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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Results of 'informal survey' at AGO are in

Minnesota Lawyer's website just posted the results of today's "informal survey" of attorneys at the Minnesota Attorney General's Office. (Click here for article).

Staff attorneys were asked whether the writers of a recent letter critical of Lori Swanson spoke for them. The majority of those present and willing to participate said no. (The vote was reportedly 52-30, with 12 declining to participate and 30 out of the office or not otherwise available to vote.)

It's hard for me to say what that vote means because I find the question itself confusing. You could be in favor of a union and not agree with everything that was in that letter. Or you could agree with everything that was in that letter, but not want to give the letter writers the authority to speak for you. It would have been a much simpler and cleaner affair if they had just asked the employees if they wanted to unionize.


Anonymous said...

Assuming that it's true that 52 lawyers "voted" that the 3 letter writers didn't speak for them--which, as you point out, is a confusing way to frame the question--in a situation where they reportedly were called into a room where Swanson and/or a member of her senior management staff was present, and after receiving an email directly from Swanson (who has the power to fire them even without cause)describing the three letter writers as having embarassed the Office and undermined its work--even if that's true that 52 of her staff attorneys voted "no" in these circumstances, what I find even more relevant is that 42 (nearly half of the attorneys present today), either abstained because they thought the process was coercive or voted yes! I'm surprised that number wasn't much lower! Shouldn't that be the real story here? Clearly, there are serious problems at the AG's Office. Instead of wasting the State's time and scarce resources on this travesty of an "informal survey," wouldn't the interests of the State be better served if the Attorney General actually tried to ADDRESS THE PROBLEM? Instead of creating this spectacle so she can blow it off (again) for the press? Shame on Swanson, Olson, and the rest of her senior staff for perpetrating this charade and waste of time. Will they hound the other thirty attorneys through the halls of the AG's office tomorrow, further impeding work productivity and causing more disruptions? That is no way to run a workplace. It looks like they have borrowed their management playbook from "Dilbert."

Stephanie Morgan said...

I am a former AAG who recently left the office after seven years of service to the State. I commend the three AG staff members for taking the brave step of publicly writing to Lori. The handling of their letter is extremely disappointing, and serves as a prime example of why a union is necessary. The ridiculous straw poll described in this story only tells me that at least 44 AAGs are very concerned about the way Lori is managing the state's top law office. I hope she will stop spinning and start listening. I know there are scores of former AAGs who could share their frustrations as well. I write to show my support for the three AG staff who spoke out, and I hope other current and former staff do the same.

Anonymous said...

I am a current AAG. I want to begin by echoing the sentiments of others who have applauded the courage of Susan Damon, Daniel Goldberg and Amy Lawler in sending their letter. These are highly competent, dedicated lawyers who have selflessly put their careers and professional reputations on the line in an attempt to improve working conditions for staff attorneys and legal assistants (the latter of which, by the way, were not invited to participate in the “informal survey”) at the Attorney General's Office.

Here are a few thoughts and observations on today’s “informal survey.” First and foremost, Mark Cohen is dead-on in asking why the survey was geared toward the three letter writers instead of the actual issue of whether the attorneys at the AGO want to unionize. Sounds more like a witch hunt--an effort to gather “ammo” to justify terminating Damon, Goldberg and Lawler--than a legitimate effort at determining the sentiment of staff attorneys. Why in the world would you bring in former Judge and U.S. Attorney Miles Lord and former Judge Jonathan Lebedoff to oversee a process that merely asked a single, pointed question about the three authors of the letter? If this were truly a discrete issue about three employees, it would and should be an internal matter handled internally, without the need for oversight by Lord, Lebedoff or any other third-party. But the reality is that this is an office-wide issue--Lori in essence admitted as much by bringing in Lord and Lebedoff.

Second, one AAG was brave enough (or foolish enough, depending on how events unfold for him/her) to ask Lori during one of the survey sessions why the survey did not simply ask if attorneys were in favor of unionizing. Lori had no substantive response, and instead basically stated that the question was appropriate to in her view.

Third, while I don't know the identity of all the AAGs who did not participate in today’s survey, I know that the administration was selective in determining which staff attorneys to invite to the survey. Some attorneys in certain divisions received invitations on Tuesday afternoon, while others in the same divisions who were in the office at that time did not.

And fourth and finally, the “informal survey” was coercive and an abomination. Having groups of AAGs come to a forum with members of management present, and be asked pass judgment on three of their peers? Where Lori herself comes in and gives some kind of pep talk? Is there any wonder that a number of attorneys wrote on the survey that they regarded the process as coercive?

In short, this was an extraordinarily sad day in the history of the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office. This is the office that led the charge against Big Tobacco. This is the office that prided, and ostensibly continues to pride itself, on championing the plight of ordinary citizens. Instead of taking the slightest of pauses--which is all it would take for Lori to realize that Damon, Goldberg and R. Lawler are acting out of genuine concern for the office--Lori has instead chosen, yet again, the low road, by assuming that these three unassuming, front-line lawyers, were instead politically motivated. Will anyone truly be surprised if the end result is three more terminations of employees involved in unionizing efforts?

Anonymous said...

I am a current AAG. Yesterday's pop quiz with third-party vote counters was silly, coercive, and wide of the mark. It wasted Lord and Lebedoff's time -- Lori's email said they were going give her some advise based on their visit but then they never talked substantively to any line attorneys!

The "survey" was bizarre. Clearly targeted at splitting the staff or trying to make the issue the AG3 rather than the substance of their letter -- a clear personal attack by Swanson who herself cries foul if someone even mentions her name when being critical of the office atmosphere.

