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Law & Practice

Six pillars of the legal community look back on three decades of law

Published in 2022 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine

Photo by: Larry Marcus

In August 1991, Minnesota Law & Politics published its first-ever Super Lawyers list. In the ensuing three decades, firms have opened and shuttered, careers have begun and ended, but the six lawyers we spoke with have remained constant fixtures in Minnesota law and on our Super Lawyers list.

They’ve graced covers and spearheaded everything from the Big Tobacco settlement to the region’s biggest criminal defense cases. Now they tell us how the state of law in Minnesota has—and hasn’t—changed over the past 30 years.

The Firms

Nancy Zalusky Berg, Nancy Zalusky Berg LLC, Family Law: In 1990, I joined with a man named Wright Walling and we started the firm of Walling, Berg & Debele. I was with that firm for 25 years, and then in 2017 left to start my current firm. I had had every stress-related disease known to mankind—high blood pressure, psoriasis, all kinds of things. After three months at my new firm, I fainted because I no longer needed to be on high blood pressure medication. And I’ve never been happier.

Earl Gray, Earl Gray Defense, Criminal Defense: In 1978, I went on my own. I was Earl Gray, lawyer.

Michael Ciresi, Ciresi Conlin, Business Litigation: I was at Robins Kaplan from when I was right out of law school. It was then called Robins, Davis and Lyons. There were only 30 lawyers. … I was there for 44 years, then left to start Ciresi Conlin with Katie Crosby Lehmann and Jan Conlin.

Kathleen Newman, DeWitt, Family Law: I was at Larkin Hoffman for 25 years, and I was the managing partner for six years toward the end. Then I decided to go on my own, and had a boutique firm for 12 years. Then, thank God, I decided to go back to a larger firm, and I merged my practice with DeWitt in March of 2020 right before the pandemic closures hit.

Lew Remele, Bassford Remele, Business Litigation: One of the big changes that has occurred over the last 30 years is an increase in specialization. … We’ve seen this concentration of mergers, where [local] firms attempt to figure out what to focus on, what their strengths are. Faegre merged into a 1,300-person firm. Oppenheimer is gone. Lindquist is gone. Donnelly went bankrupt. Popham went out of business. Rider Bennett went out of business. Gray Plant has merged. Leonard Street has merged.

Joe Friedberg, Joseph S. Friedberg, Criminal Defense: In any case where a trial is going to be more than a day or two, I bring in another lawyer and associate with that lawyer, because trying cases now, with the technology involved, is not a one-man job. By the same token, to have a staff always here and always paying them, you just can’t afford to do that.

The Technological Advances

Newman: I’d been in practice two or three years when I had my second child. I was living in Fridley and I was working primarily at the Larkin Bloomington office. I had to do that commute every day. Leaving work and assuming that you were going to be able to get to your daycare facility in Fridley with traffic and weather conditions, that was a major stressor. If you were going to be late, you had to stop at the gas station and go use the phone. The advent of the cellphone, and then the laptop—amazing impact on my life and practice.  

Remele: Computerization has sped up the whole delivery of the legal system. Clients are much more demanding; they feel like they can contact you anytime, anywhere. No matter where you are, they can reach you by an email, text—you name it. Similarly, it’s so much easier to dispense legal advice, because you have multiple ways of communicating with clients. 

Berg: I remember getting the first computer—but it didn’t include the monitor or a printer or the keyboard. Those were all separate, and I just remember thinking, “What a rip-off.” Plus, it was $10,000. 

Friedberg: As an older guy, the technology baffles the shit out of me, basically. But the increases and the improvements in technology have done nothing but improve the way the system can work. The video evidence in court has become much better.

Ciresi: We went through 33 million documents page by page in the [1990s] tobacco case. Today—now this is a little bit of an exaggeration—but you could go through those 33 million documents in a day. 

Gray: In the old days, you’d have a couple of informants or people cutting deals to testify against your client. I just picked up a homicide case. There’s 70 body cameras we have to look at and transcribe. Then, of course, you’ve got the surveillance tapes. A lot of times, video helps you, because a witness didn’t know there was a surveillance tape. But, of course, a lot of times they don’t help you, either. 

