My first MSBA experience was serving as a volunteer on something called the Court Rules committee, about 25 years ago. As a young plaintiff personal injury lawyer at the time, I was thrilled to participate in an association that could make a difference in formulating the court rules that so affected both my professional life and the prospects for getting justice for my clients.
Some years into this volunteer activity, my hope to make a difference was realized. I was able to catch an error in a proposed rule change that would have completely changed the application of the work product rule to discovery of witness statements in Minnesota. The other lawyers contributing in the process were not plaintiff injury lawyers, and had fashioned the proposed amendment by using the federal rule language. Unbeknownst to the others, Minnesota’s version of the rule contained some subtle differences to assure the discoverability of witness statements, and the proposed amendment would have ended that discovery right if I had not spoken up. The fact that this near-mistake could have eliminated an important procedural right for my clients convinced me that engagement in the bar is an essential part of being a lawyer. Anything less would be a disservice to my clients.
Ironically, as I have turned my attention to other aspects of bar activity, something happened to the MSBA’s role in advocacy about court rules and judicial policy. By the time I became an MSBA officer many years later, I saw that the once-robust role of our bar in addressing court rules and policymaking had withered. By 2013, when the MSBA published its “Member Services Handbook,” the description given of MSBA’s role as an advocate for the profession mentioned only our role with the Legislature. Our legislative efforts have been effective and important, but there was something that didn’t sit right about leaving out a discussion of our role of advocacy with the judicial branch. Fortunately, I am pleased to report that recent actions by the MSBA Assembly and Council have repositioned the bar to become a relevant player again. With the advent of e-filing and more proactive management of litigation by the courts, it is all the more important for MSBA to be back in the business of addressing the judicial branch as well as the Legislature.
My plan for the coming bar year is to do my best to see that the MSBA “has your back” and that we use our role as a voice of our profession to make a difference. The practice of law hasn’t gotten easier over the years. Today we face more demands, more competition, and less support than ever before. These challenges cut across all types of lawyers and segments of the bar. This bar association is one constant that you should be able to count on as a means of support, connection, and professional fulfillment.
When I started my career, I joined a small law firm whose three founders were my early mentors. All three had served as president of either MSBA or HCBA. They uniformly encouraged me to join the bar and pursue opportunities for leadership in order to build connections, referrals, and reputation. They said bar involvement would help build my “book of business.” Five years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bates v. Arizona Bar decision had unleashed the beast of lawyer advertising in the name of the First Amendment. My mentors had built their practices on other lawyer referrals and were too well established to feel the impact of Bates, but their argument for bar involvement as a “marketing” strategy had acquired a limited shelf life. Nonetheless, I pressed on. My journey in the bar association taught me that the work and professional interactions that are so abundantly available have great value regardless of the prospect of economic benefit. If you want to be a “complete” lawyer—if you view law practice as a calling, and appreciate that you represent the justice system in the eyes of the public—then bar involvement is for you. It provides its own reward, and it makes you a better lawyer.
This year I hope to make good use of the soapbox presented by this column to address the shared values and aspirations of our profession. You may not like everything you read here, but I hope you will always feel it is well-intentioned and worth your time and attention.
I look forward to our year together, and I thank you for your membership in the bar.
Michael W. Unger is President of the Minnesota State Bar Association. He is a Certified Civil Trial Specialist at Unger Law Office in Minneapolis, representing negligence victims for serious injuries and wrongful death. He is also on the adjunct faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School.