Aprilwhich found “low-income Americans (did) not get any or enough legal help for 92% of their substantial civil legal problems.”
The report also found that people do not always recognize what could be a legal issue, Dunham added. There are some obvious examples like a will, but there also are consumer and health care issues for which individuals can seek legal aid.
“Way fewer people sought help for consumer and health issues,” she said, despite this being an area more people were facing issues. “They aren’t easily recognized as a legal issue and they have some consumer rights. A hope of mine is to work with community partners and key messengers to help people recognize when they might have a legal issue (with which) Mid-Missouri Legal Services can help.”
Charles Dunlap covers local government, community issues and other general subjects for the Tribune. You can reach him at [email protected] or @CD_CDT on Twitter. Please consider subscribe to support vital local journalism.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Mid-Missouri Legal Services names new executive director
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