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Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Pro Bono: Celebrating & Raising the Bar

Hardly a day goes by without the media giving us more bad news on the state of our economy and our community. The legal system has not been immune to this negative cycle: reduced court funding has stressed the capacity of the system to meet critical needs.  Our neighbors grapple with significant problems, such as mortgage foreclosure and job loss.

Cause to Celebrate

Let me take a moment from this parade of bad news to remind us of the good things lawyers have done and continue to do in service to our community in this time of crisis.  Every day, a pro bono lawyer helps a parent resolve issues related to child custody and support.  Every day, a pro bono lawyer helps her client win asylum so that he can remain in the United States and avoid persecution in his home country.  Every day, a pro bono lawyer helps an elderly client avoid foreclosure on the home she has owed for many years.  These are the stories you don’t see on television or read in the newspaper every day.  But, they are the real successes that the members of our profession have made possible due to countless hours of volunteer work.

As you know, Rule 6.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct strongly encourages all of us to use our legal training for the benefit of clients who could not otherwise afford our services.  Last year, our colleagues donated nearly 200,000 hours of their billable time to serve low-income and disadvantaged clients in our state.  We have reason to be proud of the hard work done by Minnesota lawyers.  Last spring, the MSBA released Celebrate Pro Bono, the 2009 Report on Pro Bono Legal Services, in order to raise the profile of pro bono service in Minnesota.  A copy of the report can be found at http://www2.mnbar.org/committees/lad/2009ProBono.pdf .

This month, during the week of October 24-30, 2010, lawyers throughout Minnesota will participate in a national week of celebration, Pro Bono Week, sponsored by the American Bar Association.  This will be an opportunity to recognize the service lawyers have provided to our community, educate ourselves about the continuing need for pro bono legal assistance, and serve our community through volunteer clinics and other opportunities.  A highlight of Pro Bono Week will be the Pro Bono CLE, sponsored by the MSBA on Tuesday, October 26 at the Minnesota CLE Center in Minneapolis.  The CLE will focus on important topics in pro bono law and will be followed by substantive breakout sessions hosted by law firms, in collaboration with legal service providers.  There will be numerous other events throughout the week taking place across the state.  For the latest information, please check the ProJusticeMN.org website at
http://www.projusticemn.org/volunteer_week/.

Raising the Bar

While I encourage you to participate in Pro Bono Week activities, we also need your sustained commitment to providing pro bono legal representation.  In 2008, the MSBA Assembly passed the MSBA Pro Bono Standard, an effort spearheaded by former MSBA president Brian Melendez and modeled after the national Pro Bono Challenge.  The Standard asks law practices to commit, in the first year of participation, to providing 1 percent of their lawyers’ collective billable time to pro bono service as provided in Rule 6.1(a) and 6.1 (b)(1) and (2).  In the second year, the proportion increases to 2 percent and, for firms over 100 lawyers, 3 percent in the third year.  The MSBA actively promotes the Standard in an effort to both recognize the good work already being done and to encourage more lawyers to make pro bono service a priority for their practices.  I urge you to consider publicly committing your practice to the MSBA Pro Bono Standard.  For more information on the Standard, please contact the MSBA Pro Bono Development Director, Steve Marchese, at (612) 278-8308 or smarchese@mnbar.org.

The MSBA is dedicated, through a wide variety of initiatives and with support from staff and our Legal Assistance to the Disadvantaged Committee, to raising the profile of pro bono service and reminding our members of the continuing need for legal assistance among low-income clients.  Most recently, in 2009, through the efforts of the LAD Committee, the Minnesota Supreme Court adopted a rule providing for one CLE credit hour for every six hours of pro bono service.  In collaboration with the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition, the MSBA supports ProJusticeMN.org, the main online web portal for lawyers currently representing low-income clients and for those interested in finding ways to connect with pro bono opportunities.  Registration is free and the practice resources are designed to support the pro bono practitioner in most of the major substantive areas of law.

Our legal training provides us an important opportunity to contribute to the well-being of the community.  Through our pro bono service, we provide something that only lawyers can by virtue of our license to practice law: access to the justice system for those most affected by the social and economic tumult of our day.  It is important for us to recognize all that we do as a profession and to continue to raise the bar of our commitment to a just society for all. s

The contribution of Steve Marchese to the preparation of this President’s Page is gratefully acknowledged.

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Terry Votel

Terry Votel was the 2010-11 president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. The division attorney for the Midwest Division of the Claims Litigation Department of Farmers Insurance Group, he practices in the area of insurance defense. He received his J.D. degree from William Mitchell College of Law.

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