The Evolution of Law

Ciresi: You’ve seen an opening up, if you will, of the ability of plaintiffs to recover. But, most importantly, [an increased ability] to get discovery on defective products, which led to, frankly, some of the safest products in the world as a result of the changes in product liability laws over time. 

Remele: The number of cases going to trial has decreased. When I was younger and would try personal injury cases, you’d try 12 or 15 a year because they were $50,000 cases. As I’ve gotten more experienced, and the cases have gotten more complex, there’s more at stake from a dollar standpoint and from a risk standpoint. So you try three or four cases a year, but those can last for five, six, seven weeks.

Newman: By the late ‘90s, mediation became the primary means to resolve cases and avoid litigation. That was huge. … Now, if I do one or two trials a year, that’s a lot of trial work. Trial work is exciting and interesting, but do I miss having seven to 10 trials a year? No. 

Berg: Initially, I was very dismissive of mediation, and I would tell people, “If they got along that well, they wouldn’t be getting divorced.” But I quickly figured out I was absolutely wrong, and I use all forms of ADR quite a bit. 

Friedberg: The Supreme Court of Minnesota ruled several years ago that judges cannot participate in plea negotiations. That was a terrible ruling because in state court, the system functioned based on judges participating in plea negotiations. … In Hennepin County, the judges were up to their eyeballs in plea negotiations. You add the fact that the ruling slowed the handling of cases—and COVID—and we’ve got an uncontrollable backlog in criminal cases.

On Professional Conviviality

Remele: As you have more lawyers practicing, you may never see that lawyer again in your career. That didn’t used to happen. So, it gives people a little bit more of a license to be maybe not as professional as they should be. The other part that’s made it less convivial is the modern-day discovery. 

Friedberg: The criminal defense bar and the prosecution bar used to be a lot more convivial with each other. It seems that both sides have become more intransigent in their views. … There used to be a feeling that we’re all in this business together and we fought very hard in cloth, but outside of court I think we all liked each other and got along. That’s just not the way it is anymore.

Gray: You used to have paper and pencil or pen. Now, I walk in a courtroom, I have my briefcase and everybody has a computer, and they open it and look at it. There isn’t as much socializing, actually. 

Ciresi: Today, nobody knows anybody. … I don’t want to overstate it too much because then you start sounding like the good ol’ days were always better. But there is a greater lack of civility, and there’s an increasing tendency for people to say things in a courtroom that shade the truth; there’s more of a tendency to dance in the shadows of the ambiguity of the law.

Newman: It’s hard to be nasty when you had lunch with that person the week before, or you worked together in a CLE presentation. It’s become much more “the professional stuff stays professional.” 

Berg: I grew up in a very blue-collar family. My brothers and I were the first to complete college, and I didn’t realize the degree to which relationships are financially beneficial as one advances in one’s career. I was on a tour bus at a conference, and the two people sitting behind me were one of the judges I appeared in front of regularly and another lawyer. They were planning when they were going to play tennis, and it kind of dawned on me, like, “Oh, no wonder I always lose in front of this judge with that lawyer.” As I got more mature, I realized that these country club relationships, private school relationships, are really critical to advancement. I think it’s very exclusionary.

Advice for the Next Generation

Ciresi: The nice thing about the practice of law is that if you have your health and your mind is sound and stays with you, you get better as you get older. But you’ve got to keep your mind active, and you can’t allow yourself to think you have all the answers. You learn from the very youngest to the very oldest; the recognition that you can learn from everyone is very important. 

Gray: You should get a job while you’re going to law school to see what field you like. Do you like corporate law, family law, criminal law, litigation, personal injury law? Do want to be a general practitioner? Find something you’re comfortable in. Otherwise, your life is torture.

