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

Opportunity to succeed/permission to fail

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

– Viktor Frankl

When I started practicing law in this community 20 years ago, I could never have imagined:

  • that you could (or would even want to) know how many steps you took that day;
  • that you could turn the lights off in your home while you were on a business trip in Atlanta;
  • that it was possible to take a long road trip without a map, and without telling your husband to pull over and ask for directions;
  • that you could step out of your office, get into a car with a stranger who knew your exact location, and be delivered to the airport for $15; or
  • that you could have daily access to hundreds of friends—many of whom you haven’t talked to in years—and read daily logs of their lives.

What I knew 20 years ago was that I wanted to be healthy. I wanted to stay in touch with family and friends. I knew I needed to get to my destination. I didn’t want to waste time waiting for things. All of those needs and desires existed in the same way 20 years ago as they exist now—but the way in which those needs could be addressed has changed dramatically. What proved to be inevitable didn’t even seem possible at the time.

Nothing is more constant than change. And that’s as true for our personal lives as it is for our professional lives. The landscape of the legal profession and its services has changed in many ways during the last 20 years. The availability of jobs for new lawyers has significantly diminished. Instead of having the opportunity to initially work in firms and learn from older colleagues as more of an apprentice, the market has put new graduates to the test to start their practices as solo practitioners—changing new lawyers’ work experiences and law firm dynamics.

Clients’ budgets have tightened and traditional methods of staffing and billing have needed to be revised. Innovators outside the market have seen opportunity and disrupted the market, trying to cut out the legal advisors with online, advice-free forms.

There is not enough state or federal funding for our legal service providers trying to serve the needs of the disadvantaged—presenting the question of who can and will address the shortage of services.

On one end of the profession, law school students have hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt before they even start practicing law, causing them to question whether they are entering the correct profession. And on the other end, many of our veteran colleagues are ready to get out of the profession and retire.

From some of these dynamics and challenges, good things have happened. Out of necessity, young lawyers have learned entrepreneurial skills. Technologies have been developed and deployed to make the practice of law more efficient and cost-effective. Innovators are driving and requiring efficiencies and demonstration of value.

But all of these things have changed the landscape of our profession. And all of these things mean the MSBA has to re-evaluate what its most effective and useful role is at this time.

Of course the difficult part is that, just like in our personal lives 20 years ago, the innovation and evolution options professionally are not yet clear to us. Ten years from now, we may look back and say that the change that occurred was inevitable, but right now it is still difficult to see what is possible.

This year as the MSBA president, I will focus on helping the association evaluate the data and input President Wolpert gathered from members about their desires and concerns; facilitate discussions with our district bars, the affinity bars, and our MSBA partners to determine the future course; and establish the next strategic plan to navigate the changes and grow our organization.

This iterative process will involve hard discussions and decisions about ways to collaborate better, eliminate duplicative efforts, determine what products, services, and events align best, and re-think our current bar association model. This process requires open minds, creativity, and courage. To achieve this, I am asking you for four things: input and participation in the strategic planning; patience; trust; and risk-taking tolerance.

When I’ve led such a strategic endeavor in other arenas, I have called this the “Opportunity to succeed/Permission to fail” mentality. This means a final plan may not be perfect—there may be successes and failures realized in the plan—but advancement and innovation require this mentality.

Change is hard. Trying to see things that are not yet written is challenging. Rethinking why we do the things we do and if those reasons still apply is a grueling task. The status quo is always the easiest route, but a dangerous one.

We have a formidable task before us finding our best path forward, but our organization with its talented, committed, intelligent, and resourceful membership has the ability to tackle change and to make smart and courageous decisions if we adopt the “Opportunity to Succeed/Permission to fail” perspective.

It’s an honor to serve as your next president and I look forward to working with this bar’s committed membership to tackle the challenges before us.


Sonia Miller-Van Oort, a commercial litigator and trial attorney, serves as the president of Sapientia Law Group, a minority-owned and women-owned law firm in Minneapolis. Sonia also serves as the MSBA’s first Hispanic  and fifth female president.

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