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

Facing the Big Questions

I am proud to be a member of the MSBA because of its willingness to take on some of the “big questions” facing not only our association, but also our profession and our society.

Future of Legal Education

Recently, we have been challenged to broach an important discussion about the future of legal education in Minnesota and its impact on the practice of law, including its access-to-justice aspect.  In August, the Economist reported on comments by President Barack Obama, questioning the usefulness of law school’s third year.  In part, the article noted (emphasis added):

Over the past decade, … [law school] fees have soared, requiring students to borrow ever-greater sums: the average 2013 graduate will be $140,000 in hock, by one estimate. Meanwhile, firms have cut back on hiring, leaving many debt-laden young lawyers unemployed. That has led critics—now including Mr. Obama—to suggest that law schools pare their coursework down to two years, letting students save money and start earning sooner. Cutting costs would also allow more graduates to take lower-paying jobs in public-interest law.

Beyond the critical question of the degree to which ever-increasing law-school tuition and resulting debt loads reduce lawyers’ ability to take “lower-paying jobs in public-interest law” (which comes painfully close to describing the career choices of your current Bar president), there are at least two others.

First, when we know that, on average, lawyers’ salaries outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area are rarely as high as those earned by lawyers in the metro area, do the increasing costs of a legal education effectively price lawyers out of greater-Minnesota markets, thereby diminishing access to legal services for residents of smaller, more rural communities?  Thousands of lawyers working in greater Minnesota are now providing quality services to their communities at reasonable prices, but as they retire, will newer lawyers be willing and able to take their places?

Second, if law-school tuition continues to rise, presumably making it imperative for students to rely on loans to finance their education, will this increase the likelihood that only more fortunate, “credit-worthy” applicants will be able to secure the necessary student loans?   Put differently, will this tend to make law school a prospect increasingly available only to the better-off? And if so, how would that change the profession, and particularly diversity within it?

In September, the MSBA Assembly began examining where legal education may be headed in Minnesota, through a conversation facilitated by outgoing Hamline Law Dean Don Lewis.  The Council reviewed the feedback we got and determined at its October meeting to convene a formal task force to consider the issue in depth and make recommendations.  Is it time to revisit the model?  Are you intrigued?  If so, and you’d like to serve on such a task force, please watch for the formal announcement of this task force’s creation; you’ll have the opportunity to submit a Qualifications and Interest statement to express your interest.

Marketplace Challenges 

There is a related question that the Assembly also considered, namely: How can the MSBA help member-attorneys best respond to emerging challenges in the legal marketplace posed by nonlawyer competitors? New technologies allow nonlawyers to do many of the same types of research or drafting that lawyers are accustomed to providing, and perceived distinctions between attorneys and others providing services that closely resemble legal services are blurring.  Will the increasing cost of legal education, coupled with consequent increases in the cost of access to lawyers’ services, drive business toward nonlawyers or online services that are believed to deliver comparable products for lower costs?  How would such a dynamic affect solo and small-firm practitioners?  What are the potential effects on our court system, where adequate funding has been a perennial issue in recent years, as more people pursue their matters pro se because they either can’t afford a lawyer or believe they don’t need one?  Does our justice system, as now funded, have enough capacity to allow judges to sort out disputes where legal analysis is wanting, or where the parties have no sense of the relevant rules that govern the proceedings?  What are the risks to the public of attempting to address their own legal needs based on a Google search, rather than through the counsel of a lawyer presumably far more versed in the applicable law?  To what degree, if any, does (or should?) confidentiality attach to a consumer’s discussion with a nonlawyer regarding legal matters?  Is there anything a bar association like the MSBA, can meaningfully contribute to the discussion within the parameters of antitrust law?

I deeply appreciated a panel discussion at the Assembly meeting, led by Paul Floyd from the Hennepin County Bar Association and Susan Minsburg from our Solo and Small Practice Section, which prompted some great discussion.  Reviewing that, the Council agreed in October also to create a second task force to examine this group of questions.  Do you find yourself interested?  As indicated above, watch for the formal announcements and submit a Qualifications and Interest statement.

It’s my hope that both task forces will effectively take calendar-year 2014 to consider the optimal scope of the questions presented, dive into the research, literature and experiences that touch on them, and provide recommendations that will help us build the best, most-relevant Bar we can to continue meeting our profession’s ever-evolving needs.

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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.