Jon Farnsworth

Can Private Practice Serve the Common Good?

Like many others, I was drawn to the University of St. Thomas School of Law through its strong mission and focus on social justice. I originally attended law school with the goal of bettering society through positive public policy change. Specifically, I had interests in running for public office. While in law school, I immersed myself in the local political scene, including interning for the state’s Senate Assistant Majority Leader. I also volunteered with several non-profits that had strong social missions. However, I ultimately chose not to run for public office and instead pursued a career in private legal practice at a mid-sized downtown Minneapolis law firm. My goal of positively affecting change in society remained, but I questioned if my goal was realistic.

In reflecting on my last 8 ½ years or so in a private practice setting, I have come to appreciate the value of how private practice may further the common good in society and bring about positive differences in people’s lives. In a way, I feel like I have just as much control over impacting positive societal change as some of my colleagues who have dismissed private practice and pursued public practices.

In my career, I have been blessed to experience the highs and lows with many clients who have dealt with trying personal and business matters. Lawyers often are approached by individuals who seek legal counsel not because they want to do so, but because they are unable to solve a problem and the lawyer is their last resort for help. Assuredly, many client encounters relate to tragic matters, including being faced with a threat of lawsuit, loss of livelihood or financial ruin. However, there are also many positive experiences.

I have witnessed a family on the verge of being torn apart due to a challenging legal situation that threatened financial ruin to their business. After resolving the issue, the family remained intact and, to date, has prospered. I also have seen grown men brought to tears of joy after learning they may not lose their livelihood or home as previously expected. Indeed, private practice has its high points, where you sleep well at night knowing you have made a positive difference in people’s lives.

While many of my career encounters with clients are unique, the theme of my interaction with clients in a private-law setting is not. In short, my career encounters have dispelled my prior misperception that you must seek a public-practice and/or non-profit-related legal job in order to further the common good. I respectfully challenge law school students who quickly pass judgment that private law is promoting only a “hired gun,” “anything goes” persona. Private practice is no different than public practice in that you are a vigorous advocate for your clients. In both settings, the key ingredient is remembering to choose your clients and causes wisely.

Another positive aspect of private practice law is that you have the opportunity to volunteer your time for rewarding causes that may not otherwise be central to your practice. These opportunities provide intellectually and emotionally fulfilling opportunities. Many private practice firms provide wide latitude to their attorneys to engage in pro bono and other volunteer activities.

While private practice may not be the right fit for every law school graduate, summarily dismissing the idea that private practice can promote the common good is shortsighted and untrue. Consider private practice. You may surprise yourself in finding that the original reasons you went to law school may be fulfilled in a line of work that’s not what you expected.

Jon L. Farnsworth is a 2008 graduate of the University of St. Thomas School of Law and Opus College of Business. He is a shareholder at Felhaber Larson in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Jon has a private practice acting as general counsel to privately held businesses, and established non-profits with a niche practice in technology law. Jon was recently awarded Volunteer of the Year from LegalCorps and also enjoys acting as a mentor for St. Thomas law students. He can be reached at (612) 373-8455 or