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A Little Bit of ‘I’ll Show You’

How Judy Langevin learned to do good where she can

Photo by Caroline Yang

Published in 2023 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine

By Rebecca Mariscal on July 13, 2023


It was at Berkley in the late 1960s that Judy Langevin decided she wanted to save the world.

It was a common notion among the students there, amidst the Vietnam War and the growing civil rights and women’s liberation movements. “I can remember sitting on the steps of Sproul Hall and watching students being beaten by cops with clubs and being dragged, and the blood from their injuries ending up on the concrete of Sproul Plaza,” Langevin says. “I can remember walking across campus and being teargassed secondarily. I can remember sitting at the desk where I was a little card clerk with my beautiful view of San Francisco Bay, watching a helicopter come up from the ground spewing tear gas. I was exposed to the notion that you could suffer violence for taking a position.”

Though she felt insulated from the risk, the memory of seeing it firsthand has stayed with her. “You’d have to work hard to come through that without being profoundly impacted by the need to do something to make the world a better place,” she says.

But how to do it? Langevin was thinking she’d either be a teacher or a lawyer. Her boyfriend at the time was in law school, and frequently brought her to events and speaking engagements, including a visit by Black Panther Bobby Seale. “Bobby was flanked by two Panthers fully armed with rifles and bandoliers of ammunition across the chest,” she remembers. “He excoriated this group of law students and their friends for being inadequate to the task of the revolution. ‘Power to the people!’ We were not doing enough; we were not doing it well. And everybody was just eating it up.”

Being around so many young law students showed her the possibility. Knowing that women weren’t often part of the pack gave her the challenge. “There was a little bit of, ‘I’ll show you,’” Langevin says. “Teacher is fine, but I’m going to law school.”

Langevin’s childhood home in Florida had a view of the Hillsborough Bay and the soundtrack of jets passing overhead from MacDill Air Force Base, where her uncle, a pilot in World War II, was stationed. One day, she remembers, “We all rushed outside because Uncle Mort flew over in formation and tipped his wings over the house. I get goosebumps just thinking about it now.” The sound of jets still evokes her childhood. 

“When they finally stopped the jet tracks over our house, the values in the neighborhood just went off the chart,” she says. “That became quite a tony place to have land. But of course that had not been true at all when my parents built the little house.”

The county law library was named for her grandfather J.J. Lunsford, a lawyer who, upon retiring, became the unpaid law librarian for Hillsborough County in the 1940s and ’50s. Lawyers would call with law questions, and he would pull out the books to find the answers. “He came to be called ‘The Judge,’” Langevin says. He died when she was 4 years old.

Another uncle, Terry Lunsford, also went to law school before taking an academic role at Berkley. His presence there brought her sister Beverly, then Langevin herself, across the country for undergrad. “Those were the two lawyers in my life,” she says. “Otherwise I don’t think I had any clue that I would go to law school.”

Her law school experience, at the University of Minnesota in the early 1970s, was different from theirs. It was the most difficult time of her life. “It was just unspeakable,” she says. “There were 250 almost all white, almost all middle to upper-middle class, ambitious men packed into a very small space, competing with each other. What did I think was going to happen? … And the sexist behavior of some of the faculty, I look back on it in despair.”

She was one of 21 women in her class. Sixteen of them graduated. “They were what got me through,” Langevin says.

Them, and the desire to not fail. At the time, women could receive something resembling equal treatment, as long as they did everything exceptionally and without complaint. “It would have felt like an unacceptable failure for me to give up,” she says. “You were supposed to be able to sail through. And no matter how much it cost you, if you didn’t do that, then you were letting down the rather nascent women’s movement.” 

Civil rights law quickly became a favorite area for her, and as a second-year, she got an internship at Ramsey County, working directly with the county board, including St. Paul Mayor Larry Cohen. When she graduated, he offered her a position in his office.

She served as special assistant to the mayor from 1973-1974. Her duties included researching civil rights and public health issues, writing the mayor’s speeches and answering correspondence. During that time, the trial of the activists who’d occupied Wounded Knee to protest injustices against Native Americans came to St. Paul. The federal government briefed the mayor on the potential for big demonstrations, and two Department of Justice liaisons were assigned to the office. Langevin attended all the meetings with Cohen and helped write his remarks. When the case ended, the office had a peace ceremony with the defendants and the American Indian Movement where they passed around a ceremonial pipe. “I remember that experience as being formative,” she says.

Langevin was then appointed as the assistant director for the city’s department of human rights. There she worked to enforce the city’s human rights ordinance, which prohibited discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, public services and education on the basis of race, creed, gender, religion or national origin. While strong for its time, the ordinance did not include all the classes it does now—although the city council soon added sexual preference, now called sexual orientation.

“This was a radical thing to do,” say Langevin, who worked closely with the department director to prepare and promote the resolution. “There were probably less than a handful of jurisdictions in the country that had laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”

Next, she moved to the state’s human rights department, and it was there that she hired the man who would become her husband, Steve Lapinsky.

The couple has now been together 40 years. They’ve raised Langevin’s two boys and added a daughter to the family. And Langevin’s face still lights up as she speaks of him. “I admire him so much for his fidelity and his integrity and his commitment to the same things that are important to me: social justice, equality under the law, family,” she says. “He’s also funny and kind.”

