• Graduates Feel law Inspires Contribution to the Common Good

    LawGrads

    One year after their celebrated graduation as the first class of the University of St. Thomas School of Law, members of the Class of 2004 are making their way as members of the legal community. Alumni have begun their careers in a wide range of legal employment – from small firms to public interest law – and work in seven states and three countries.

    In a February 2005 report to the American Bar Association, the School of Law reported that almost 90 percent of its 2004 alumni are working in legal positions.

    The School of Law Office of Career and Professional Development received information from 106 of the 109 members of the Class of 2004. Of those reporting, 89 (87 percent) had accepted positions and were working in the legal profession. In addition, three alums chose not to look for work, and one was enrolled in a full-time, advanced degree program.

    Work with small law firms was the most common response for graduates; 20 reported working in private firms of fewer than 50 employees. Next most common was work in a Minnesota District Court clerkship, followed by work in a county, state or city public defender‘s office, and work in a large private law firm.

    While a majority of graduates are working in Minnesota, alumni have accepted positions in Michigan, Iowa, Colorado, Kentucky, New Mexico and Virginia. Graduates also are working in London and Toronto. Here is a breakdown: Small private law firm, 20; Minnesota District Court clerkship, 10; county, state or city public defender, 9; large private firm, 8; corporate, 8; creating own firm, 7; state or local public interest position, 6; nontraditional position, 6; Minnesota Court of Appeals clerkship, 4; county or city prosecutor, 2; national/international public interest fellowship or position, 2; Federal Bankruptcy Court clerkship, 1; Federal Court clerkship, 1; Minnesota state government position, 1; and choosing not to work, 4.

    Neither Caitlin Firer nor John Lindemann had been to Willmar before the day Firer interviewed for a position with Western Minnesota Legal Services. While a move there wasn’t necessarily in their specific career plans, when Firer was offered a staff position – her “dream job,” Lindemann said – they knew west-central Minnesota was where they would be.

    Firer, from Milwaukee, and Lindemann, from Minneapolis, were married two weeks after they passed the bar exam and are happy homeowners in Willmar. They have overcome a little culture shock and enjoy the parks, the small town feel and other amenities that helped Willmar recently receive All-America City designation by the National Civic League. She is a staff attorney at Western Minnesota Legal Services and he clerks for Judge Gerald Seibel and Judge Peter Hoff in the 8th Judicial District.

    Western Minnesota Legal Services provides free civil legal services to low income and senior residents of 10 western Minnesota counties. Firer is one of two attorneys on staff and has up to 60 cases open at any one time. The hours are long and the cases challenging, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

    “I went to law school to work in public interest law. I  applied for and was offered positions in the private sector, but I chose to work in the public interest field,” she said. “I know I’m very fortunate to have this type of job right out of law school.”

    The office provides civil services on immigration issues, family law, housing disputes and unemployment claims. Many of Firer’s clients are members of the large Hispanic and Somali communities that have moved into west-central Minnesota in search of jobs. The graduate of the University Wisconsin-Milwaukee said her fluency in Spanish has clearly benefited her at work. And, in a subtle way, her faith-based education also has been important while working with two communities with such strong faith traditions.

    As clerk for judges Seibel and Hoff, Lindemann, a University of Minnesota graduate, has become quite familiar with the highways and byways of west-central Minnesota. Seibel is chambered in Morris and Hoff in Breckenridge. With varying caseloads throughout the district, both travel to all of the county seats in the northern and western part of the district. Depending on the trial calendars, Lindemann attends court in Ortonville, Wheaton, Breckenridge, Morris, Elbow Lake, Glenwood, Benson or Willmar. He has an office in each courthouse and credits the court administration staff for doing what they can to make it all work.

    He performs typical clerk duties such as research, file review and jury instructions. Depending on where he is on a particular day, he also may write scheduling orders, act as a law librarian, correspond with counsel, or even “carry heavy things and perform other tasks at the judges’ request.”

