Mike Ford, shareholder and partner with the St. Cloud firm of Quinlivan & Hughes, P.A., is the new president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. In a wide-ranging conversation last month with Bench & Bar, Ford discussed issues as diverse as civic education, judicial elections, and the business of law. He also delved into early influences in his life and described how these shaped his decision to become a lawyer.
B&B: In previous conversations and publications, you have described law practice as a three-legged stool. Could you explain that analogy further, and discuss how it relates to the Minnesota State Bar Association?
MF: The three legs consist of the profession of law, the practice of law, and the business of law. The profession of law is all the things we think about when we attend meetings of the organized bar—work for the passage of legislation that’s helpful to society, representing the indigent—all of the good things about being an attorney.
Then there’s the practice of law, which is developing your skills, going to continuing legal education, drafting documents, becoming a better lawyer. And everybody recognizes the value of that.
I think, over the years, the organized bar has been reluctant to ascribe much importance to that third leg, which I call the business of law. That’s the dirty, grubby business of billing clients, collecting from those clients, paying your staff, paying for computer resources and paper, and in essence turning sufficient profit so that you can make a living.
B&B: Why should that be as important as the practice and profession of law?
MF: The problem is that if lawyers and law firms are struggling financially, you’re going to find that more are going to skimp on the profession and even the practice of law.
They may not be as willing to write professionally, speak professionally, or even attend anything more than the minimum CLE.
They’re certainly not going to be interested in giving away their time representing the indigent.
They’re going to be desperately striving to pay their bills and keep their staff functioning.
B&B: What can the bar association do?
MF: First off, we can make it respectable to have this conversation, to say “Hey, it’s okay to worry about these things.”
I’d say 80 to 90 percent of the bar worries about it all the time, and yet they don’t see the members of the bar leadership address it as strongly as they should.
The bar, under Executive Director Tim Groshens’ leadership, and under the leadership of presidents before me, has tried to do a lot.
We’ve got FastCase, we’ve got practicelaw.org—we’re doing a lot to provide these tools.
What we’re not doing as much of, that I will try to do, is to talk about it, to make it respectable.
B&B: Is this primarily an issue for attorneys in private practice?
MF: Well, that’s interesting. Because at bottom line, the business of law is really talking about the effective delivery of legal services.
We call it the efficient, the economical, and the effective delivery of legal services.
Let’s take a look at the judiciary. A classic example of public law. Right now they have a funding crisis and we’re all scrambling to provide more funds to assist the courts. Where’s the discussion about the efficient, economical and effective delivery of services?
This is going to raise hackles, because everybody feels that they’re doing it as well as they can.
Well, I’m here to tell you, nobody’s doing it as well as they can. I’m not doing it as well as I could.
It could always be improved.
B&B: Could you give an example?
MF: The judiciary is short quite a number of law clerks. Is there any thought to sharing law clerks? Sharing assignments by email? Having a law clerk in Wadena provide legal research for a judge in St. Cloud?
I talked to a judge once in Wadena and I asked her, “Are you able to remotely access your files?”
In my firm, we’ve got all of our documents online, and if I can find a computer in a hotel in Fiji, or in Minneapolis, I can get online and I can take a look at every file I’m working on, my email, notes, the whole bit. I can pass assignments; I can send documents, basically work from home. A lot of people do that.
The court system isn’t set up to do that. It’s not even on their radar screen, as far as I can tell. And yet, if you’ve got judges traveling from here to there, certainly in the outstate area, that’s something that you want to look at: the efficient, effective, economical delivery of legal service.
So the business of law applies even if you’re not billing clients.
B&B: It sounds like a lot of the solutions rely on technology.
MF: A big part of it. This is the digital age. We’re an information-based profession.
If you’ve got your records online, you’re not playing “File, file, who’s got the file,” which always happens. If it’s digitalized, everybody’s got access to it simultaneously. That’s efficiency. If the courts’ records are digitized, everyone’s got access all the time.
B&B: Is this an uphill battle, given the personality of the person who is drawn to law?
MF: Think about it. This is a profession built on stare decisis, or precedent and what’s happened before. Somebody who’s able to master the importance of precedent, and follow what’s happened before, will do well.
And now you’re going to come to a person who’s grown up in a profession like that and convince them to do something new, that nobody has every tried before?
