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

A Few Good Women and Men

It’s hard to believe that my year as Bar president is nearly half over—so much still to accomplish and so little time.  For me, and I know I speak for those who have preceded me, being Bar president is a remarkably fulfilling experience.  Thank you all for the opportunity.  Now it’s your turn to step up to the plate.

There are so many members of our association who would make outstanding Bar leaders.  In speaking with countless folks over the last year, I can sense that how someone becomes Bar president is somewhat mysterious. What does the Bar president really do? And how much time does it take?  Herein I lift the cone of silence, demystify the process, and urge those of you who would enjoy doing it to express an interest.  I am directing my comments particularly to the many talented women, persons of color, and other members who would enrich our leadership ranks through diversity.

Why Become President

News Flash:  Being president will not make you rich or famous.  And it is not likely to decrease the number of meetings on your calendar.  But it will provide you with a wonderful opportunity, if you are so inclined, to make a difference while enjoying the ride of your life. The potential to move the ball forward is limited only by your time, energy, vision, and creativity.  You have opportunities to help shape Association policies and State legislation; further relations with the courts, legislators, and the public; engage with academia, law-related and other organizations nationally; and be an agent for improving access to justice and the profession as a whole.  You travel the state and get to know the many impressive and genuinely warm members of the Bar.  You network and work cooperatively with Bar leaders throughout the country who expose you to valuable ideas that will benefit Minnesota.  There are quite a few receptions in the mix as well.

That’s not to say that you can accomplish everything you’d like.  When you have such a diverse constituency, not everyone will agree on direction and there are always forces beyond your control; but that’s what makes it interesting.  The Bar leadership track is a four-year gig.  You are elected as the secretary of the Association for a year. You then spend a year as treasurer and then president-elect.  Plenty of time to observe the workings of the Association, assess its needs, and develop a plan of action. Of course, you must be flexible; events can suddenly change the priorities ($5 billion budget deficits, natural disasters like Katrina, Supreme Court decisions impacting the judiciary, etc.).  Not a lot of time to be bored.   And you always have dozens of outstanding professionals at the MSBA, headed by Tim Groshens, to lead you through the process and make you look good.

How to Become President

Contrary to rumor, Bar leadership is not insular or a closed system.  It’s not restricted to attorneys from large law firms, corporate, PI, or litigator types.  The current four officers include folks from the IP world, a legal services lawyer, the first openly gay officer working in two nonprofit organizations, and a criminal defense attorney.  There are a number of opportunities for women, persons of color, and diverse folks to get in the loop.   The Association needs and wants diversity; you need only raise your hand.

Here’s how the system works.  The Bylaws require that, of the four officers, one is nominated by the Hennepin County Bar Association, one by the Ramsey County Bar, one chosen collectively by Assembly members representing all other district bar associations, and one chosen by the Assembly at large.  The “at large” selection has often been used to diversify the officer corps.  Generally, the Hennepin and Ramsey Bars choose past presidents.  The county Bars provide fabulous opportunities to gain bar leadership experience.  I went that route, having served on, and later assuming the chair of, the HCBA Professional Conduct Committee.  If you are from Greater Minnesota or wish to vie for the at-large position, simply notify the leaders of your local section or specialty or minority bar association that you want to sit on the Assembly.  Once on the Assembly, immerse yourself in the organization: attend committee meetings, participate, and let the Elections and Appointments Committee know you want to serve—as an officer or perhaps a member of a Minnesota Supreme Court board or other outside board.  If you don’t raise your hand, no one will know you are interested.

The Time Commitment

Again, it’s what you make of it.  Certainly, the president is busier than the other officers. However, we are looking at ways to share the burden among the officers, both to limit the demands on the president and to provide training opportunities.  Depending on the breadth of the agenda a president wishes to pursue (or that is thrust upon the president), the position could take 40-70 percent of one’s time in a year.  Clearly, it’s a time commitment but it’s far more of a blessing than a curse.  Although MSBA presidents are reimbursed for reasonable out-of-pocket expenses involved in travel and other Bar-related work, the MSBA—unlike some state Bars—does not pay any form of stipend to its president. This could impact the ability of certain persons to seek leadership.

What is clear is that no person can take on this role without the support of their employer as it is usually the employer, or the president’s law partners, who share the burden of serving.  My humblest and most sincere thanks to everyone at Merchant & Gould.  I am eternally grateful.

OK, now raise your hand.  Call me and we can do coffee/lunch to make a plan for your involvement.  Happy Holidays to all, Merry Christmas, Joyous Kwanzaa, and Hag Sameach!

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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.