First Lady

Linda Lea Viken helped pave the way for South Dakota women in law

Published in 2007 Great Plains Super Lawyers Magazine — October 2007

Linda Lea Viken was 26 years old in 1972 when her career path took an unusual swerve. While teaching social studies at the Sioux Falls junior high school, she was approached by the Democratic national committeeman from South Dakota about running for the state legislature. She accepted the challenge and won. While in the House, Viken served on the judiciary committee, where fellow members told her she “thought like a lawyer.” Soon she was splitting her time between law school and her duties at the Capitol. Upon graduation from the University of South Dakota law school, Viken moved to Rapid City to open her own firm.

“I was the youngest woman ever elected to the state legislature, and I was only one of five female lawyers in the western part of South Dakota,” says Viken, a labor and family law attorney. “Looking back, I realize it might have been a little foolhardy,” she says, punctuating this statement with a good-natured laugh. She figures being one of the only women practicing law in the state didn’t hurt her too much, since she has “been busy since the day I started.” Although there were judges and fellow lawyers who didn’t think she was up to the job, she had a simple response to the naysayers: “I didn’t let myself be discriminated against.” 

Instead, she took comments from judges complimenting her lovely suit or her beautiful dress in stride, letting her skills do the talking. She had a few advantages. As a legislator, she sat on a subcommittee that helped reform the state’s court system, so even if judges didn’t know her, “they knew my name.” Also, the years of teaching social studies to ninth-graders taught her to think and speak on her feet. 

Her colleagues took notice. Viken was appointed to the South Dakota Commission on the Status of Women and founded the South Dakota Coalition for Children, has served as magistrate judge in the 7th Judicial Circuit, and is a fellow and vice president for the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. She successfully ran again for the House in 1988 and was the first Democrat elected in her district in 10 years. She served two terms until redistricting plopped her into a Republican haven.

Her favorite project is supervising the West River Ask-A-Lawyer program, a hotline set up by the state bar each May. Viken was one of the first organizers of the decade-old project, which allows people to request free and anonymous legal advice from high-quality, experienced lawyers. 

“We’ve had people say they save up their questions for a year until this week,” says Viken, noting how valuable a service it is for people who can’t afford to seek legal help or who live in small one-lawyer towns. “Sometimes they just don’t want their next-door neighbor knowing their business,” she says.

While an unsuccessful bid for secretary of state in 1994 probably ended her political career, Viken says she looks forward to continuing with family law; she is, after all, South Dakota’s only board-certified family trial law advocate and has taken more than 52 appeals to the state supreme court. 

“I tell my clients that going to trial is the most fun I can have, but it is not always the best for them,” Viken says, adding that she wants to shift focus to mediation and arbitration, which is often easier on families. “I think that is where I would like to end my career.” She pauses and chuckles: “That is, if I can’t be governor.”

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