Service: Opportunity & Obligation

By Tom Nelson

When I joined Popham, Haik, Schnobrich, Kaufman & Doty—a blink of an eye ago—there were two early knocks on the door. David (now Judge) Doty said: “What do you want to do in the bar association?” Mr. (now Wayne) Popham said: “What do you want to do in the community?” Then there was Marc Whitehead (“On the way to the ABA; come on along!”); Tom Berg (public servant and leader personified); and Denver Kaufman (HCBA president). Similarly, when I later joined Leonard, Street and Deinard (now Stinson), public service and community leadership were presumed: Allen Saeks, Moe Sherman, Ellen Sampson, Byron Starns, Lowell Noteboom—and fast forward to Theresa Hughes and Adine Momoh. So many others. Marvelous models.

But why? Sure, it’s at the core of their character and professionalism. But there’s more. When we were admitted to the bar, we were given the key to our profession; it came not only with opportunity, but also with obligation. We have a cultural contract requiring service and citizenship.

That’s fair. We are, after all, a monopoly, and a self-regulated one at that. Nobody else can practice law. Only us. In exchange for the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of that monopoly (and as with any contract), there are terms and conditions. We are obliged to fulfill our part of the bargain. For example: Excellence. Ethics. Dignity and decency, hopefully leavened with good humor and humility. And, importantly, public service and citizenship.

That is the oath we take and the pledge we make. Lawyers that we are, it’s even in our rules. As “public citizens,” we have a “special responsibility for the quality of justice;” we have a duty to “exemplify the legal profession’s ideals of public service;” we play a “vital role in the preservation of society.” This is what the general public looks to us for—and rightly expects of us—and counts on us to do and to be.

This reminder of our duty of public service and citizenship comes at a particularly urgent and perilous time—calling to mind Dr. King’s reference to “the fierce urgency of now.” As Yeats once worried, sometimes it seems as if the center no longer holds—not the political center, but the center at the core of our constitutional design. Put simply, it is our job as lawyers to hold that center together.

Just to write it out loud, I have three contexts of concern:

(1) First, our institutions, as strong as they are, seem under attack: 

  • The independence, dignity and authority of the judiciary;
  • The Congressional role in our delicate checks-and-balances design, including, I fear, that related to war;
  • The right to vote, and to be counted;
  • Our flawed but vital Fourth Estate.

(2) Second, there is an ugly and dangerous “meanness” afoot:

  • Anti-Semitic marches and murders; 
  • Anti-Muslim mobs and muggings—including a bombing in Bloomington;
  • Hate and hateful crimes, fueled by fears and phobias, often racist or sexist, and too often accompanied by gunfire; and
  • Children in cages or washed up on shore—with families of color being torn apart or traumatized by threats. (Read that again, please: Children in cages or washed up on shore.)

(3) Third:

  • A disturbing “justice gap,” between those who are “poor enough” to qualify for legal aid (not all of whom can be served—not even close), and those wealthy enough to afford a lawyer of their choice;
  • Accompanied by a tsunami of pro se litigants;
  • All of which is not sustainable, and threatens to overwhelm our court system—causing the system to creak and sometimes crack.

These challenges and attacks are happening on our watch, and sometimes in our name. We cannot be bystanders; we cannot avert our eyes. Each of these realities erodes the rule of law. If we breach our nation’s promise of access to justice and equal justice under law, the rule of law itself is imperiled. Justice is not like the laws of physics or the rules of arithmetic (basically, in force no matter what). No; we must not only guard justice, but make it happen. It depends on us, just as we depend on it. The “moral arc of the universe” might be long and may very well bend toward justice, as Dr. King suggested, but we have to reach up to that arc to help it bend even more—and toward America.

None of which leads to “woe is me” or “woe is us.” I’m still an optimist. Why? Because of lawyers. Lawyers are the key to meeting these challenges. As lawyers, we learned it; we get it; we know where the gears and levers are. So, yes: optimism—as long as we fulfill our dual duty of service and citizenship. Fulfilling our obligation will be key to our nation’s ability to survive and thrive, with equal justice under law.


TOM NELSON is a partner at Stinson LLP (formerly Leonard, Street and Deinard). He is a past president of the Hennepin County Bar Association.