History of ACTLM

The Academy of Certified Trial Lawyers of Minnesota (ACTLM), established in 1982, came into prominence in 1984 following the landmark decision in In Re Johnson, 341 N.W. 2d 282 (Minn. 1983).  In that case, Richard Johnson, a civil trial specialist in the first group of trial lawyers certified by the NBTA, challenged the disciplinary rule which contained a blanket prohibition against specialist advertising.

On December 16, 1983, the Minnesota Supreme Court declared that Minnesota DR 2-105 (B) prohibiting advertising of a legitimate specialization certification is unconstitutional.  This was a tremendous breakthrough in legal specialization for Minnesota and the nation, since anti-specialist rules in effect throughout the United States had discouraged qualified lawyers from seeking specialist certification.

Theodore I. Koskoff, the first chairman of the NBTA, issued a memorandum to all NBTA diplomats in regard to the Johnson decision, stating:

“This decision of the Minnesota Supreme Court in holding its DR 2-105 (B) unconstitutional as applied to NBTA is an unimpeachable, far reaching decision.  Inasmuch as DR 1-105 (B) is virtually the same in all states, the ramifications of this significant decision are obvious.”

In an article in the Washington Post on January 9, 1984, it was observed that the issue decided in Minnesota “may have to be litigated in other jurisdictions by lawyers like Johnson who are willing to make test cases.”   Such a test case of rose in Alabama in 1986. In Ex Parte Howell, 487 So2d 848 (Ala. 1986),  the Alabama Supreme Court cited the Johnson case as the controlling authority for holding the Alabama anti-specialist rule unconstitutional.

In the same year, Gary Peel, an NBTA diplomat in Illinois, came under attack by the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. Peel was informed that he was under investigation for misconduct for including the following printed statement on his letterhead:  “Certified Civil Trial Specialist by National Board of Trial Advocacy.” The Illinois disciplinary rules declared that no lawyer shall hold himself out as “certified” or a “specialist.” Early in the proceedings, Peel was encouraged by Johnson to go all the way with his case.  He pledged that he would take the case to the United States Supreme Court if necessary. Peel kept his word. On June 4, 1990, the Supreme Court struck down the Illinois disciplinary rule. After citing the Johnson case, the court (Stevens, J.) declared

“Petitioners letterhead was neither actually nor inherently misleading. There is no dispute about the bona fides and the relevance of NBTA certification. . . . Disclosure of such information such as that of the petitioners letterhead both serves  the public interest and encourages the development and utilization of meritorious certification programs for attorneys.”

In Minnesota, efforts to develop a plan for specialization regulation began in 1984. ACTLM, with 25 members, played a leading role in developing a plan which was approved by the Minnesota Supreme Court.   Clarence Hagglund, the first dean of ACTLM, was appointed to the State Board of Legal Certification, and he was instrumental in getting approval of NBTA as the first specialist certifying agency to be officially recognized by the board.

There are now 257 board certified civil trial specialists in Minnesota, and 65 in board certified criminal trial specialists.   There are also some specialists certified by the NBTA. ACTLM, having accomplished it’s initial goal of promoting recognition of NBTA certification, continues to be an effective organization constantly working to improve trial advocacy in Minnesota.