When I first began attending national conferences of bar leaders, I was surprised to learn that many, if not most, states have a mandatory bar association. If we followed that model here, we would have thousands of additional members. We could lower our dues, expand our member services, or opt for a little of both. But we would also have less incentive to really find out what our members need. The bar association would be at greater risk of taking its members for granted. We would also lose our independent voice and be unable to address needed changes in the law since the mandatory bar association becomes an instrument of the courts.
Relevance and Focus
For several years, we have been discussing how to make the bar association more relevant and improve our “value proposition.” Many of these discussions are spurred by concerns that our future membership base is at risk of receding due to demographic changes and the economic pressure our members face. We have also talked about the need to prioritize our efforts. I am persuaded by these notions of relevance and focus. But I also must confess to a concern that we not go overboard with a simple economic “return on investment” analysis.
When we are faced with the question of whether to join or renew the bar, merely asking “what’s in it for me?” is seriously misguided. Much of what we are called to do as a profession involves important values beyond our self-interest. If we define our “value proposition” or “return on investment” strictly in terms of economic success, then we risk losing some things that are essential to our profession.
We certainly do pursue our profession as a livelihood. Naturally, much of the value of the bar association is in the way it helps us to make a better living. But part of our job is to be about much more than that. We are fiduciaries charged with a duty to place the interests of our clients ahead of our own. We are also public servants, expected to conduct ourselves with due regard for the public interest. Our Rules of Professional Conduct are mostly about protecting the interests of our clients and the public. In our quest for greater economic return and focus, do these other values get left behind?
If our bar association is to be about our profession and not just our livelihood, then we must foster a “complete lawyer” approach to thinking about what we hope for from the bar. Each of us should do that when we decide to join, renew and participate in the bar. This is a common profession we share, with common values and responsibilities. None of us has the right to expect that everybody else in our profession will pick up our slack. In considering how the bar is relevant, we should include the full vision of what is “relevant” to our profession. Not only should we find new and better ways to help our members earn their living, but we also need to be about promoting policies, programs and practices that serve our clients and the public.
Rules of Professional Conduct
This is not a novel view of what it means to be a lawyer. It reflects a longstanding consensus held within the profession. It is well described in the Preamble to our Rules of Professional Conduct, entitled “A Lawyer’s Responsibilities.” If you haven’t read this lately, I recommend you do so as a refresher.
Among the ideas you will find there are these: “A lawyer should seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession. . . . In addition, a lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system . . . .A lawyer should be mindful of deficiencies in the administration of justice and of the fact that the poor, and sometimes persons who are not poor, cannot afford adequate legal assistance. Therefore, all lawyers should devote professional time and resources and use civic influence to ensure equal access to our system of justice for all those who because of economic or social barriers cannot afford or secure adequate legal counsel.”
These things are a tall order. Individually, we can only do so much. Together, however, we can do much more. That is where the bar association comes in. Our collective strength is much greater than our individual effort. Our collective efforts make possible things like our excellent Mock Trial program, our promotion of pro bono service, and our advocacy to the legislative and judicial branches to promote better laws and a better judicial system. All of these efforts are central to the notion of our professional responsibilities as recounted in the preamble quoted above. Yet very few of these and other activities of the bar would come to mind if we think the only rationale for bar membership is to ask ourselves “what’s in it for me?”
The notion that we should pursue our professional responsibilities as a collective in the organized bar is also one long recognized by our profession, and that too has been articulated in the Preamble when it states “a lawyer should aid the legal profession in pursuing these objectives.”
As we continually seek to be relevant to our members, and to return value for their dues investment, we need to remember that our “value proposition” includes many “values,” in addition to monetary return.
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.