Newman: Doris Huspeni was an appellate court judge, and when I started practicing, one day we were chatting and she said, “You really need to develop outside interests or a hobby now, because if you devote all your time to your family and your job, there’s going to come a time when you don’t have to do child-rearing and you may want to retire. If you haven’t developed outside interests, you’re going to be unhappy.” I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, that’s fine. I don’t need to do that.” In hindsight, I think it’s a very true thing. 

Remele: My grandfather was a lawyer. He used to say to me, “There’s a reason why they call it the practice of law.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Because you’re always practicing. You never master it. And if you get to the point where you think you’ve mastered it, then you’re probably not a very good lawyer—because you have to constantly learn, and learn from your mistakes.” I’m not sure anybody can appreciate that until you get finally to the end of the journey, and you look back and you realize that it’s really true. Your cumulative experiences are based upon all of the triumphs and losses that you have over the course of your practice.

Berg: There are so many lawyers that are so miserable. I think the best thing you can do as a young lawyer, or a law student, is hang around different practices and figure out what fits for you. 

Looking Forward

Remele: I have a lot of friends that say, “I’d never have one of my sons or daughters go to law school. It’s just so much harder and the practice has changed, and they’re never going to be as successful, and they won’t make as much money.” I don’t agree with that. I’m not in that camp at all. There are definitely going to be bumps in the road, but like our predecessors before us, the practice will morph and change. 

Gray: You really have to get some experience—no matter how smart you are, how hard you work. Once you know what to do in the courtroom and have a little imagination, you should be successful. The problem now is that the younger generation doesn’t get the opportunities to try many cases. 

Remele: The makeup of the bar and lawyers, we’ve got a long way to go. When I started, there were one or two women in my law firm. Now that’s changing. It’s got to change faster, and it will change, but it’s still got a long ways to go. … We’ve made some advances while I’ve been practicing, but it’s been slower than it should have been—and not just women, but also lawyers of color.

The Next Chapter

Berg: I’ve seen too many people retire and die within a year or two. As I’ve said to many people: What am I going to do if I retire? Take over a small South American country and cause an international incident? It’s best to keep me doing what I do.

Ciresi: The pandemic has had a perceptible impact on all segments of the population, including lawyers. I’ve seen people step back and say there’s other things they want to do in life. And they’re just getting out earlier and fast. It’s made people more reflective. You’ve seen a lot of folks making life-changing decisions at an earlier point in time than they otherwise would.

Remele: Even up until the 2000s, if you went into the bigger law firms, you could probably count on one hand the number of lawyers that were over 60. I haven’t done sort of a mental census on that lately, but I don’t think it’s changed greatly. Partly, that’s because lawyers were able to accumulate enough in these retirement plans where they had the financial ability to retire.

Newman: There’s been a lot of discussion in my peer group about how you retire. The ones that have retired in the last couple of years, I have not talked to one person that says they are regretting they did it. But those of us that are still in practice and thinking about it, it feels like a very hard thing. There wasn’t any guide as to how you’re going to do this. The idea of stopping work when you’re 65—that’s gone in the legal profession. There’s not an age limit anymore, and you can practice well beyond that.

Friedberg: It’s too late to start collecting stamps. All the good ones are gone. I have somebody evaluate me every case I try now, because you’re the last person to know. And when somebody tells me that my skills have slipped, I’m done.

Gray: Someday I’ll have to quit. I’m sure a lot of lawyers wish I would now. But I’m going to try to outlast Friedberg.


Cover Memories 

Berg: I’ll tell you why my baby is in that picture: There had been several Law & Politics covers that kind of mocked the lawyer. And I thought, ‘If I brought a baby with me, there’s no way that will happen.’ Hence, the baby in the shot.

Friedberg: It was fun to be there and do it, but nobody ever asked me for my autograph afterwards.

Remele: One of the fun things of being on the cover, and the annual poll, is you always get comments from friends and colleagues—usually poking good-natured fun. Weirdly, in the last couple months, a lawyer told me they still have that cover on a wall in their office and they see my picture all the time.

Ciresi: It was around the second time I ran for the U.S. Senate, and let me tell you: It didn’t help me win the campaign. But it was a great experience, and when you get that kind recognition, you can’t let it go to your head. 

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