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

‘Tis the Season

I am proud to be a member of the MSBA because of the spirit of philanthropy that is so evident in our districts and our sister organization, the Minnesota State Bar Foundation.

In a previous column, I expressed my appreciation for the amazing generosity of MSBA members who self-reported having provided over $17 million worth of free legal help in pro bono projects in 2012, a figure that is in all likelihood lower than the actual amount.  But as the year winds down and our in-boxes and mailboxes begin to fill up with year-end appeals, I am reminded that lawyers in Minnesota are also a generous bunch when it comes to charitable giving.

Spirit of Giving

No single organization, in my mind, more exemplifies this spirit than the Minnesota State Bar Foundation.  Founded over 80 years ago, the Foundation continues to raise substantial amounts of tax-deductible contributions to help support law-related nonprofit organizations throughout the state.  These grants typically go to support organizations that provide critical services to people affected by discrimination, domestic abuse, poverty, or a host of other concerns.  Foundation directors report that they receive several dozen requests for support from these organizations each year, but that they are often able to fund only about a quarter of those proposals.  For the most part, Foundation funds come from one source:  a check-off on our annual dues statement.  And while each year a committed cadre of contributors do, indeed, check that box and make a tax-deductible gift, many members don’t.  My guess is that many of our members submit their dues statements to accounting staff of their firms to make the payment, without realizing this additional opportunity exists.  It is also possible that some members think that they can only afford a small gift, and that a small gift won’t make much difference.  In fact, the average Foundation grant is comparatively small itself—often, only a few thousand dollars, at most—and so in reality, gifts of any size make a difference and are greatly appreciated!  `Tis the season, they say, to help those in need, and so I hope that before you put down this issue of Bench & Bar, you will consider making an online, tax-deductible contribution to the Foundation today: www.mnbar.org/barfoundation.

Recently, there have been a few changes with respect to the Foundation that we hope will make it even more vibrant than ever.  In the spring, the Foundation agreed to assume fiscal-agent responsibilities for the popular Wills for Heroes program.  This provides a higher-profile, more effective home for that program, which involves lawyers writing wills for police, firefighters, and other first responders, as well as their spouses and domestic partners, for free; the 10,000th such will is on the horizon, and connecting the program with the Foundation will provide it a firm platform for building on its success in the future.

 Maximizing Service

This fall, the Foundation board graciously accepted our proposal to create an ex officio role on its board for the MSBA’s treasurer; our current treasurer, Mike Unger, will be a great person to begin fashioning what this role will look like for his successors.  Additionally, this month the MSBA’s Assembly will be considering a proposal to amend our bylaws to offer a seat in the Assembly to a representative of the Foundation.  By strengthening the relationship between the two organizations in these ways, we hope to improve communication, collaboration, and coordination to maximize the opportunities available to our members and the support for important community services helping those in need.

In addition to the Foundation, all of the MSBA’s geographically defined districts engage in philanthropy to support programs in their respective communities.  I’ve attended several districts’ annual meetings, in smaller communities across the state, where one of the main items of business is identifying organizations the district can support in their efforts to expand access to justice throughout Minnesota.  Recently, I attended the Ramsey County Bar Association’s dinner at the beautifully restored Union Depot in downtown St. Paul.  That is not a small space, but it was filled to capacity with lawyers enthusiastically participating in both silent and live auctions that generated funds for legal services providers in Ramsey County.  One week later, I had the opportunity to attend the annual gala sponsored by the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, an MSBA affiliate, whose proceeds support a critical scholarship program.  Once again, the room at the Marriott in downtown Minneapolis was filled to capacity by those committed to supporting these promising law students of color as they prepare to join the profession.

I imagine we are all well-aware that lawyers as a group are often viewed unfavorably by the general public, who see many attorneys as just money-hungry parasites.  And yet these examples of the profession’s generosity—and so many more that could be listed—tell such a powerfully different story.

We’ve also become aware, of course, in recent years of the emergence of low-cost, online services that purport to replicate if not entirely replace the services attorneys provide.  How many of these companies, I wonder, routinely give back to Minnesota communities, in terms of funds or volunteer hours?

For many of us, there’s a lot more to lawyering than just being in court:  there is the drive to contribute to the greater good.  And that’s a lot to be proud of, particularly at this time of year.

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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.