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

Legislative Advocates

A few months ago, I devoted my President’s Page to detailing some of the benefits gained from MSBA membership.  I discussed our online tools to make attorneys’ jobs easier with streamlined research and assistance in document-creation, advertising, and electronic filing.  This month I want to share one of the unexpected joys of serving as MSBA President: involvement with our legislative advocacy efforts.

MSBA at the Capitol

The MSBA is regarded as the civil law authority at the Capitol in St. Paul.  The Bar is valued for its members’ expertise on a host of subjects. Every legislative session, dozens of poorly executed ideas are prevented from becoming statutory headaches thanks to the work of our lobbying team and helpful MSBA volunteers.  These efforts often ensure that new laws are not detrimental or problematic for attorneys in particular practice areas.

In addition to their role in preventing headaches for lawyers and their clients, our lobbyists are also advocates for attorneys’ interests.  This year you will be hard-pressed to avoid media coverage of legislators’ efforts to pass a balanced budget; but the media probably won’t tell you about the MSBA’s efforts to secure adequate funding for the courts, public defenders, and civil legal services.  As we all know, inadequate funding of the justice system creates frustrating delays for you and your clients, so we will be doing everything in our power to make sure the justice system receives adequate support from the state.  In addition, the Bar’s lobbying team will be taking an active role in discussions at the Capitol about reforming Minnesota’s tax system, and we will fight any proposals to tax legal services.

Despite having to react to numerous legislative developments, the MSBA isn’t always in a defensive posture. In fact, the Bar typically passes more bills than any other legislatively active organization. The MSBA’s lobbyists work to pass proposals that are drafted and supported by various sections of the Bar. In previous years we’ve secured passage of bills that were important to lawyers in business law, probate, real estate, tax, and several other practice areas.

LawPAC

Thousands of bills are introduced each legislative session, but only a very small percentage make it to the governor’s desk. Although MSBA bills are generally noncontroversial, gaining traction and momentum for them takes considerable resources. First we have to find legislative champions, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find bill authors because the number of attorneys elected to the Minnesota House and Senate has shrunk to just two dozen out of 201 legislative seats. Moreover, only a handful of lawyer-legislators are appointed to the Judiciary and Civil Law committees. Outside of this small cadre of our professional colleagues, we must explain our often complicated and highly technical proposals in ways that nonlawyers can comprehend, and then convince them that Bar bills are more important to pass than the thousands of other bills that are vying for attention.

Speaking of attention, mine is often divided these days! Among my other duties as MSBA President, I serve on the board of the MSBA’s political action committee, LawPAC. For better or worse, we’re living in an era where political influence is largely derived from political activity, such as financial assistance to campaigns and political party units. LawPAC provides a vehicle to leverage the MSBA’s influence on important issues.

LawPAC is a nonpartisan entity that is funded entirely through voluntary contributions from individuals. Historically, LawPAC has made contributions to equal numbers of GOP and DFL legislative candidates. The candidates who earn LawPAC’s support are those who demonstrate a commitment to issues that are important to the legal profession. You can find out more information about LawPAC here: http://mnlawpac.com/?page_id=35.

Member Support

Because of the magnitude of the issues we face at the Capitol, I contributed to LawPAC twice last year and I plan to contribute again this year. I know that every dollar makes a difference—I consider it an investment in our profession. I am proud of the MSBA’s reputation at the Capitol and I’m hopeful we can continue to be successful in our legislative efforts.  I realize that it is very possible everyone is saying to themselves, “Didn’t you just ask last month for financial support for the Minnesota Bar Foundation?”  Now I am asking again for the financial support for LawPAC.  When is it going to end?  I can assure you that I have thought about this and my requests for additional financial support are mostly over (I cannot say specifically I am done because my crystal ball is on the fritz so my predicting the future is somewhat hampered).  It is my hope that you as members of our association recognize the benefits of our association’s legislative activity, the importance of our legislative activity, and the absolute need to support it.

Special thanks to MSBA legislative staff Brian Lake and Emily McGann for their assistance in preparing this month’s column.

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Robert F. Enger

Bob was president of the Minnesota State Bar Association from 2012-2013. A son of northern Minnesota, he serves as Supervising Attorney for Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota, based in Bemidji, and is the first legal services attorney to serve as MSBA President.