If your French is like mine, you may only know this term as the name for a very good restaurant that used to be in the Saint Paul Hotel. But I am told it means “Star of the North”. Minnesota’s official motto, I believe. But here I use the title as a reference to the Northstar Lawyer program. This was an initiative by the Minnesota State Bar Association started by Bob Enger, last year’s State Bar President. In June of 2013, and then again in mid-May of this year, a full page ad appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune naming hundreds of lawyers in Minnesota as members of the Northstar Lawyer program. (Last year’s group numbered about 750, but this year it grew to nearly a thousand.) To be included on this list, all you needed to do was sign up and certify that you met or exceeded our ethical aspiration to annually provide at least 50 hours of free legal service to benefit persons of limited means (see Rule 6.1 of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct.)
Being a convert to the benefits of pro bono work, and an active bar volunteer, I signed up for this program and, now two years running, have been one of the many whose name appeared in the ad. Each time I have been amazed at how many “civilians” saw that ad and looked for the names of lawyers they knew. I received many spontaneous “congratulations” and “thanks” from people who knew me. (Since I am at the end of any alphabetical list, this meant that the folks reading this ad had to make a real effort to find my name.) This simple ad drew many more comments and notice than any of the “Superlawyer” and “Best Lawyer” type marketing promotions in which I have participated from time to time.
Maybe these “best” and “super” lists are suspected by the public to be the puffery of typical advertising. The Northstar Lawyer ad, on the other hand, did not have a slick layout, or fancy pictures, or superlative adjectives, used to tout some elite status. It was a modest looking paid ad that was not meant to promote, but rather to thank, the efforts of so many lawyers who contribute in this way to our community.
The published list of lawyers is really just the tip of an iceberg. If the full magnitude of pro bono efforts of lawyers could be known, it would be quite amazing. I can only hope that the buzz and notice of the ad these past two years, will be enough to prod the hundreds of other pro bono lawyers to come forward and add their names to the list as well. Not for themselves, but for their profession. This list has an impact on people. It helps them see lawyers in a better light—a more accurate light.
The positive reaction to this ad was a reminder to me of something else. Something I learned long ago by doing pro bono work. After decades of practice, I have found that client appreciation for my work cannot be predicted based upon the quality of the work done, or upon the exceptional nature of a result achieved. Some of my very best moments as a lawyer — in which I have done some really good legal work or achieved a surprisingly good result— seem to have been unappreciated or taken for granted by clients. Maybe it should come as no surprise, but it seems that when the client pays you to do a job, they are not particularly grateful just because they got what they thought they paid for. I like to think this phenomenon reflects on the true esteem for our profession — when a lawyer is hired, it expected they will do their job well. Pro bono work, however, has provided me with a different kind of client experience. I have gotten more hugs, seen more tears of joy, and received more surprising little notes and cards over the years, simply by helping someone in need and not being paid for my legal services.
Whether your life as a lawyer has been too busy, or you are just hustling to make a living, if you haven’t had this experience yet, I highly recommend that you make some room for it.
Become a Star of the North.
Mr. Unger, of Unger Law Office in Minneapolis, is a certified civil trial specialist who represents plaintiffs in personal injury, wrongful death and medical malpractice cases.