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

An Effective Policy Advocate

I am proud to be a member of the Minnesota State Bar Association because this organization has a well-earned reputation as an effective advocate at the Minnesota Legislature for strong, responsive public policy.

The 2014 legislative session begins next month, and your bar association will be well-represented at the Capitol by Emily McGann, our government relations director, along with veteran lobbyists from the firm of Winthrop and Weinstine, with whom the MSBA has had a long relationship.

Most of you, I hope, are aware that the MSBA currently has almost 40 sections, subdivisions of the Bar typically focused on particular areas of the law, such as employment law, environmental law, or many others.  Sections are the places where attorneys not only network and learn, but where attorneys from all over Minnesota come together to identify problems in the law—and solutions.

Policy Initiatives

In fall 2013, various MSBA sections submitted 18 proposals for the Association to take positions on a variety of legislation; the Assembly’s Legislative Committee examined these and recommended that the MSBA focus on about half of those as Association-wide issues in 2014.  It will become the job of the Council, and of our Legislative Strategy Action Team (known, naturally, by the suppressed-memory-triggering acronym LSAT) to make plans for exactly how these various priorities will be pursued between February and May in St. Paul.

Additionally, several sections have received clearance to take positions on legislation in their own names, particularly the Family Law Section (regarding issues related to joint parenting), and the Animal Law Section (regarding regulation of so-called “puppy mills”).  I was happy to see the Immigration Law Section state its opposition to a relocation of the immigration court in Bloomington to a new site that is less-accessible for clients and lawyers using public transportation.

Not all of the focus is specifically on St. Paul—in December, the Business Law Section called on the MSBA to join our colleagues in the Wisconsin Bar and elsewhere to oppose federal efforts to change the way law firms handle their accounting.

And while not specifically a legislative issue, also in December, the Minnesota Supreme Court promulgated new rules for Continuing Legal Education that will allow for the possibility of lawyers securing up to one-third of their CLE credits through “on-demand CLE,” i.e., recorded CLE programs they view online.  The court’s approval of a 15-credit limit matched the position the MSBA took on the subject earlier in 2013, and the court also adopted the MSBA’s recommendation that the Minnesota Board of Continuing Legal Education conduct a formal review of the implementation of this new policy to see if it’s working, or whether further rule adjustments are needed.

Simply put, the MSBA and its members are active in the development of public policy, affecting not only the legal profession but society as a whole, in many different venues.  I am proud that the MSBA helps provide opportunities for its members to take part in these efforts, to lead, and to make Minnesota a better place.

Legislative Relations

In 2014, the MSBA will also be approaching our relationship to the players in St. Paul a bit differently than we have in the past.  At its meeting in December, the Assembly voted to adopt the recommendation, made by both the Council and the trustees of LawPAC, the MSBA’s affiliated political-action committee, to dissolve LawPAC.

Some may find this surprising, considering there has rarely if ever been disagreement that a PAC can play a significant role in helping an association advance a political agenda, by being able to offer appropriate support for legislative allies.  In the MSBA’s experience, however, we have found that most often, the proposals we or our sections support or oppose do not fit squarely within one party’s philosophy.  Sometimes, the bills our legislative team spends time advocating for (or against) are not sexy, high-profile issues, but rather are often technical changes to statutes designed to make the law work better for everyone, or clarifications of a statute in the wake of court interpretation.  In one year, we find many of our allies in the Republican caucus, while the next year, the issues seem to draw more support from Democrats.

As a result, the MSBA has historically avoided high-stakes confrontations with either major party, and shied away from putting all our eggs in one basket.  This has meant that LawPAC has typically found itself supporting both parties more or less equally, meaning whatever contributions LawPAC may have made toward Party A were offset by concurrent support for Party B.  In the end, this was not as effective as we had hoped, and many of our members were skeptical of the profession playing in that sandbox anyway.

Time and again, we heard people speaking of the MSBA as a nonpartisan advocate for good government and strong public policy, as well as a highly respected advisor to legislators on the technical aspects, or implications, of proposed legislation—even bills not at all related to the MSBA.  The MSBA heard this message loud and clear, and will be winding LawPAC down in the first few weeks of 2014 so we can focus our efforts where we know our strengths are:  as advocates for the best laws for Minnesota.

It is never too late to be a part of this work—if you want to make a difference in the laws affecting your practice, clients, and community, consider joining a section today.  A complete list of the opportunities is available at http://www2.mnbar.org/pic-SC.asp.

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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.