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

Moving the Ball Forward

Terry Votel, our immediate past president and my good friend, is owed a great deal of thanks for leading us through very turbulent times at the legislature amid threats to judicial funding and the impartiality of the courts, and proposals for a tax on legal services. Terry presided with vision, class, a steady hand, and wisdom when the waters were far from calm. Terry treated everyone with respect, and he always governed with humor. He is the epitome of an outstanding leader and it was an honor to work with him. On behalf of the entire organization, thank you Terry for a job well-done and for leaving me with shoes that will be very hard to fill.

My interests are simply to help move the ball forward. With an energized core of talented, creative, and focused volunteers we can reduce the barriers blocking access to the justice system, advocate for adequate funding for our courts, institute changes to ensure the continued impartiality of the courts, educate the public on the importance of the rule of law, and diversify our ranks and our leadership.

There are 16,500 very talented persons in this association. Some already serve on committees, sections, or as officers, Assembly or Council members. Others donate their time to provide low-cost or pro bono services. Many demonstrate their commitment to our profession, the community, and our country in serving as public sector and public interest lawyers, judges, and as members of the military. Thank you to those involved.

All Can Contribute

“It is a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead—and find no one there.” —Franklin D. Roosevelt

I suspect that many other MSBA members, if encouraged to be creative and empowered to pursue good ideas, would find their involvement enriching, personally and professionally. It has been said that “nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something.” Even a member who can’t afford the time to be a bar leader or to take an active role can contribute ideas and perspectives. “Crowdsourcing”(group decision making and input) makes sense on so many levels. Please don’t hesitate to write me at with your thoughts or give me a call (612) 336-4619.

As an association, we already do so many things well. Many of our committees and sections are dynamic, well-functioning entities. Candidly however, it seems that we could do a better job with communication and feeling part of the whole. We are all part of the same organization but it sometimes feels as though we are a loose confederation of states. To enhance communication within the Association, we look to establish a Council of Sections this year, gathering representatives from each section together to share ideas on legislation, programming, and association-wide issues. We will do something similar for committees. The synergy created when you put everyone in the same room can be awesome.

Along the same lines, we will reinvigorate an idea implemented six years ago: the Council of Bar Leaders, pulling together bars of color, specialty bars (e.g., trial lawyers, defense lawyers, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys), judicial organizations, and others to work together on issues affecting the whole profession. A no brainer!

Challenges Ahead

The State Bar Association is uniquely situated to work with providers of civil legal services, low-cost and pro bono services to take a fresh look at what limits access to justice and build even greater cohesiveness among the players. Accordingly, we are planning a statewide summit of the stakeholders, including our own Legal Assistance to the Disadvantaged (LAD) Committee, to see if we can collectively identify the challenges and creatively brainstorm solutions.

We should consider establishing a committee to address the needs of attorneys in their first two or three years out of law school: to deal with debt burdens, employment-related issues, training, understanding the business of the practice of law and the culture of different legal employer environments. The committee could also work with lawyers in transition. The Bar needs to remain relevant to new lawyers. Adding value from the time they are about to enter the profession—and being there for them in the critical first years—will build loyalty and make continued Bar membership more likely.

Association governance deserves a new look as well. If you are, or have ever been, a member of a nonprofit board of directors, you may have survived the dynamic of working with a large board (over 30). The MSBA board, the Assembly, is actually 128 persons. Experience suggests that having a manageably-sized board makes decision making much more efficient. Members of such boards find the experience more fulfilling as they become essential participants in the decision-making process and individual accountability is enhanced. Meetings need to be more interesting; technology for remote access should be explored.

Finally, our profession has issues that need to be addressed at a national level with increased vigor: educational debt burdens, 40,000 new lawyers a year, greater numbers who can’t find employment, decreased state court revenues, critical needs for low-cost and pro bono services, bar associations’ struggle to remain relevant to young lawyers, and law schools needing to train lawyers how to practice law because law firm training has diminished. Let’s participate in a conversation with state supreme courts, legal educators, the ABA, and state bar associations on solutions.

Ambitious agenda? Perhaps, but worth the effort. Thank you for the great honor of serving as your president this year. I look forward to working with each of you.


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Brent Routman

Brent Routman was president of the Minnesota State Bar Association from 2011-2012. He is a partner, general counsel, and Asia Regional Trademark Attorney with the intellectual property law firm of Merchant & Gould in Minneapolis.