Monthly Archives

June 2014

Inspired Justice

A Corporate Lawyer’s Commitment to Truth, Morality and Social Justice, by Julia Sinaiko Offenhauser ’04

Julia Offenhauser '04

Julia Offenhauser ’04

When I started law school at the University of St. Thomas in 2001, I was drawn to the law school because I had a background in sociology and wanted to work in either the non-profit field, or in government as a lawyer. Ten years ago, when I graduated from law school, I believed that living the mission meant that I would be a public defender or some other sort of public servant. Today, 10 years after graduating from law school, I remain just as committed to truth, morality and social justice, but my understanding of the pursuit of truth, morality and social justice for me in my life has changed.

I am a principal at Gray Plant Mooty, a large Minneapolis law firm, and I work in our corporate and business practice group. I focus in the areas of general business law, securities, and mergers and acquisitions, and work with mostly private companies of varying sizes with their day-to-day business operations and legal needs. I am married and have two boys, ages 2 and 4. Practicing corporate and business law is about as far away from what I thought I’d do in law school, and I sort of fell into it via a move to New York right after law school and then back to Minneapolis again. What I’ve learned, though, is that despite the fact that my job is not at a non-profit or as a public defender, I am still living the mission and committed to social justice, truth and morality.

In my day-to-day work, I am committed to producing high quality work product for my clients — I am committed to being engaged with my clients as a fair advocate, and to providing good and moral legal advice. At Gray Plant, I am also able to pursue my social justice side — I serve on our firm’s Foundation Board, I volunteer and do pro bono work with Volunteer Lawyers’ Network and the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, and I am a board member of WATCH, an organization that works to make the justice system more responsive to crimes of violence, focusing on greater safety for victims of violence and greater accountability for violent offenders. Above work is my family, and I am committed to my kids, husband and family, and to making sure that I’m being truthful to myself by allowing myself the time I want and need to spend with them.

Living the mission is not always as obvious as pursuing a career in public interest law or working for a non-profit — which is what I thought it meant 10 years ago. I think that the challenge with living the mission is trying to remain committed to the mission when your career and your life don’t always lead you where you thought you might go. For me, it is looking for and finding ways of seeing the mission in my day-to-day life — being there for my family and making sure I am a present and active parent, all the while providing excellent work product, being truthful and honest with myself and my clients, and then looking for opportunities within the workplace or the community to fulfill that social justice piece. I am sure that this understanding of living the mission will continue to evolve for me, and I will continue to think about it as my life and career continue to change.

Julia Sinaiko Offenhauser ’04 is a principal at Gray Plant Mooty, where she focuses her practice in the areas of general business law, securities, and mergers and acquisitions. She also has experience in public bond financing and working with starts-ups and emerging companies.

Inspired Justice

“Pro-Bono” is More Than just Access, by Kellen T. Fish ’10

Kellen T. Fish '10

Kellen T. Fish ’10

The University of St. Thomas School of Law mission indicates “social justice” as a fundamental goal in educating lawyers. Throughout law school we’re told that being a lawyer is a gateway profession and that as such, there is an obligation to provide services to those who could not otherwise afford it. There is no doubt that retaining a lawyer who knows the rules of the game can be great advantage, especially in the litigation context; but what does striving for social justice require from each practitioner?

I’d offer that furthering social justice requires more than providing 50 hours of volunteer service every three years as recommended by the ABA or recognized by the North Star Lawyers program here in Minnesota. That said, I’m not suggesting more than 50 hours achieves the mission-stated goal of furthering social justice. Living the UST mission seems to focus more on the depth of those pro bono hours than the quantity.

Representation in a pro bono setting can provide a different scenario than what a lawyer is typically accustomed to; unfortunately, that can lead to a different type of representation. Yes, on occasion a pro bono client will take advantage of the lack of cost associated with representation and will make unrealistic demands on an attorney’s availability, including multiple phone calls and emails each day, etc. However, that is more an issue of setting client expectations, and that’s on the lawyer.

Pro bono clients are not “non-paying” clients. They aren’t looking for the minimum possible representation to get by; the concepts of social justice require an attorney’s complete focus and intensity. Putting in the hours isn’t enough. Showing up isn’t enough. To that end, I’d argue that getting the desired result isn’t enough. Pro bono clients deserve to feel good about the process, as well as the result, and that means immersing yourself in their matter as if it was your highest paying client, and making sure the pro bono client feels like their case is the most important case an attorney has.

Soap-box speech aside, this entry comes from my own experience (and subsequently my own failure) in balancing the need to further social justice through pro bono service, with the need to keep the lights in the office on. Which leads to my final thought on social justice, which is that it’s an evolving practice – one that changes and grows as we grow. I am better now at furthering the mission than I was three years ago. I certainly hope to better in three years than I am now. With that change in ability comes a change in responsibility, and I’m thankful for the UST community to be my accountability partner as we move forward.

Kellen T. Fish is owner of KTF Law Firm, PLLC, where he practices family law and offers estate planning, probate and trust administration, and small business consulting.

Inspired Justice

Tommies at Heart, by Erin Gross ’09

Erin Gross '09

Erin Gross ’09

Having a clear and concise mission statement is integral to any business organization and is a powerful way to convey the direction of the organization. We are taught that a mission statement should answer questions such as What is our purpose? And Why do we exist? I have no doubt that when the founders of UST Law sat down to begin debating the first mission statement of the law school, it was these principles that fueled the discussion. Thirteen years later, I can’t help but wonder whether those individuals had any idea how many lives would be changed by their words and vision of the future.

I think I am not alone in saying that when I was selecting law schools, the strength of a school’s mission statement was not exactly one of my top priorities. But when it came time to make that life-altering decision, it is what put St. Thomas above the rest in my book. From the moment I walked onto campus, the sense of welcome and good will permeated the walls of the building and was apparent on the face of every person I passed. I was greeted with smiles and a hearty hello from Pete and Brad, the security guards manning the front desk of the school. I soon learned these two men would go to any length to protect their “children”and make us all feel safe while we were under their care. Later in the group tour we visited the quaint School of Law Chapel where daily mass is held. Finally, we saw the statue of St. Thomas More, the patron saint of lawyers, placed prominently in the atrium of the building. Each prospective student was allowed to approach the statue and rub its foot for “good luck” just as so many law students before us had done prior to a big exam.

It was not until I experienced it firsthand that I could truly appreciate what the St. Thomas mission represents. It certainly represents something unique to each member of our community, but the one common theme is that our mission statement is more than just words on a page or aspirations for the future of the organization. For those who have had the great privilege of observing and living it out for three years of our lives, the St. Thomas mission is now a lens through which we see the world. It is the pull to a higher calling—one where service to others and the ultimate search for perpetuating good in the world comes before all else. As I read the submissions to this blog written by my colleagues who have landed in vastly different areas of legal practice and life, I am humbled to see that no matter how far away life may take us, we will always be Tommies at heart, viewing the world through that very same lens that drew us together from the start.

Erin Gross is an associate attorney with Erstad & Riemer, P.A., practicing in the area of workers’ compensation defense.