While Lapinsky went on to spend 30 years at the department, Langevin knew she couldn’t continue to work as his superior, and that made it easier to take the next step.

Employment law became Langevin’s path.

“It has that discrimination component, that fundamental fairness, that due process,” she says. “It was a natural fit for me.”

She’s often considered why she’s on the defense side. “It’s a completely legitimate question,” she says. “But I believe that I can do more good for more people by guiding employers to follow the law, to treat their employees well for their own sake and to not do dumb things. If I can do that for employers, I believe that I have done at least as much, if not more, good than individual lawyers.”

In 1982, Langevin co-founded Horton and Langevin with Donald Horton, whom she met while with the human rights department. “We really were at the right place at the right time,” she says. “We were just able to get on the train and go to all those first CLEs and learn the law and get in before it became so overwhelming that it’s all I can do to keep up.”

Employment was a frequent issue in human rights departments, so Langevin brought a wealth of knowledge and a good reputation. After three years, she went to Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi and spent the next four decades at larger firms, including Gray Plant Mooty and Zelle LLP. K.T. Schmidt has worked with Langevin as a client for more than 10 years, in his previous position as in-house counsel, and has followed her across firms. “If I get to pick, I’ll pick Judy, definitely,” he says. “When people would be like, ‘Well, I have this friend who’s a lawyer who does employment stuff.’ I’m like, ‘That’s nice. I’ll talk to them as a courtesy. Yep, I liked them. They were nice, but I’m still going to use Judy.’ She is a velvet hammer in the sense that you won’t know what hit you until it does.”

Langevin enjoyed being a mentor, as well. “She’s taken a lot of people under her wing over the years,” says Laura Bartlow, a partner at Zelle LLP who continues to partner with her today. “Even if it’s not a case that we have together, she will always answer the phone and give me her perspective on issues. She has always been so consistently generous and thoughtful.”

The world has changed a lot since Langevin’s law school days. “The difference between the ’70s and the ’80s was significant, but in the ’80s it was still a pretty rough place to be a ‘lady lawyer,’” she says. “The good news is that people were taking it seriously. … There were still jerks. There still are jerks. They were active and pretty powerful in the ’80s. They became less active and less powerful in the ’90s, and less active and less powerful in the 2000s. So I think there was just a quiet growth of both women and their place in the profession and their impact on the profession.”

Langevin was at the department of human rights when sexual harassment was first recognized as a form of discrimination under Minnesota law, and it became a focus for her. “The development of it has been fascinating,” she says.

It was the subject of one of her earliest cases as an employment defense attorney. “The objections of the defendant company and the individuals were just sort of like, ‘She asked for it. You should have seen what she’s wearing.’ Just really offensive and ridiculous,’” she says.

It was a battle for her to confront her client and point out how that wasn’t a good defense. The case settled, rightfully so, she says, but not before taking deposition. “I can remember leaving the deposition of the plaintiff, who was the victim of the alleged sexual harassment, and knowing that I had done my job and done what I had to do, and feeling sick about it because it was not fun for her,” she says. “That’s what happens in sexual harassment cases, but that was a hard day for me.”

She opened Langevin Lentz in 2017 with former colleague Chuck Lentz, who recently retired. The two met in 1985, when Langevin hired him for the employment law practice at Robins Kaplan.

“She’s a team-building lawyer,” Lentz says. “She puts a premium on working as an ensemble. That was true at Robins. It was true at Gray Plant, which is really good for young lawyers and even seasoned colleagues. Judy is, first and foremost, a human, real-world-oriented lawyer. She’s a problem solver.”

The firm is now a solo venture, and Langevin doesn’t have any plans to follow him into retirement. After running the firm solo, she joined Nilan Johnson Lewis as senior counsel on June 5. “This is as close as I’m ever going to get,” she says. “I’m never going to retire because it’s just not what I want.”

Family time is something she’s always valued. It’ll keep is the phrase Bartlow frequently heard from Langevin. “She’d always say, ‘Put this down and we’ll get back to it tomorrow. It’ll still be there.’ She was such a big proponent of not killing yourself for your work. That phrase, it still pops into my head probably on a weekly basis,” Bartlow says. “She’s very successful in her field, but still is not someone that worked around the clock.”

That approach has allowed Langevin to make the most of family time. “I left home when I was almost 18. I was very close to my parents and I loved them very much, but I never realized what I had missed in terms of that relationship. So I view myself as extraordinarily lucky to have my kids close by,” she says. Two of them are on the land she and her husband bought in Medina. The 13 acres also houses two horses, Rocky and Rosie, and Henry the donkey. Langevin inherited Henry and Rocky, a package deal, after buying land in Florida that she’s since sold.

Looking back, her notions of saving the world can seem naive and overinflated. “We were all so full of ourselves, you can only imagine,” she says. “I mean, bright young things at this great university, thinking that we were on the tip of the spear of social justice. And, oh my goodness, we were obnoxious, I’m sure of it. I’m very forgiving of all that—I just find it sort of silly looking back.”

But she does hope she’s made an impact where she can. “The most important things I’ve done have not been some stunning victory. It’s keeping my clients on the right path and helping them to come to the right decisions.”

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