The Practice, The Profession, and the Business of Law
By Michael J. Ford
Four years ago, when I spoke to the representatives of the Outstate bar who were considering whom to select as “Outstate” president,1 I told the electors that I wished to advance the proposition that the practice, the profession, and the business of law were interrelated parts of the legal profession.
However, along the way, crises of the moment such as legal system funding, equal access to the justice system, and judicial independence have gotten in the way of a discussion on the importance of the practice, the profession, and the business of law.
By the practice of law I refer to the maintenance and the development of each of our individual skills with respect to legal research, writing, and advocacy. By the profession of law I mean all of the activities each of us are committed to engaging in with respect to the advancement of the law and the legal system, pro bono representation, and similar professional imperatives.
The business of law refers to the efficient, effective, and profitable delivery of legal services to our clients.
It is and has been my belief that the practice, the profession, and the business of law are separate legs of a three-legged stool. An attorney who masters only one, or even two, of those skills is not really functioning properly.
I think most of us would recognize that an attorney whose practice skills are deficient is a danger to the attorney and to that attorney’s clients.
Attorneys whose only focus is on advancement of the law and pro bono, regardless of efficiency and effectiveness, may feel good about themselves but will be unable to continue to practice effectively for the duration of their careers.
Attorneys who are challenged in their business pursuits will lack the resources to enhance their practice skills, or to carry out their professional responsibilities. That is why the business of law is not simply an afterthought. It is not something we can hope that attorneys master once they are admitted to the practice. Rather, successfully managing the business side of our practices is absolutely critical to our maintenance of high practice and professional standards.
I have been met with the argument when I have advanced this notion that this is all very well and good for attorneys in private practice, but that it is not at all relevant to public sector attorneys or the courts.
The public monies that fund the Minnesota justice system are not unlimited, as recent history would demonstrate. Attorneys, judges, and court personnel must be careful stewards of the public funds devoted to the Minnesota justice system in order to maximize the effectiveness of those funds.
The bar, and the bench, owe our clients and the litigants who appear before the court the very best that we can deliver with respect to our professional commitments, our practice skills, and our efficiency and effectiveness.
The profession, the practice, and the business of law are terms that describe an interconnected system for the delivery of legal services to clients and litigants. Emphasizing the importance of one over the other is like emphasizing the relative importance of the lungs over the heart or of the brain over both.
We, and the legal system in this country and this state, need all three in order to satisfy our obligation to the rest of society.
1 The Presidency of the MSBA rotates among four groups: Hennepin County, Ramsey County, “the outstate” and at large.
MICHAEL J. FORD is president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. A shareholder in the law firm of Quinlivan & Hughes, PA, St. Cloud, Minnesota, he is a graduate of St. John’s University and received his JD from the William Mitchell College of Law. He concentrates his practice in the areas of civil litigation, insurance coverage, employment and government liability, and land use and general casualty law.