I’ve been kind of a pest in my firm because I’ve recommended so many things over the years. Typically it takes two or three years for something to actually take root and happen. That’s probably what’s going to happen with judicial elections too. It’s going to take people some time to think about it before they’re willing to do it.
B&B: Speaking of judicial elections—what’s your take on this issue?
MF: The official position of the Minnesota Bar Association is that change is necessary. We can’t continue in the way we have been.
And the bar association prefers a system that uses appointment followed by performance commissions to discern whether the judge stays in office.
The Quie Commission is pushing a very similar proposal, except they have retention elections to determine if the judge stays the same.
The bar association is comfortable with that approach, but would prefer its own. That’s the official line.
For me, if I could get the judges and lawyers to more or less agree that there’s a problem that needs fixing, I would consider that a good year. And have the people after me figure out what the solution’s going to be.
B&B: You don’t think the bar membership sees a problem?
MF: Right now, I would say the prevalent view among lawyers and judges is simply that they don’t see the problem. It’s not happening here.
I call that the unfortunate Lake Wobegon effect, after Garrison Keillor.
We all think of Minnesota as being above average, or better than average. Me, I was born in New York City and raised in Chicago, and I have a more realistic view of human nature.
I believe that as a society, we don’t want to make it any more difficult for someone to take the high road than absolutely necessary. So if we give judicial candidates the ability to legally take the low road, we have nobody to blame but ourselves if a significant number of them do just that.
It’s a failing on our part as a community.
B&B: So where does the Lake Wobegon effect come in?
MF: We’re going to require—expect—a judge who’s faced with a serious opponent with a lot of funding to nevertheless take the high road, and not descend into the gutter to do whatever it takes to win.
That’s the Lake Wobegon effect.
That’s where people say, “Well, judges in Minnesota will just not succumb to the temptation that’s happening in Wisconsin and Ohio and Indiana and all the other states that have been facing this issue.” In Minnesota, we figure people are going to rise above that and I just don’t believe it. Not forever.
We’ve been lucky so far.
B&B: So this year’s goal is to get everyone on the same page of the conversation?
MF: That’s right, and to agree that the conversation is necessary.
I’m not even expecting that everyone’s going to be saying the same things in the conversation.
I think the members of the bar association who will want to say that there is no problem, they deserve to be there at the conversation. But they need to listen to other people too.
And those of us who think there’s a solution have to realize that we don’t have all the answers. We’ve got to listen to some other people.
B&B: What are you hearing from judges on this?
MF: The judges have made some good points about retention elections. It’s difficult for judges to be excited about having to run for election every time there’s an election because right now, 90 percent of them don’t have an opponent. They don’t have an election. They don’t have to have campaign funding; they don’t have to raise money.
In a retention system, they’re going to have to do all those kinds of things, or at least consider it. So that’s a point that needs to be talked about.
B&B: What’s at stake here? Worst case scenario?
MF: Well, if we have a system that the general population believes is not fair, we’re going to lose the willingness of the people, including the legislature and everybody else in the state, to let the legal system manage itself.
The legal system, after all, is one of the three coequal branches of government and it’s really amazing that we’ve been able to operate as long as we have in this country with the kind of system we have, and a lot of it has to do with the credit that the judges and the court system have with the general population.
B&B: Speaking of coequal branches of the government and other things we should be learning in school, what do you have to say about civic education?
MF: That’s a key piece. It’s an area where I think the bar association has done a lot of good work in preparation for getting the civic education piece out, but now we need some deliverables. We need to make it happen.
What we’re talking about is how difficult it is to keep high school students and beyond educated in how the system works.
The mock trial program is a good example of a great civic education program. The only trouble is that it reaches a relatively small group within each school.
We need to build on that.
B&B: Any ideas?
MF: Well, this isn’t ready for prime time yet, but I did reach out to the school district in St. Cloud. They apparently have something called a CTV committee and I exchanged an email with one of their members, telling them we have civic education resources.
The committee, as I understand it, is supposed to reach out to businesses and community groups who bring resources into the schools. I thought that might be a good vehicle for the schools, if each district happens to have a committee.
You know, a movie that sticks out for me in this regard is “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” when he is addressing the school board and telling them how they’re not doing a good job and one of his former students says, “Well, Mr. Holland, we’re doing the best we can,” to which he replies, “Well, your best is not good enough.”
