Commencement Keynote Speaker and Alum Marlin Jensen Offers Insights, Practice Tips

On May 10, the College of Law will celebrate the commencement of its one-hundredth graduating class. Marlin K. Jensen, a 1970 graduate, will offer the keynote address.  Jensen is currently an attorney at Van Cott, Bagley, Cornwall & McCarthy in the firm’s Tax, Estate and Benefit Planning Group.  He also has a long and varied history of service to his faith and to the community, including his current service on the Utah Board of Regents. 

In the interview below, Jensen discusses his perspective on the legal profession, reflects on how the practice of law has changed, and offers advice on the most important skills a lawyer must develop, among other topics.   

How did you first become interested in the practice of law?

After graduating from BYU with a German degree and doing very poorly in an interview for a Fulbright scholarship, I began to wonder if teaching the German language and literature was the career I wanted. Luckily, Monroe G. McKay, now a Senior Judge on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, was a family friend. We took a long horseback ride together in 1966. Through his persuasive powers, I became a convert to the law, and to the U! I liked the options a legal education seemed to offer.

How did your education at the College of Law prepare you for your experience as a lawyer and the many forms of public service you have performed?

I learned in law school that hard work is a great equalizer. I’m not a brilliant person, as some are with whom I have studied, worked, and served. However, when honest effort is coupled with the knowledge and skills that can be acquired in law school, one can become both a serviceable lawyer and citizen.

Someone has wisely said that, “Service is the rent we pay for our own room on earth.” I have always felt a need to make some contribution to my community and have been fortunate in receiving a variety of opportunities to do so. All of my public service has been by executive appointment except a term I served on the Weber County Board of Education. I ran unopposed for that office, which is probably the only way I could have won!

You were appointed to the Board of Regents in 2012. What’s your role? And how has that position changed your view of the future of legal education?

Briefly stated, the duties of those who serve on the Board of Regents are to oversee Utah’s system of higher education by setting policy, helping determine program, recommending budgets, and selecting the presidents of Utah’s universities.

My specific role at present includes service on the Program and Planning Committee, the Resource and Review Team for the Salt Lake Community College, and as a non-voting member of the State Board of Education.

There is still much I have to learn, but some tentative feelings I have about the future of legal education are that it can’t continue with “business as usual.” How legal education is delivered, how long it should take, how much it should cost, how many lawyers are needed? These and other relevant questions must be debated and answered based on the new world we are in. 

How has the practice of law changed since you graduated in 1970? Can you identify one of the positive areas of change?

Law practice now seems much faster paced, more of business than a profession, and technology is definitely a dominating factor. Mediation plays a significant role in dispute resolution.

A positive change that I personally appreciate is the increased emphasis on continuing legal education, particularly ethics. I am hopeful that with the economies that technology enables, legal services can become increasingly affordable and available to a broader spectrum of the public.

In your experience, what are the most important professional skills that a lawyer demonstrates, and how would you advise a new lawyer to develop those skills?

I think the most useful skills for any lawyer are good judgment and the ability to develop relationships of trust with clients, other lawyers, judges, public officials, etc. Experience (including the making of mistakes) is an important teacher, but finding good mentors is critical. Most truly successful people I have known have had a series of good mentors and have been blessed (as I have) with a spouse who will offer peer review. I must say that my law professors at the University of Utah were among those significant mentors for me.

What is the best career advice you have ever received?

“Take care of your practice and it will take care of you.” This sounds awfully simple, but it is true.