    While Lindemann enjoys the work he’s doing, he misses the advocacy and the counseling aspects of his short-lived solo practice that he operated from November 2004 to March 2005.

    “I worked hard, but I loved it. At the same time, I don’t miss working Sunday nights until midnight or getting client calls on weekends,” he said. “I’ll go back into solo practice or seek a government job a few years down the line. My passion is still labor and employment law.”

    With their new home and deepening roots, the couple expect to be in Willmar for the foreseeable future. He has two neighborly retired nuns who pray for him daily, and she believes she is where she is supposed to be, doing what she was called to do.

    “I received a great gift from St. Thomas when I received a scholarship. It has put me in a position to be able to do public interest work,” she said. “My reason for attending law school was to serve other people. Now I’m able to do that.”

    In Brief: Somah Yarney
    Somah Yarney arrived at the St. Thomas School of Law knowing she wanted to work as a public defender. It was a calling that gave her the chance to bring together her legal education, her faith and her desire to help those in need.

    “Most people who choose public defender work are dedicated to helping lower-income people or helping empower people who have had unfortunate circumstances,” said Yarney, who is from Milwaukee. “That type of thinking ties perfectly into the mission of the School of Law. That’s what drew me to St. Thomas.”

    In April, Yarney began work in the Hennepin County Public Defenders office – the largest public defenders office in Minnesota. As an assistant, Yarney works on a wide range of litigation and will handle as many cases as possible in her first year.

    According to Yarney, a Macalester College graduate, a few lawyers she has worked with refer to St. Thomas as the “ethics law school,” which is fine with her because many more acknowledge the talent and passion of St. Thomas-trained lawyers. She says School of Law students who received high marks while clerking in the Public Defenders office helped people realize that St. Thomas law students were receiving an outstanding legal education at the “ethics law school.”

    “From a social justice perspective, coming from St. Thomas certainly made me more aware of ethical dilemmas and how it’s important to be secure in your ethical stance,” she said. “It heightened my awareness of how important it is to have really great attorneys serving lower-income people.”

    Yarney doesn’t see her work as a steppingstone to a high-profile legal career. She loves what she’s doing and considers it a “privilege.” And she intends to do it as long as she can.

    “Like any recent graduate, I know what I’m doing is part of a learning process. Where I am today is very different from where I’ll be three or four years down the line,” said Yarney. “But I envision myself practicing as a public defender for the next 10 years. I hope to be the best attorney I can be as a public defender.”

    In Brief: Cory Wessman
    Like a surprising number of graduates, Cory Wessman arrived at St. Thomas with a good idea of the law he wanted to practice. He’s also among those who landed jobs that fit their interest to a “T.” Wessman is the first School of Law graduate to work for the prestigious Minneapolis law firm of Leonard, Street and Deinard.

    With a background in economics and financial planning, Wessman, a graduate of Wheaton (Ill.) College, was pretty sure he wanted to get into estate planning and tax law. Any doubts were erased when Jim Rockwell ’71 with Lowry Hill Private Wealth Management was assigned as Wessman’s mentor as part of the Mentor Externship Program.

    “Jim is a very highly regarded estate planner here in the Twin Cities. He was an outstanding mentor and encouraged me in the practice area,” said Wessman. “This is a fantastic example of the mentor program making a great match between a mentor and a student.”

    The program is a required part of the law curriculum. All three years of study, each student is paired with an established member of the Twin Cities legal community. Mentors introduce the students to a range of lawyering tasks and judicial activities and share with them the traditions, ideals and skills necessary for successful careers. More than 400 Minnesota lawyers take part in the program.

    Wessman’s responsibilities are typical of a first-year associate. Much of his time is spent researching and writing legal documents and correspondence, and he enjoys applying both legal and financial concepts as well as the high level of client communication.

    Despite working in a downtown high rise for one of the largest firms in the Twin Cities, Wessman, a native of Urbandale, Iowa, laughed at the notion that he’s “swimming with the sharks.” He said that just as there is a need for faith-based attorneys in the public sector, there is also a need for faith-based attorneys in the private sector.