In the end, isn't this situation exactly what the Bureau of Mediation Services was intended for? A critical mass of attorneys clearly stated that they agreed with the AG3's letter. Yet the Swanson spin is going to be something like "my workers love me -- at least those who I can count on..."

Minnesota Lawyer: good analysis of the ambiguity of the survey. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

I am a current AAG. Many of us did not have the opportunity to speak with Lebedoff/Lord; many of us weren't asked to sign the "ballot," which was poorly worded and structured so that it was obvious to the Deputy Attorney General collecting the ballots which box was being checked. Staff members are afraid for their jobs and afraid to speak up about the conditions at this office. The ballots and the interviews were a meaningless publicity stunt.

Anonymous said...

Dan Heilman's article about the informal poll doesn't have a description of the actual survey questions. Why not? Just as the Minn Lawyer editor was able to easily identify some questions about the survey in the original blog entry, a typical reader should be given the same information to make the same evaluations of the so called "informal survey."

Anonymous said...

I am a current Assistant Attorney General. First, please note that I write this post independently, with no influence, or even knowledge, on the part of any manager in this office or Attorney General Swanson.

The union letter does not represent my views. I signed a petition in support of Attorney General Swanson (and against unionizing) because I believe in it. I also voted in yesterday’s informal survey, which asked a simple question: does the “AG3” letter speak on behalf of the attorneys in this office. The answer to that question was solidly “no”.

My experience in this office has been overwhelmingly positive. Although I cannot speak to the atmosphere before I arrived, I have not seen issues alleged by the organizing committee during my employment. I do not labor under political pressure or concerns about job security. Rather, I work under excellent leadership with unique opportunities for interesting work, professional growth and satisfying service to Minnesotans. Moreover, I find the suggestion that I or my colleagues were hired for political reasons, rather than on the merits of our experience, offensive.

I was hired to serve at the pleasure of the Attorney General and do so with pride in our leadership and mission.

Anonymous said...

Here's a simple plan:

1) AG Swanson pledges not to fire anyone for union-organizing activity or for discussing unionization (pros or cons).

2) A date-certain is set, say 1 or 2 weeks, during which time the employer and employees can engage in a discussion of ideas and substance about unionization.

3) At end of the time period, anonymous balloting with simple yes or no about unionization.

Anonymous said...

To the poster who still happy to be an at-will employee:

I, too, am proud to serve my state through my work at the AGO. I find my work fulfilling and my colleagues to be intelligent, efficient, and effective in their work.

The difference between the poster and me, however, is that I have experienced what it means when nonlegal considerations interfere with my ethical obligation to represent a client and not just once.

May your experience at the AGO continue to unblemished, as I hope mine will not again be blemished. But when you find yourself torn by an ethical obligation and political reality, I promise you will feel very much alone and your pleasure in serving at the pleasure of a politician will fade.

Anonymous said...

While Lori may think that she can "win" by spinning the results and with continued attacks against the character of the AG3, even if she can quell the union effort she is destroying what is left of office morale. Those who don't support organizing still hate to see their co-workers treated like this.

Anonymous said...

Lori's new letter to the "AG3", in which she asserts that she received an outside opinion last May that she could not "meet and confer" because of PERLA, raises some troubling questions:

Why did she lie on Kerri Miller's MPR show in August first by denying that she had any knowledge of efforts to organize the office, and second by saying it was "up to [her] employees" whether to organize when clearly she was not going to recognize any efforts to do so?

Why wasn't this issue about PERLA's "barrier" (which, of course, is debatable) the substantive response on Tuesday, rather than attacking the letter's signatories?

Why did Lori insist instead on three days of unproductive and devisive attacks and surveys to determine if the signatories represented the will of the staff, when even if they did represent the staff she wasn't going to meet and confer with them due to her interpretation of PERLA?

Anonymous said...

I also hope that the current AAG who appears happy with the status quo and allegedly didn't make her/his post at request of management the best of luck. (The timing of the post itself is strange though - in the past the only way a current AAG could post during work hours was if someone in management lifted a filter to allow the posting (which is exactly what happened last fall when Hatch was still around)).

I am a former AAG. I came to the office after several years in private practice and then left the office to return to private practice. When I accepted an AAG position I was excited to work in public service. I quickly learned that what drove management at the AGO was not the service to the public but politics and personal gain. I was disturbed on many occasions regarding the ethics of management. And I struggled constantly with how to perform my job ethically without being fired. People outside the office wonder why the attorneys in the office feel a need for a union. The ethical issues which arise in the office is exactly why a union is needed. In simple terms, the office currently lacks any real checks and balance system to ensure ethical obligations are held to the highest standard. A union would help put such a system into place.

In the AG's office you cannot fire your clients and your clients cannot fire you. In private practice if a client asks you to do something you are not comfortable doing, you can withdraw from the case. Visa versa - if the client doesn't think you are handling their case in an ethical manner, they can fire you. In the AG's practice there are no such options.

And in a private practice comparable to the size of the AG's office there are typically managing partners, committees, etc. where a young attorney can turn to if a partner requests the attorney to engage in a practice that presents an ethical issues. At the AG's office if you questioned the direction given to you by management you would be fired or quickly transferred out of your division and efforts were made to make your life miserable. I have never felt torn between an ethical obligation and the necessity of keeping my job in private practice. But that is exactly the dilemma I experienced as an AAG.

Good luck to all the staff at the office - especially to the "AG3."

Anonymous said...

One issue that has not been discussed is whether the two retired judges AG Swanson chose to canvass the office are neutral. Most certainly Miles Lord is not. He was intimately involved in the events leading up to Swanson's decision to run on the day Matt Entenza withdrew. He is very close to Mike Hatch and Swanson.