As we approach the conclusion of our bar year at the end of June, this is my last opportunity to take stock and review the progress we have made, as well as to identify some of the challenges that lie ahead. Here are a few thoughts on my mind as we head toward our convention and the new bar year.
Recent news reports have reminded us that the economic challenges facing the profession linger, despite some recovery. This is not unlike the situation for the population in general. Law school mergers and enrollment reductions, as well as a historically lower bar examination pass rate, are proof that our “new normal” remains. The recent ABA report on higher stress and substance abuse levels for lawyers, but most particularly among newer lawyers, is another possible sign of this. Since these indicators reflect today’s reality for the incoming and newest members of the profession, this foretells a challenging environment for the foreseeable future while the newer lawyers work to overcome these challenges. MSBA is responding to these realities with heightened efforts to reach out to law students and to improve our services and communications with new lawyers. We have a number of ongoing initiatives in this area that we hope will result in higher membership satisfaction and loyalty in the next few years. As with most things we do, it will be hard to measure our success, or lack thereof, in a single year.
The economic challenges faced by the profession do not exist only at the front end of the lawyer pipeline. They also confront our veteran members. Our convention in June will review the anticipated findings of a broad-based survey of solo and small firms currently being conducted by Minnesota CLE. The solo/small firm segment of the bar is the largest cohort of the profession. I hope that our members participate and respond to this survey. It holds the hope of allowing us to put some empirical data behind what many suspect, namely that our profession is not as economically rewarding as it once was and that many members are struggling to attain their economic goals. Until we can really document the nature and scope of the problem, however, it is hard to develop any consensus about how we may best respond. If this solo and small firm survey is successful, then it is my hope we will follow up with a survey of our large firm, public, and corporate lawyer members as well.
Membership in the bar association has dropped slightly, as it has for several years now. Departures and retirements from the bar have outpaced the number of new lawyers joining us. We are continually looking at how we may add value to bar membership. We offer some excellent practice tools, listservs, social media communications, and soon will roll out a new legal research tool, Casemaker, that we expect will add value for most members.
We have made good strides in partnering with minority bars on some important programming, and we are actively exploring ways to improve our collaboration with district bars. We are making good progress in thinking about how we may diversify and make more inclusive our association. While much of what we are doing is about finding new and improved services, some of our reliable services of the past continue to be strong assets for our members. The most obvious example of this is our sections. Their educational and social programs continue to be strong and provide solid value to many of our members.
Despite the challenges of the legal marketplace, MSBA still plays a strong and leading role in encouraging our members and others to provide pro bono legal services and to support our strong network of legal service providers and law-related nonprofits. We have a close relationship to our outstanding legal services network. Even as our own budget constraints become more palpable, we continue our support and staff work to help our members fulfill our ethical responsibilities to promote access to justice. Programs like our Prime Partner banks, the Northstar Lawyer recognition, and lobbying for support for legal services at the Legislature and in Congress are all tangible examples of our contributions to improving access to justice for the disadvantaged.
Among our most successful new efforts this year is the progress we have made to become a more reliable voice of the profession with the courts. The courts genuinely welcome and appreciate the bar’s involvement and we are grateful for this open and warm relationship. As I have written and spoken about in the past, many members have expressed the view that court rules and policies can have a large impact on their clients, as well as on their own professional satisfaction. The large majority of our members have regular interaction with the courts in some fashion or another, even if they don’t fancy themselves litigators or trial lawyers. As a consequence, issues of court rules and administration continue to be a matter of broad interest.
We have successfully redesigned and populated our committees to allow for a more nimble and effective response to the changes proposed or needed in court rules, policy, and administration. Many of the changes are similar to what has proved very successful for us in the legislative arena (where we seem to have good success every session). We have become more proactive in recruiting members who have both the expertise and the interest to serve on our Court Rules and Judiciary committees. We have sought out members with many different types of practice and expertise, in order to be positioned to respond to the wide range of issues dealt with by the courts. We have employed a consensus-oriented approach to participation and decision making, in order to assure that our voice is not given over to one faction or interest group within the bar. As a result, we have submitted important comments or briefs that fairly reflect widely held concerns of litigants and lawyers. As we continue and refine these efforts, we hope to help assure that justice concerns will remain front and center when seeking to achieve administrative ease or cost savings.
We are fortunate to have such a fine judiciary in Minnesota, filled with many thoughtful public servants. As we look to our neighboring states and see the kinds of judicial elections problems they have experienced, we should still be looking for ways to assure that we continue to avoid such problems here. This is not an easy task. The lack of a judicial election disaster here has so far meant that neither the press, the public, nor the profession place this concern high on their list of priorities. While I doubt we will develop any solutions in the near term, the difficulty of the issue shouldn’t deter our ongoing search for a meaningful role for the profession. This should also include a dialogue with the judiciary itself. This year will be another election year, and I doubt we will have solved this challenge in time for November, but we should be able to make progress before another election cycle passes. In the meantime, I encourage all members to be a voice in their communities this summer and fall for nonpartisanship in judicial elections and to promote public understanding and engagement in the election as well as the reelection of qualified and impartial judges.
The Organized Bar
These and many other issues continue to require that members of our profession speak and act as one through the organized bar. There are many fine affinity bar groups in Minnesota. We are proud to support and collaborate with them. But membership in an affinity bar group is not enough. Only MSBA is there for all lawyers in Minnesota, acting as a voice for all of our profession with the courts, the Legislature, the Congress and the public. Your support and membership is critical to making that happen. Without the MSBA, there will be no voice that speaks to so many different values and priorities of this profession.
The MSBA could not do any of this without the financial support and involvement of our members. Nor could we be effective without the able and dedicated staff that your membership support makes possible. Thanks to all who belong to the MSBA, and to those who work for MSBA. Thanks, too, to the great members who donate their time and talent in our sections, committees, Assembly, Council and as officers. Bar service can be a thankless task at times. Please join me in thanking those colleagues who make this organization a vital and valuable one.
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.