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

Serving Democracy & the Profession

I am proud to be a member of the MSBA because of its historic commitment to educating members of the public about the role of lawyers and courts, and about the rule of law.

Educating the public on the roles of lawyers and judges, and on how law actually works, is a service not just to our profession but to democracy itself.  We all know that when someone is dissatisfied with a judge’s ruling, some will go on to condemn the judge as “activist” (or much worse).  And even when the MSBA’s Northstar Lawyers program recognizes the pro bono efforts of 950 members, amounting to over 116,000 hours of free legal services valued at an estimated $21.7 million, lack of familiarity will still lead some to condemn lawyers anyway.  

Even so, in recent years, as the MSBA has confronted the need to focus its efforts to better serve the legal community, we have often concluded that while “educating the public” is valid and important, it is not as critical to our role as other services are, and have cut funding for it.  These have not been easy decisions to make, because MSBA leadership, no less than MSBA members generally, connect being a part of this association with awareness of the higher aspirations that made many of us go to law school in the first place.

Civic Education

A number of complex discussions have been underway about how the MSBA can make sure that civic-education work continues, or even expands.  As the Bar year nears its end, I can report that at least some general outlines of a plan are emerging.

One aspect of the solution was to remake the Minnesota Volunteer Attorney Program (MVAP).  After changing its name to the Amicus Society (formerly the name of a public-awareness campaign loosely associated with the MSBA), we expanded its purpose to include, in addition to legal-services programs, public education about lawyers, courts, and the rule of law.  Our hope is that the Amicus Society will grow to become a helpful tool to support the civic education efforts the MSBA has been working on in the past and also to meet the perennial need for heightened public awareness of the need for courts that are well-funded and impartial.  

Among MSBA’s ongoing civic education programs is Mock Trial, a beloved program providing invaluable opportunities to high school students that annually attracts thousands of volunteer hours from committed lawyers and judges.  The Amicus Society is already raising funds to contribute toward the operation of that important educational program, bringing in support the MSBA itself has not accessed previously.   

The Amicus Society is also raising funds to revive the civic education programs the MSBA de-funded over the past few years, including the Lawyers in the Classroom and Traveling Oral Arguments programs. (The latter has been sustained on an interim basis by our Appellate Law Section and the Minnesota Supreme Court Historical Society).

Finally, we have sought to engage further in this important work the past presidents of the MSBA—people who have given considerable time and effort to the profession, and whose contributions of talent reflect a deep commitment to the highest aspirations of our profession.  In early May, a group of past presidents came together to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the legal community in this regard, and I am pleased to report that a core group has come together to develop a plan for raising awareness and funds in the coming Bar years to support these efforts.  

As I wrote earlier, there are some things the legal profession can’t not do—I am glad that we may have a way forward in this important area.  

Parting Reflections

As the beginning of my term as president approached, I aspired to get columns done ahead of time; but as MSBA staff can attest, that did not always happen.  Still, I was shocked when I learned I had only one more column left.  And, naturally, this happened when I had one done weeks in advance, requiring either a whole new column, or substantial editing.  I’m no dummy; I chose the latter.

I’m being asked if I am looking forward to being done. The honest answer is I have mixed feelings.  I will enjoy having some additional time in my schedule, but I will miss being a part of the important discussions that have been going on during my four years as an officer.  I am excited at some of the changes we’ve initiated, but now will be watching them play out from a distance.  

I became active in the MSBA over a decade ago as an advocate for LGBT-related issues within the legal community.  In the end, my presidency had very little to do with that, other than my big rainbow-themed Bench & Bar cover last year (the artist remembered it more because I did not wear a tie).  But what motivated me then is what motivated my presidency:  I believe what this organization does and says matters, and it’s worth the effort.  I’ve spent this past year articulating various reasons why I believe this, including MSBA’s support for philanthropy, civic education, the judiciary, diversity, legislative advocacy, pro bono service, leadership development, and statewide approach.  I hope at least one of these has resonated with you, and that you, too, can say:  I’m proud to be a member of the MSBA. 

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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.