Did you hear the one about 350 lawyers who walk into the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D. C.?

Kidding. No joke here. Just a serious opportunity for Minnesotans to brag, if Minnesotans were the kind of folks who bragged.

The 2013 Pro Bono Institute Conference in Washington, beginning Thursday, brings together lawyers from around the country. The biggest contingent, year-in and year-out?


Turns out Minnesota lawyers are above average — way — in their passion for and devotion to making certain that even the most indigent among us receive free professional legal advice and services.

Pro bono — Latin shorthand for “public good” — refers to lawyers who offer their services for free or a reduced rate. The practice is common in most large law firms nationwide and in some smaller firms, too. But Minnesota was far ahead of the curve, thanks largely to Bricker Lavik, who died March 1 of multiple health issues. He was 62.

Lavik, who grew up in St. Paul, began his career at Legal Aid and took his passion for protecting the poor to Dorsey & Whitney, where he directed the pro bono division. His work led other firms to develop equally robust pro bono outreach, beginning in the 1980s.

Now, firms including Faegre Baker Daniels; Fredrikson & Byron; Lindquist and Vennum; Briggs and Morgan; Leonard, Street & Deinard; and Maslon devote a minimum of 3 percent of billable hours annually to pro bono work.

“We have a high number of firms in the Twin Cities who have committed to the pro bono challenge of 3 percent,” said Jodie Boderman, Faegre’s pro bono manager since 1995. “Our market is exceptional in that way.”

Others share her pride. Maslon’s website, for example, wants potential clients to know that, among their lawyers, are those who “represent people who cannot afford an attorney through Volunteer Lawyers Network, and represent children through the Children’s Law Center.”

“People think lawyers are only in it for the money,” said Steve Marchese, pro bono development director of the Minnesota State Bar Association. “But most find ways to connect like this.”

The 3 percent standard might not sound like much until Marchese does a little math. Minnesota lawyers devote about 200,000 hours a year to pro bono work, Marchese said. That translates into around $40 million in in-kind services annually.

“It’s consistent with our larger civic value,” he said, noting that he attended the Pro Bono Institute’s conference last year, “where people look to Minnesota to see how we’re doing. There’s a strong legacy.”

Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute, agrees. She remembers coming to Minnesota about 15 years ago and being struck, first, by the fact that Dorsey had Lavik in a pro bono special counsel role, which was unusual at the time.

“Very early on, firms in Minnesota were getting together with legal services programs, trying to figure out what could be done in the community. It was day-to-day work dealing with family evictions and health issues, but also with controversial projects that have national and global impact,” Lardent said.

Minnesota firms, she noted, have jumped into death penalty work in Louisiana and the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They’ve done exhaustive studies of the U.S. immigration system and collaborated on the I-35 bridge collapse. “It’s incredibly time-consuming and emotional work,” she said.

Boderman of Faegre participates in a monthly gathering of representatives of several major law firms to discuss best practices and push into still-unchartered pro bono waters. New efforts are being directed, for example, at representing returning veterans and low-income tenants in Hennepin County Housing Court. Programs also are in the works to use technology, such as video conferencing, to offer pro bono services to clients in Greater Minnesota.

Lardent wishes that Minnesota lawyers, and all lawyers, (not a group typically winning popularity contests) would brag more about their pro bono work.

“It’s a good thing to publicize that work, without being self-congratulatory,” Lardent said. “We still have so many people who need help and don’t get it. If you don’t have firms talking about it, then other firms assume it isn’t being done. We try to push people to say more about it.”


gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350