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

Expanding Access to Justice

I am proud to be a member of the MSBA because of its comprehensive commitment to expanding access to justice for people across Minnesota.

Recently, the MSBA’s Council explored what it understands the phrase “access to justice” to mean. We observed that, this simple phrase contains (at least) two distinct yet critical elements:  access, and justice—justice, from the standpoint not of a particular outcome, but of the justice system.  The MSBA recognizes that without a functioning, statewide justice system, there would be nothing to access in the first place.  Our dedication to securing full funding for our justice-system partners—the courts, the public defenders, and civil legal services—is one element of our broad-based approach to expanding and reinforcing access to justice.

Support for Pro Bono

The MSBA’s commitment to helping provide access to justice also involves multiple efforts to support and recognize attorneys throughout the state who help clients on a pro bono basis.  MSBA members have ready access to a substantial and growing database of forms through our Practicelaw and MNDocs services that make it easier to serve clients in need, and the association maintains several list-servs to which members can readily turn to ask colleagues for advice about challenging pro bono cases they’ve undertaken that may be outside their usual practice areas.  MSBA members also have free access, as a benefit of membership, to Fastcase, a well-regarded research tool that many of our members say is, by itself, worth the price of membership.  More information about these and other helpful tools can be found at: www.mnbar.org/pic-online.asp. 

In addition, the MSBA early began using the internet to support the work of pro bono lawyers, partnering with the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition and Pro Bono Net to create ProjusticeMN.org.  The website is the single best online portal for pro bono resources, including practice and forms libraries on poverty law-related topics, updated and catalogued listings of training opportunities, and a searchable database of volunteer attorney programs as well as listings on available pro bono opportunities.  Membership is free to practicing lawyers who plan to represent pro bono clients.  For the practitioner in a smaller office, this is a great way to “outsource” your pro bono practice.

But the organization does not just provide useful resources lawyers can use to advance access to justice.  The MSBA’s Pro Bono  Development Director actively connects attorneys with opportunities to engage in meaningful access-to-justice efforts, and similarly works with organizations like the Minnesota Justice Foundation to make sure law students know that they have chances to help those in need—and that the legal community will back them up when they do.  The MSBA also organizes activities related to the annual Pro Bono Week each October (October 21-25, 2013).

Expanding the Pool

This year, for example, the MSBA will collaborate with bar districts in different parts of Minnesota on a pilot program to engage lawyers in the work of law-related nonprofit organizations serving people affected by cancer, domestic abuse, and other significant concerns.  The MSBA will cosponsor local CLE programs offered by these nonprofits, hoping to achieve a win-win-win:  more active districts, free in-person CLEs, and more attorneys involved with important organizations working to serve people in need.  MSBA will also sponsor the annual Pro Bono CLE on Tuesday, October 22 at the offices of Fredrikson and Byron in Minneapolis. The program will feature panels on integrating pro bono into practice, using technology, and connecting with the community and diverse clients.  It should be a great event and well worth the modest fee for three CLE credits.  More information can be found on ProjusticeMN at the following link:  www.projusticemn.org/volunteer_week.Your bar association also looks for opportunities to expand the pool of lawyers who can provide low- or no-cost services to the underserved.  Recently, for example, we have been proud of the success of our Legal Assistance to the Disadvantaged (LAD) Committee in advocating for the implementation of a “lawyer emeritus” rule by the Minnesota Supreme Court. This new rule will relax certain compliance requirements and allow veteran lawyers to still serve low-income clients even as they cut back their active involvement in the practice. It’s also worth recalling that the LAD Committee has been working on increasing legal resources for low-income clients for over 30 years.  Many trailblazing initiatives started in discussions at the MSBA and through the tireless efforts of committee members from all sectors of the legal community.

Matter of Pride

Finally, not only does the MSBA advance the access-to-justice agenda by providing tools to lawyers, connecting attorneys with opportunities to serve, advocating for systemic change to make such service easier, and demanding that the justice system receive the support it needs in order to function. In 2012 President Bob Enger launched the Northstar Lawyer program (www.mnbar.org/northstar), an ambitious annual effort to recognize lawyers who contribute at least 50 hours a year of pro bono representation.  Earlier this year, the MSBA ran a full-page newspaper ad recognizing over 740 attorneys statewide who contributed more than $17 milllion worth of free legal services to people in need.  We know this number is just the tip of the iceberg and look forward to reporting even greater numbers in 2014.

As Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s 2012 Annual Report proclaims, “A holistic approach brings lasting change.”  I am proud to say the MSBA wholeheartedly agrees.

Leave a Reply

Phil Duran

Phil Duran was 2013-14 president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. A Minnesota resident since 1997, he serves as legal director for OutFront Minnesota, an LGBT advocacy organization, and advises nonprofit organizations as staff attorney for MAP for Nonprofits, both based in the Twin Cities.