At its finest, education helps people become their best selves and achieve their dreams. For Kristi Schlosser Carlson ’06, a degree from the University of St. Thomas School of Law combined her family background and her passions with a satisfying career as general counsel and director of government relations for the North Dakota Farmers Union, a grassroots organization driven by its members to advocate for family farmers.
The oldest of six siblings, Carlson grew up on a second-generation farm in southeastern North Dakota. Her family was involved in many community organizations, especially North Dakota Farmers Union. She majored in political science and in Honors (a liberal arts program) at the University of North Dakota. After graduation, she worked for Sen. Byron Dorgan in Washington, D.C., on agricultural policy; on Sen. Kent Conrad’s re-election campaign in North Dakota; and for National Farmers Union as a lobbyist back in Washington.
Law School, a Logical Next Step
Pursuing a law degree was a logical next step for Carlson. Working for senators and as a lobbyist, she had become intrigued by the legislative process. “I was interested in how bills become laws, and thought law school would help me understand that process more fully,” she said.
As Carlson was completing her law school applications, she wrote what she considered to be a “pretty standard essay.” But for St. Thomas, her essay became much more personal. She said she wrote about her relationship with her grandmother. “It just seemed appropriate for St. Thomas.”
It certainly was. Carlson received a phone call from Assistant Dean of Admissions Cari Haaland, who said she remembered reading the essay because it embodied the school’s mission so well. “I didn’t know about the mission as much then, but I felt drawn to it,” Carlson said.
She also liked the idea that the School of Law was both new and connected to an established university. “I was excited about being involved in something from the start – something that had big goals,” she said.
Carlson said she loved her time at St. Thomas, with its respectful conversations about a variety of issues. Many people contributed to her positive law school experience. Among them were Lisa Brabbit (“the best mentor you could find”), Neil Hamilton (“so thoughtful about developing himself and students into servant leaders”), former dean Tom Mengler (“a compassionate person who truly wanted to see all stakeholders get what they needed”) and Tom Berg (“he fosters such a great open dialogue; he is such a good teacher”).
While she always appreciated her experience at the School of Law, she said she didn’t realize how unusual it was until she was in practice. “I would be talking to colleagues and would say, ‘Remember when in law school you talked about the kind of lawyer you wanted to be and what kind of law community it should be?’ And they’d say that they didn’t have those kinds of conversations in law school.”
Her Professional Journey
Carlson’s professional journey has taken a few twists and turns. Following graduation, she clerked for a year for District Court Judge Steven Cahill in Moorhead, Minn. After working in-house at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, Carlson went back to her rural roots to work at Minnkota Power Cooperative. In April 2012 she became general counsel and director of government relations for the North Dakota Farmers Union, a 40,000-member advocacy organization for family farmers.
Her work is far-ranging. Carlson provides legal counsel to the organization itself, ranging from contract review to employment issues. She also offers legal counsel to the Farmers Union Mutual Insurance Co., which is owned by the members of the Farmers Union.
Much of Carlson’s work is focused on government relations. “It is an advocacy organization, after all,” she said. After the members determine the organization’s policies, she and other staff members advocate for those policies on both the state and national levels. These policies cover anything and everything connected to a rural way of life – infrastructure issues such as roads and energy development, family issues, including health care and day care, how to feed a growing world via the system of family farming, and much more. Carlson is involved in the entire process, from policy development to day-to-day advocacy to legislative and regulatory responses.
It’s a big job, but for Carlson, it feels like coming home. “I always thought I would end up working on rural issues,” she said. “I grew up on a farm and in this organization. It’s great to work for an organization you really believe in, one in which everyone else – from staff to members – believes in its mission as well. Nobody is just doing a job. Caring for the members drives their work every day. It feels good to know we’re doing really important work.”
All this good work leads to one inevitable challenge: time. “It’s tough to find enough hours in the day to do everything that’s on my plate,” Carlson said. Part of that challenge is professional. She tries to carve out time daily to work on both legal and advocacy issues. Part is personal, trying to balance her professional responsibilities with her family life.
Carlson and her husband, Ryan, who also is an attorney, have three sons: Quinn, 6, Will, 4, and Tommy, 2. “Evenings with our kids is sacred time. My family is my priority,” she said, noting that she often works after the children have gone to bed.
The School of Law prepared Carlson for that work. “First and foremost, it made me think about what is important in both a career and a workplace,” she said.
After her year as a judicial clerk, she went through the motions of applying and interviewing at many law firms. “Through that process, I realized that those jobs weren’t the ones I really wanted,” she said. “In school, I was really thoughtful about where I wanted to work. I stepped back and thought about it more, and went a different direction.”
Each step along the way brought new clarity for her on what is really important. At Blue Cross Blue Shield, Carlson learned a lot about how to serve clients with excellence, she said. Both Minnkota and the Farmers Union have a strong element of servant leadership, stewardship and ties to members.
“These are the kind of important things that we focused on in the culture at St. Thomas,” she said.
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