    “Being a lawyer is a calling, it’s not just a title. It’s how you apply your personal beliefs and ethics in your career to whatever legal area you’re working in,” Wessman said. “There are numerous everyday opportunities in the private sector to apply the faith-based ethics that we talked about in law school.”

    Wessman is part of a group of School of Law alumni who meet regularly for lunch downtown to share war stories and get caught up on the latest gossip. The general consensus: School of Law alums are succeeding.

    “I think everyone is doing well,” he concluded. “Very happy. Staying busy. Feeling like St. Thomas prepared us well.”

    In Brief: Elizabeth Michaelis
    Members of the class of 2004 went into just about every realm of law – big firms, small firms, public interest law, clerkships and others. Only a handful took what is arguably the gutsiest career path – going into solo practice right out of law school. Elizabeth Michaelis did just that. Just months after graduating from school and passing the bar, she hung a shingle on the wall and opened Guardian Counsel, LLC.

    “When I went to law school I tried to stay open to everything. I explored different areas of the law. I looked at big firms and I looked at anti-trust,” Michaelis said. “What it really came down to is that I enjoy the one-on-one with clients, and I like the range of things I can do on my own.”

    Michaelis shares an office suite and some expenses with four other independent attorneys in an Edina office park. She began with a focus on estate planning, wills and trusts. In a short time, the practice evolved to include business law and tax-exempt organization law.

    Michaelis, who is from Edina, had earned an M.B.A. from the University of Minnesota and ran her business-consulting practice specializing in health care and technology for five years before enrolling in law school. She knew the realities of being on her own and went into solo practice with her eyes wide open. A course on Small Firm Practice taught by adjunct professor Don Horton helped put the final pieces in place.

    “I can’t tell you how valuable Don’s course was for me. Even though I probably came in knowing more than the average student because of my experience, it helped me immeasurably,” she said. “I’ve had classmates call looking for advice on starting their own firm. A lot of people dream of it, and I tell them they don’t have to kill themselves to be successful.”

    Her solo practice allows her the flexibility to be involved in community organizations and to put her skills to work outside the office. In June, she traveled to rural Mexico with other members of her church and helped build concrete-block homes. She and other attorneys from her church have started a legal aid clinic in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis in partnership with Calvary Baptist Church. She credits the School of Law with helping to make her aware of the enormous need for such a clinic, and for the practical knowledge needed to get it off the ground.

    “I was part of the start-up of the Interprofessional Center for Counseling and Legal Services, so I have a sense of what it takes to build a legal clinic.

    “If you hear of any alumni who want to help, send them my way,” she said with a laugh.

    In Brief: Jake Schunk
    Jake Schunk is in an enviable position. He works as a judicial clerk – a highly prestigious position sought after by top young lawyers. A clerkship is an excellent way to bridge the gap between law school and a career.

    But it’s not just the job, it’s who Schunk is clerking for that makes the position enviable: He clerks for Judge Diana Murphy of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. Murphy is chair of the St. Thomas School of Law Board of Governors and is on the university’s board of trustees.

    “Witnessing Judge Murphy work so hard at what she does, in doing what is right, and doing it all with such passion has already been a life-changing experience,” said Schunk.

    The role of a clerk remains a mystery to many outside of the legal world. According to Schunk, the research and writing components are similar to other legal positions. Working closely with Murphy on cases before the court is what makes a clerkship special.

    “My daily tasks vary, but my job is to do whatever I can and whatever is requested of me to enable Judge Murphy to perform her role as effectively as possible,” Schunk said.

    Schunk feels a sense of fulfillment and enjoys going to work every day. He credits the School of Law for teaching him a healthy respect for the legal profession.

    “I feel a special responsibility and unique respect toward the law, and I don’t think this would be the case had I not attended St. Thomas,” he said. “St. Thomas taught me that participating in the law is much more about contributing to the overall good than it is earning a paycheck and that regardless of which role one plays, all are vital to the functioning and health of the system.”

