Divorce With Dignity
Family lawyer Debra Yerigan has a knack for making the transition bearable
Published in 2010 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine
on July 14, 2010
Updated on July 16, 2010
Debra Yerigan didn’t set out to help people end their marriages.
“What kid thinks they are going to grow up to be a divorce lawyer?” Yerigan says with a laugh. “Getting to where I am today was a complete accident—but then again my whole career path has been nothing but a series of accidents.”
Back in 1975, when Yerigan graduated from high school, she took a chance, put college on hold, and took a step into the working world.
“When I was getting ready to finish high school I decided I was just plain tired of going to school,” Yerigan says. “I needed a break. So instead of going to college like everyone expected, I took four years off and worked.”
A series of colorful jobs followed—including a stint as the first-ever woman dispatcher/jailer in the Isanti County Sheriff’s Department. How she got the job is a story in itself. In the mid-1970s, the department was facing a lawsuit for refusing to give an application to a woman. Yerigan read about the case in the local paper and went to the office and asked to apply.
“They did give me an application,” Yerigan says. “By that time they’d realized they had to give one to any female who was crazy enough to walk in their door. That was me. I took their test and I did well, so they were stuck with me. I was the token female, and in the beginning, many of the guys there tried to get me to quit.”
It certainly was a man’s world. There was a stack of magazines like Hustler and Playboy near the dispatcher’s desk.
“They sure weren’t thrilled about having a woman around,” she says. “One night, one particular police officer came down to where I worked. He pulled out one of those magazines, sat across the room and blatantly read it. I was 19 or 20 years old at the time. In my brain I was thinking, ‘If you start yelling or get upset at him then they will have won.’ So instead I took out another one of those magazines, opened up the centerfold, and said, ‘Will you look at her?’ The police officer was embarrassed. I think he thought I’d probably burst out crying, and when I didn’t do what he was expecting, he left. The next time I worked down there the magazines were gone.”
It was part of the price she had to pay for being a trailblazer, says Yerigan, who also worked on a union construction site. “I decided that I wanted everything to be fine, I needed to be tougher than them,” she says. “After a while it was fine.”
The job at the sheriff’s office inspired Yerigan to go to law school. She was fascinated by the criminal justice system, so, after earning her B.A. from St. Cloud State University in just three years, she moved to St. Paul and enrolled at Hamline University School of Law. She assumed criminal defense. But in the spring of her second year she landed a job as a law clerk for local family law attorney Judith Wolf. “It was a matter of luck,” Yerigan says. “I was looking for a clerk position and Judy had one open.” Yerigan recalls that at the beginning she was concerned that family law might be boring. It was anything but.
“No family law case is ever the same,” she says. “Every family is different so every case is different. I never have to do the same thing twice, and that’s important for me. There’s a lot of variety.”
It’s the variety that’s kept Yerigan engaged and excited for all these years. While focusing on the same specialty, she’s moved around a bit, holding positions at two now-defunct Twin Cities firms, Robert Latz and Rider Bennett. She’s also been her own boss. Starting at the age of 30, she ran her own small firm for 14 years, partnering for a time with then-husband, attorney Scott Nichols.
“It was a big test getting divorced as a divorce lawyer,” Yerigan admits. “With our divorce, we both got to find out what we could do and how well we could do it.”
In fact, Yerigan’s divorce has helped build loyalty and trust with potential clients. “Often in an initial interview people ask if I’ve ever been divorced,” she says. “I think it makes them feel like I’ll be more understanding in their case. I don’t mind telling people about my divorce, but I often think, ‘They’d never ask an estate attorney if he’s ever died.’”
Also, for many years, Yerigan has been going to camp. Yerigan and her fellow attendees at the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers’ Divorce Camp gather at a Northwoods resort to discuss the intricacies of family law, network with other attorneys, and listen to presentations from family court judges and other legal experts.
“It’s a real opportunity for folks in the profession to sharpen their skills,” she says. “We come together to share knowledge and brush up on the latest legislation and trends. It’s a community builder, and for me, it’s a lot of fun.”
Yerigan has been practicing family law for a quarter century, so she doesn’t exactly need help building a network of colleagues—but she does enjoy making new connections and mentoring others.
“Deb’s very well known and she knows just about everybody,” says Eric J. Magnuson, a former colleague and former chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. “Divorce Camp is an interesting venture, and Deb is in her element there. In a practice area as contentious as family law you’d think lawyers would have a hard time getting along, but they don’t. Divorce Camp is a lot of fun. Deb and her fellow organizers keep things going and make sure everyone gets along.”
In 2000, tired of the paperwork and effort involved in running her own business, Yerigan took a spot at Rider Bennett, where she worked until the firm broke up in May 2007. Then she moved to Messerli & Kramer for two years, until this summer, when she set up shop at McGrann Shea Carnival Straughn & Lamb. Her clients—and her reputation as a tough, committed attorney—keep following.
“Deb is an incredibly hard worker,” Magnuson says. “She works long, long hours because she wants to get it right. She feels a need to be very thorough and do the best job for every one of her clients.”
The extra hours spent at work are essential, Yerigan insists. She believes she has an important responsibility: To help people reconstruct their lives in a healthy way, to respect family structures and prepare them for the new lives they will be facing.
“As a divorce attorney, it is my job to get my client and his or her family members to a resolution in a manner that causes the least amount of pain possible,” she says. “I am helping a person or a family through one of the most difficult things they will ever experience. Hopefully they will come out on the other side healed and whole. It is my role to be their interpreter and guide. I just hope I’m up to the task.”