April '01 Issue
MSBA Home Page
by Julius W. Gernes
does not require lawyers to lessen their personal standards of
The Minnesota State Bar Association
(MSBA) and its Professionalism Committee have worked hard to
promote professionalism with lawyers and judges over the past
three years. One of the initial goals of the MSBA's Professionalism
Committee was to formulate a set of guidelines to be used as
an educational tool within our legal system. This initiative
came to fruition when the Minnesota Supreme Court by order dated
January 11, 2001 approved and endorsed the Professionalism Aspirations
as aspirational standards of conduct for the bench and bar of
Minnesota. These Aspirations have been published in the Minnesota
Rules of Court, pages 1033-1036 (2001) and are also available
on the MSBA Web site at www.mnbar.org.
These aspirational guidelines are intended to encourage professionalism in our legal system. Legal ethics can be defined as the mandated minimum level of conduct required by the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct. The concept of professionalism embodied in the Professionalism Aspirations encourages lawyers and judges to interact on a level above and beyond the bare minimum. The Aspirations are designed to promote a commitment by all lawyers to the highest ideals of our profession. They can be used to educate our clients and other lawyers on the standard of conduct that is expected by the court and lawyers practicing in this community.
The Aspirations do not seek to eliminate arguably offensive behavior. Sometimes zealous advocacy will offend some people. On the other hand, zealous advocacy does not require lawyers to lessen their personal standards of behavior.
The topic of professionalism in the practice of law has been one of significant concern both locally and nationally over the past couple of years. No one is under the illusion that in the "good old days," lawyers were always professional. Nevertheless, an MSBA task force concluded in 1997 that "there has been a decline in professionalism among lawyers in Minnesota and this decline is a serious professional concern." The ongoing decline in professionalism and the need for guidance on the topic were recognized by an extensive and well-publicized study conducted by the bench and bar of the 7th Federal Judicial Circuit.1 There has been a well-documented overall dissatisfaction with the practice of law by attorneys and the clients we represent. The problems that have caused this decline are complex and some would argue a reflection of a litigation-oriented society run amok. The increase in the number of attorneys competing for clients (who demand a win-at-all-cost mentality) is potentially at odds with anything resembling professionalism. As attorneys continue to push the outer envelope of what they can get away with during representation of a client without committing some type of ethical violation, the courts grapple with how to respond to such unprofessional behavior. The Professionalism Aspirations can be used as an effective tool for the courts as unprofessional behavior comes to the attention of judges in litigation-related matters.
JULIUS W. GERNES is a partner in the firm of Spence, Ricke, Sweeney & Gernes in St. Paul and has served for seven years as chair of the MDLA Professionalism Committee. For the past three years he has cochaired the MSBA Professionalism Committee.
These Aspirations were used as a part of a professionalism
program that was presented in December of 1999 at Minnesota's
Annual Conference of Judges. More recently, in November, 2000,
a number of Ramsey County judges participated in a second professionalism
program designed to educate and facilitate discussion on the
topic. A significant message that was delivered to the judges
in both of these sessions was that the majority of lawyers want
courts to feel empowered to respond to breaches of professionalism
and to use these Aspirations for guidance as issues arise in
their courtrooms. This sharing of common experience and the means
to address professionalism problems resulted in a significant
exchange of useful information. The participants in these educational
settings received copies of the Professionalism Aspirations and
were encouraged to use them in their courtrooms. A number of
district court judges are now including specific language in
their standard scheduling orders that reference the expectation
that lawyers will adhere to the Professionalism Aspirations in
handling a given case.
The Professionalism Aspirations are an excellent starting
point for promoting professionalism. However, simply being published
in a document and endorsed by the practicing bar and the courts
will not change the ongoing culture within the law schools, law
firms, and the court system. To effectively change these cultures,
we all need to breathe life into the concept of professionalism
as expressed through these Aspirations by proactively using them
in our ongoing interaction with other lawyers. The chances of
successfully changing the cultural and systemic problems within
the practice of law today will greatly increase with the judiciary,
practicing bar, and public all working together to promote enhancing
professionalism through the use of the Professionalism Aspirations.
I encourage all attorneys to review the Professionalism Aspirations and to consider how they might be used within your law firms, courtrooms, and law schools to enhance the promotion of professionalism. We must apply these Aspirations in our daily interactions with the continuing goal of promoting the highest ideals of our profession.
"we all need to breathe life into
the concept of professionalism as expressed through these Aspirations"
Members of the MSBA Professionalism Committee that draftedthe
Professionalism Aspirations are:
1. See Final Report of the Committee on Civility of the
7th Federal Judicial Circuit, 143 F.R.D. 441, 448 (1992).