Like many attorneys, Dylan Cernitz rises before the sun. Unlike most, his morning routine involves feeding farm animals. When the farmhands—his three young sons—wake up, they’ll be hungry, too. His wife, Heidi, is already out pulling hay and pouring grain. He’ll soon join her.
“By the time I get to the office, I feel like I already need a lunch break,” says the 35-year-old family law associate at Gevurtz Menashe Larson & Howe.
Cernitz is a member of two big families: a multigenerational farming family, which homesteaded its land at the turn of the century; and a renowned family law firm, established 28 years ago.
Becoming part of the latter didn’t surprise Cernitz, but joining the former did.
Cernitz grew up on a cul-de-sac in a suburban neighborhood outside of Portland, doing typical suburban things like playing in Little League. Never had he ridden a horse, nor dug post holes for fencing. Marrying Heidi changed all that.
“The first night I met her, she was hunched over [at] her abdomen and couldn’t really stand up straight. I’m like, ‘Gee, what’s going on there?’” says Cernitz, whose roommate was dating a friend of Heidi’s. “She had been kicked by a horse two months previously and it was bad, I guess. I should have known then that she was die-hard when it comes to horses.”
They started dating. When Heidi invited her new boyfriend to the farm, he got his first taste of what he had thought was a bygone lifestyle. “I remember meeting her dad,” he says. “He was this big, burly guy, and I’m just this … kid from the city. And he’s missing fingers! He’s missing three fingers on one hand because he was in a logging accident. I’m going, ‘Oh, my God, what have I gotten myself into?’” And yes, Heidi’s mom baked an apple pie.
Cernitz transferred from the University of Oregon to Lewis & Clark Law School to be closer to Heidi, who was working as an elementary school teacher in Oregon City, and they married after his first year of law school. In 2002, with their first child on the way, the couple decided to buy 5 acres from Heidi’s parents and built a colonial-style home where her grandmother’s house once stood. Next came a barn and the requisite farm animals: horses, cows, chickens, goats.
Now, farm work is all in a day’s routine for Cernitz. “There’s always something, between fencing and trees falling and repair work,” he says. “It seems there’s always something in need of repair.”
In the city, the same holds true. At Gevurtz Menashe, a 45-minute commute for Cernitz, he works almost exclusively with the firm’s managing partner, Albert Menashe, helping to mend the lives of families involved in complex high-asset disputes.
“You get folks who come to you in their hour of need, and they’re just in desperation. You can explain the legal process to them as far as, ‘This is what we’re going to file with the court and this is how long it’s going to take,’” he says. “But then life happens.” Cernitz is there with the legal tools to help.
In 2008, when construction was drying up in the down economy, a client who owned several lumber companies came to Gevurtz Menashe for assistance with his divorce. The division of assets seemed to dictate that he’d have to fold the business.
“We were able to craft a settlement that allowed him to keep it,” says Cernitz. “And it’s still around today. I think he and I were both very proud of that.”
Though conflict resolution at the office is less black-and-white than problem solving on the farm, Cernitz draws inspiration from his rural lifestyle.
“Having that mindset when you come to work, you can make complex situations seem simpler to the client,” he says. “That’s kind of the great dichotomy, between sitting on your duff all day staring a computer and throwing bales of hay around. It’s still all hard work.”