All in La Famiglia
The Bruno firm brings a tight-knit mentality to criminal defense
Published in 2021 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine on July 20, 2021
Certain Italian American stereotypes don’t bother Fred Bruno. In fact, he relishes them—in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. When a client affectionately dubbed Bruno and his colleagues at the Golden Valley-based Bruno Law “La Famiglia,” the name stuck, as did the image it represented.
“We encourage that stereotype,” says Bruno, 65. “It instills fear in our opponents and confidence in our clients. And there is some truth to it—I’m a fighter, and I do my best work when I’m pushed into a corner.”
It’s all part of a carefully curated collective persona meant to convey tenacity, intimidation—and fun. That includes nicknames for everyone on the Bruno Law team: Fred is Tweet; spouse Carolyn Agin Bruno is Smurf (after Ellen Barkin’s character on Animal Kingdom); her daughter Samantha “Sammi” Foertsch is Khaleesi, a la Game of Thrones; Samantha’s husband Stephen Foertsch is The Big Tuna. Even their paralegal gets in on the fun as The Shiv.
The origin of this incarnation of the firm goes back three years, when Fred merged his then 38-year-old criminal defense firm with Carolyn’s practice to create a family criminal defense dynasty: himself, Carolyn, Sammi, and Stephen, who was recruited from Bradshaw & Bryant’s St. Cloud office.
The two attorneys frequently crossed paths professionally before they started dating. “I had my own law practice for 25 years before we merged,” says Carolyn, 55. “We ran in the same circles.”
By the time the firms were merged, Sammi was already working with Fred. She’d joined the firm as a clerk in 2010. “Samantha was in law school and Fred was in need of a receptionist/paralegal, so she started working for him that summer,” says Carolyn. “But I wasn’t exactly excited about it. I thought, ‘If things don’t go well, this is going to be a problem.’”
Fred was impressed enough by her writing samples—and that she graduated as salutatorian from the then-William Mitchell College of Law—that the choice to bring Sammi on as an associate was much easier than it might have been. “It was a competitive process that I opened to the public,” Fred says. “I wanted to make sure that she was right for the firm.”
Even so, he says, “she started from the ground up. She was emptying the trash and she worked her way up to appellate advocacy and doing very refined pleadings. Before long, she was second-chairing trials with me.”
“We see Sam as kind of the ghost in the machine,” adds her husband Stephen, also a William Mitchell grad. “She’s brings an intangible factor. She’s the big stick that every team needs.”
In virtually every case the firm takes to trial, the two Brunos and two Foertsches all pitch in. That’s when versatility becomes key.
“We’ve all kind of settled into our own little niches,” says Carolyn. “Sammi loves legal research and writing. I hate it. We have it set up so that everyone can do what they’re best at, yet if we were ever to lose our paralegal, any of us could fill in.”
That all-hands-on-deck approach has led to a firm culture dictating that when it’s go time, be ready to hustle.
“Normally you get outworked by the prosecution, because they have more resources,” says Fred. “But in the Efrem Hamilton case,”—the case that earned the firm its nickname—”we mobbed the prosecution. All four of us were coming and going and scurrying in and out of court. I think the prosecution was astounded.”
Over the years, Bruno Law has defended public officials, celebrities and corporate executives. But the firm, which relies almost exclusively on referrals, has made its name most prominently defending police officers accused of misconduct.
In 2020, the firm was recruited by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association to administrate its legal defense fund. That fund gives police 24-hour access to criminal defense attorneys in Minnesota should they be the target of a criminal investigation or a defendant in a civil action. As a result, they get calls at all hours.
Post-Derek Chauvin, the firm is being more selective with some of the cases it takes. “We’re focusing a little more on the law enforcement clients and the new issues they’re facing,” says Fred. Adds Carolyn: “The [police cases have] increased because they’re being scrutinized more than ever.”
As many couples have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, working in the same space as one’s spouse can be a fraught proposition. The two couples in the Bruno firm say it’s no problem—usually. In fact, Samantha has been working from home for years while she takes care of their three kids, so having Stephen there is a help.
“I don’t struggle with working with my family at all, any more than I would with any other team,” Sammi says. “I like being able to discuss my work with my husband anytime. We’ve found a good way to kind of separate home life from work life, and we both really enjoy the work we do and working together. Sometimes people say, ‘You must really get sick of each other,’ but we don’t.”
Carolyn notes that merging work time with family time can be beneficial all around.
“We all had brunch recently, and I would say that, during a quarter of that time, when we weren’t eating or fussing with Stephen and Sammi’s three kids, we were talking about cases,” she says. “Most of the time it’s really good, and it makes work fun—although sometimes you do have to say, ‘All right, I just can’t talk about this anymore.’”
Of course, disagreements happen. But in the end, La Famiglia is family. Fred and Carolyn are in the early stages of crafting a succession plan for Sammi and Stephen to take over. And the two Foertsches have solid role models to emulate.
“I watched her as a little girl, doing this job that I thought was just the coolest thing in the world,” says Sammi of her mom. “I even wrote on my Facebook page that my goal was to be a Super Lawyer like Carolyn.”