Robert's Rules of Order

Robert Weinstine on the civility of yesteryear

Published in 2009 Minnesota Super Lawyers — August 1, 2019

Robert Weinstine remembers when St. Paul was a small town. “If you went to lunch at the St. Paul Athletic Club, you’d find maybe 50 percent of the practicing bar and the bench,” he says. And if you needed to try a case in Hennepin County, you hired a Minneapolis lawyer. Companies would often retain two different firms, he says—one for each city. 

“The joke was, because everybody knew everybody in St. Paul, that you could take a St. Paul lawyer at his word on the telephone. Minneapolis lawyer—get it in writing,” he says.

Weinstine, a trial lawyer, graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1969 when the electric typewriter was still a novelty. He worked at Oppenheimer in St. Paul until 1979, when he started Winthrop & Weinstine with five of his colleagues. He’s been there ever since. (The firm today employs 89 lawyers and ranks No. 10 on L&P’s list of largest law firms in Minnesota.)

His firm works with corporate clients, and things have changed remarkably over the years. For starters, companies are larger and multinational, making lawsuits bigger and far more complicated. “When I started practicing law, a $100,000 lawsuit was a very significant lawsuit,” he says. Nowadays, his firm rarely handles anything so small. Firms assign more people to each case than they used to, and lawyers specialize. “We have no generalists,” he says. “Not anymore.”

It was also unusual for lawyers to jump from firm to firm, for departments to migrate from one firm to another, or for employees to split off and start their own firms the way he did. “That was virtually unheard of,” he says. “Now look at what we see. All kinds of mergers, acquisitions, lateral hires and what-have-you.”

In some ways, he thinks it’s been a good thing. “It has permitted law firms to instantly grow with talented, experienced lawyers in areas that they needed,” he says. But it has had a negative impact on firms’ culture, and there’s less loyalty. “In many of the large firms today, maybe the partners will have one annual retreat where they all meet, so they hardly even know each other.” 

Winthrop & Weinstine has grown from six lawyers to almost 100, but “growth for growth’s sake has never, ever been part of our operations. Wherever possible we’ve tried to grow from the bottom.” Often they’ve been a few lawyers short. “It’s always easier to find lawyers than clients,” he says.

The advantage is that the firm hasn’t wound up with “a hodgepodge of different cultures. We have our culture and our young people grow up in it.”

That culture is based on a simple idea, he says: “If you treat somebody like a professional, they will be a professional.” The firm gives its new lawyers a lot of responsibility in their first year—and a lot of autonomy.

“At least once a year a young associate will come and say to me, ‘I’m planning on going to Disneyland with my family the third week of March. Is that OK?’ And I invariably say, ‘I don’t know. Is it OK?’”

He also says you don’t find lawyers screaming at their secretaries at Winthrop & Weinstine. The firm is like a big family. “We still have our first employee. She was 19 years old, from Sumner, Iowa. She’s been here for 30 years.”

Training the Next Generation

At Winthrop, it’s the young people who handle the hiring. “They’re hiring people who will be their partners, not mine,” he explains.

But he’s a big believer in mentoring, and he’s upset that there’s less of it taking place now. “We have an awful lot of lawyers coming out of law school, and often there aren’t a lot of job openings, so they hang out a shingle, often without mentoring, and I think that has hurt the profession.”

He has noticed a decline in civility. “You cannot imagine some of the behavior,” Weinstine says. And not just from lawyers. “One of my partners was in Hennepin County Court the other day, and as he was arguing, the judge was clipping his nails on the bench!”

He keeps in mind a lesson he learned early on. An opposing lawyer asked for an extension to file a document in a federal case. “I said absolutely not, put your answer in,” he says. Within 10 minutes, Weinstine’s mentor, David Donnelly, came into his office to lecture him. “He told me we always afford another lawyer every professional courtesy we can, unless it’s going to hurt our client.” 

The Technological Revolution

The biggest changes Weinstine has seen have been in the area of technology. “It has vastly changed the entire landscape,” he says.

He remembers having a secretary photo-reduce a stack of documents again and again until they were small enough to fit in his suitcase. “Now I can store 20 depositions on a laptop and pull them up on an airplane and it’s feather-light.” Teleconferences have cut down travel time tremendously, and judges can show evidence to a jury by hitting a button and sending it to a screen in front of them.

Technology has even affected the details of cases themselves. Electronic files are harder to destroy, and from companies’ e-mail correspondence, you often get “very damaging statements that are really gut reactions, not well-planned.” This can be a curse or a blessing; it’s a problem if you’re representing the person who wrote the e-mail, “but if you’re on the other side, you may just love it,” he says. 

But Weinstine makes sure that technology doesn’t reduce the amount of time he spends talking to his clients in person. “You want to bond with your clients. You want them to know that you’re committed to them—and you want some loyalty from them,” he says.

And though he has mastered e-mail and teleconferencing, electronic files still strike him as worrisome. “I still don’t know where they end up—in some black hole someplace.” Initially, he questioned it when lawyers started typing their own briefs. “Who wants to pay $150 an hour for someone to type, to a lawyer? But frankly they’re so efficient that it has proven to be cost-effective.”

But he also knows that will never be him. “To this day, there’s no way that I could ever type as fact as I can dictate,” he says. “So I dictate.” Some things never change. 

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