That’s the way I feel sometimes about myself and the rest of us when it comes to schools. Our best so far is not good enough.
B&B: Is that a personal obligation? Or a bar obligation?
MF: I do think it’s both a personal and a bar obligation, along with all of the other personal and bar obligations that we have. Part of the problem we all have is prioritizing the things that we have to do.
B&B: What about your own education experiences? You went to St. John’s University here in Minnesota—how much did that influence your career?
MF: I was there from 1966 to 1970, but the real influence on me there was John Gagliardi, the most successful college coach in football.
I rode the bench for him for two years. I got a chance to watch him up close and personal then and I’ve watched him as a fan for over 40 years.
One of the secrets to Gagliardi is that he never requires more from a player than a player is able to provide. That’s never been Gagliardi’s style. He’s always got somebody else helping out.
If I was going to rate the three things that influenced me professionally, it would be football and Gagliardi; the service; and the lawyers who worked at Quinlivan when I was hired.
B&B: You were in the military?
MF: Yeah, I spent three years in the 82nd Airborne Division in an infantry brigade. I served four years, eight months and four days on active duty, but who’s counting, and then 12 years in the Reserves.
I’d actually gone into the military planning to make it a career, but that idea only lasted about six months.
B&B: So how did you go from planning a military career to being a lawyer?
MF: I learned pretty early on in the service if you can figure out a regulation that covers a certain situation, you can pretty much do whatever you want to. I would do that enough where, as soon as I started quoting a regulation, people would believe me and say, “We’ll give Ford whatever he wants because he’s quoting regulation.”
So I thought to myself, “Well, I like to read the small print in regulations, I like to talk a lot—I’m going to be a lawyer.”
I got a halfway decent LSAT score, so I just kind of kept rolling forward with no real master plan in place.
B&B: And now you’re going to lead the state bar association. Are there any other ideas or topics that you’re going to cover in your term?
MF: One of the things I’m looking at is mandatory retirement ages for attorneys.
The American Bar Association passed a resolution a few years ago to recommend that all law firms abolish those ages. My firm had one. It was 70. We abolished it, but it wasn’t a no-brainer; it took some effort. We had to talk about it, we had to think about it. Now that we’ve done it, it’s kind of like, “Why did we even have to have that conversation?”
But I guarantee you, I’m going to bring that issue up at the state bar, and I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of quizzical looks and people are going to say, “Oh my gosh, how are we going to get rid of the deadwood?”
The primary argument is, “Instead of having an honest conversation with one of our partners who has lost it, or maybe never had it, and is now getting close to retirement age, we can let the calendar have the conversation for us, and we can ignore the problem.”
I make it sound easy. I know it’s not, to tell a partner-level person that their skills have eroded to the point where they’ve become a danger to themselves and the firm and their clients. It’s not an easy conversation.
B&B: That’s hard. It’s not like there are tangible measures to use.
MF: Maybe if we made attorneys take the bar again at age 70, that would take care of it. (laughing)
Maybe if they take it at 40 … .
Maybe we’re onto an idea here. That might lead to the first impeachment of a bar president, if I recommend that we all take the bar exam every 20 years.
I’d go out with a big fanfare.
I’ll have to share this with Tim Groshens … .
B&B: We’ll watch for it in your next president’s column. In the meantime, congratulations on your presidency.
Detailing Mike Ford
Born New York City, 1948; raised in Chicago
B.A., St. John’s University, Collegeville, MN, 1970
United States Army, 82nd Airborne Division, 1970-1975
J.D., William Mitchell College of Law, 1979
Attorney with Quinlivan & Hughes, St. Cloud, 1979-present
Practice areas: civil litigation, insurance coverage, employment law, government liability, land use, general casualty law
Bars admitted to: Minnesota; U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota; U.S. Court of Appeals, 8th Circuit; U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin; U.S. Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit.
- Professional affiliations: Numerous roles on committees and bar associations at all levels, including Stearns & Benton Bar Association (past president); Minnesota Defense Lawyers Association (past president); MSBA (secretary, treasurer, president-elect, board of governors); Governor’s Commission on Judicial Selection (member, 1999-2006); Minnesota Citizen’s Commission for the Preservation of an Impartial Judiciary (Quie Commission).
- Recognition: AV rating with Martindale Hubbell since the 1980s; named a Minnesota Super Lawyer each year since 2001.