    Schunk is one-third of a unique trio of recent School of Law graduates hired to clerk at the highest levels. Jessica Honeyman Nelson (class of 2005) will clerk for Judge Jim Rosenbaum, chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Minnesota, and Pat Shrake (also 2005) is clerking for Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

    “With St. Thomas’ solid tradition and reputation, I don’t think too many attorneys or business people doubt the quality of the education students receive at the School of Law,” said Schunk, who is from Shell Rock, Iowa, and graduated from Concordia University in St. Paul.

    “In fact, I think it’s been advantageous in the job market to have attended St. Thomas. I think people associate the decision to attend St. Thomas with someone who is willing to do what is right and to take a calculated risk for the greater good. In all, I think we are better suited for the job market because of attending the School of Law.”

    In Brief: Caitlin Firer nor John Lindemann
    Neither Caitlin Firer nor John Lindemann had been to Willmar before the day Firer interviewed for a position with Western Minnesota Legal Services. While a move there wasn’t necessarily in their specific career plans, when Firer was offered a staff position – her “dream job,” Lindemann said – they knew west-central Minnesota was where they would be.

    Firer, from Milwaukee, and Lindemann, from Minneapolis, were married two weeks after they passed the bar exam and are happy homeowners in Willmar. They have overcome a little culture shock and enjoy the parks, the small town feel and other amenities that helped Willmar recently receive All-America City designation by the National Civic League. She is a staff attorney at Western Minnesota Legal Services and he clerks for Judge Gerald Seibel and Judge Peter Hoff in the 8th Judicial District.

    Western Minnesota Legal Services provides free civil legal services to low income and senior residents of 10 western Minnesota counties. Firer is one of two attorneys on staff and has up to 60 cases open at any one time. The hours are long and the cases challenging, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

    “I went to law school to work in public interest law. I  applied for and was offered positions in the private sector, but I chose to work in the public interest field,” she said. “I know I’m very fortunate to have this type of job right out of law school.”

    The office provides civil services on immigration issues, family law, housing disputes and unemployment claims. Many of Firer’s clients are members of the large Hispanic and Somali communities that have moved into west-central Minnesota in search of jobs. The graduate of the University Wisconsin-Milwaukee said her fluency in Spanish has clearly benefited her at work. And, in a subtle way, her faith-based education also has been important while working with two communities with such strong faith traditions.

    As clerk for judges Seibel and Hoff, Lindemann, a University of Minnesota graduate, has become quite familiar with the highways and byways of west-central Minnesota. Seibel is chambered in Morris and Hoff in Breckenridge. With varying caseloads throughout the district, both travel to all of the county seats in the northern and western part of the district. Depending on the trial calendars, Lindemann attends court in Ortonville, Wheaton, Breckenridge, Morris, Elbow Lake, Glenwood, Benson or Willmar. He has an office in each courthouse and credits the court administration staff for doing what they can to make it all work.

    He performs typical clerk duties such as research, file review and jury instructions. Depending on where he is on a particular day, he also may write scheduling orders, act as a law librarian, correspond with counsel, or even “carry heavy things and perform other tasks at the judges’ request.”

    While Lindemann enjoys the work he’s doing, he misses the advocacy and the counseling aspects of his short-lived solo practice that he operated from November 2004 to March 2005.

    “I worked hard, but I loved it. At the same time, I don’t miss working Sunday nights until midnight or getting client calls on weekends,” he said. “I’ll go back into solo practice or seek a government job a few years down the line. My passion is still labor and employment law.”

    With their new home and deepening roots, the couple expect to be in Willmar for the foreseeable future. He has two neighborly retired nuns who pray for him daily, and she believes she is where she is supposed to be, doing what she was called to do.

    “I received a great gift from St. Thomas when I received a scholarship. It has put me in a position to be able to do public interest work,” she said. “My reason for attending law school was to serve other people. Now I’m able to do that.”

    Tim Busse is director of external relations at the St. Thomas School of Law.

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