Courtney Ward-Reichard of Nilan Johnson Lewis becomes the president of the Hennepin County Bar Association on July 1, 2010. She talked with Past President Mary Vasaly about her background and her goals for the Hennepin County Bar Association.
THL: Congratulations, Courtney, on your new position and responsibilities. Those who are active in the HCBA know you well, but I would like to give our other members a chance to get to know you a bit better. Please tell us about your personal and professional background. Where did you go to undergraduate school?
CW-R: I was born and raised in Fargo, North Dakota, and went to college just across the river at Concordia College in Moorhead. Concordia is a great school for many reasons, but the main draw for me was the debate program. While pursuing political science and communications majors, I competed for four years on Concordia’s debate team. Interestingly, two of my college debate partners are now my law partners—Joe Schmitt and Cort Sylvester.
THL: That seems like a fitting preparation for law school. Was it debate that sparked your interest in studying law?
CW-R: No, my interest started long before that. Although there were no other lawyers in our family, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer in the seventh grade. My parents, Bob and Jo Ward, were very supportive, and they always knew I would succeed. Of course, that may have been because I have always liked to argue.
THL: I understand that you attended William Mitchell College of Law. How did you choose William Mitchell?
CW-R: I also knew from an early age that I wanted to live in the Twin Cities. My father worked for what was then Dain Bosworth, and my mother and I accompanied him to business meetings in the Twin Cities several times a year. In choosing a Twin Cities law school, I was drawn to the practical training curriculum and the flexibility offered by William Mitchell. I was also impressed by the law school’s distinguished alumni.
THL: I see you graduated from law school magna cum laude, which suggests that you were well suited to the practice of law. What did you do after law school?
CW-R: I started as an associate attorney at Popham Haik in 1992 immediately after graduation, and I remained in practice there for four years. From the beginning, I focused my practice in mass torts and complex litigation. In 1996, I joined 28 other Popham lawyers in forming what is now Nilan Johnson Lewis.
THL: Why did you focus on mass torts? Is that area still the focus of your practice?
CW-R: I enjoy complex litigation because it allows me to dig into the facts in a very detailed way and to become an expert in an area, such as lead paint or chemical exposure. My particular focus is technology, discovery, and case preparation. Cases involving a long history are of interest to me, and I enjoy tracking down archived documents. In doing so, I’ve been to a wide variety of locations, including warehouses, museums, and even the basement of a housing project in New York.
THL: Is your practice primarily in federal court or do you also practice in state court?
CW-R: Actually, my practice is usually outside the State of Minnesota. I have had cases in many states, including Rhode Island, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Wisconsin, California, Florida, and North Dakota. In addition to Minnesota, I am licensed to practice in the state courts of Wisconsin and North Dakota.
THL: What do you enjoy most about the practice of law?
CW-R: I love the intellectual challenge; but I would have to say the best thing about my practice is the opportunity to help my clients. I represent companies that really try hard to do the right thing, along with their employees and shareholders. It is satisfying when I am able to help them receive a judicial determination that their conduct was appropriate.
THL: Many lawyers are familiar with the Nilan Johnson Lewis firm. I know that it is unique in many ways. How would you describe the firm?
CW-R: We have a great firm, and I enjoy working with so many extremely talented lawyers. We have built our reputation by putting clients first and building a practice centered on excellence. The firm focuses on five areas of practice: labor and employment, business law, product liability/mass tort litigation, commercial litigation, and health law/consulting.
I am proud of our firm for many reasons, but one recent achievement of which I am particularly proud is that more than half of our shareholders are women. While women have made great strides in the legal profession, having such a large percentage in the shareholder ranks is still very rare in law firms.
Our firm is also very inclusive and collegial. All of the attorneys and paralegals have the same size offices with identical office furniture. At Popham Haik, I had five different offices in four years—seeking, like everyone else was, a few more ceiling tiles or better furniture. In contrast, before our firm’s recent move to One Financial Plaza, I was in the same office for 12 years.
I also appreciate the fact that the firm is very “family friendly.” My colleagues strongly support my efforts to balance work and family so I can enjoy both a challenging career and raising my children. My colleagues are also extremely supportive of my interest in bar association activities and governance. I can say with all sincerity that I have never had a day in the last 14 years that I have wanted to practice law somewhere else.
THL: What are your hobbies and interests outside of work?
CW-R At this time in my life, my main outside interest is spending time with my family. I love to read and carry my Kindle with me everywhere. I also enjoy music, traveling, gardening, and cooking.
THL: How did you get involved with the HCBA?
CW-R: I joined the HCBA at the beginning of my career without thinking much about it—at that time, it was simply expected that lawyers would be members of their bar association. In 1994, I decided to join the committee that oversees our publication, The Hennepin Lawyer. My work had become primarily national in scope and I felt that I needed some way of continuing to develop relationships with local lawyers. I remember thinking before my first committee meeting that there would probably be dozens of people there, and that it would take time and patience to work my way up through the ranks. I was wrong; it was a much smaller group, and I ended up walking away from that first meeting as an assistant editor of one of the upcoming issues.
In 2004, I was asked to join the board of the Hennepin County Bar Foundation. Service on that board really opened my eyes to the great work of the foundation and the HCBA and it was then that I became interested in association governance. I joined the HCBA Board of Directors as an “at-large” member. I then became president of the foundation in 2007. That same year I became an officer of the HCBA when I was elected secretary.
THL: As your roles with the HCBA and HCBF have grown, your time commitment has expanded exponentially. Has it been worth it? Has your bar work been fulfilling to you personally and professionally?
CRs: Absolutely. I believe the work of the HCBA is tremendously important for the profession and the public, particularly for individuals of limited means. I feel that, by being involved, I am really making a difference in the lives of individuals and supporting a profession that I love. HCBA activities promote a range of “goods”: professionalism, collegiality, cooperation, and the fair administration of justice both through work at the Legislature and at bench and bar meetings. The HCBA also does important work supporting pro bono activities and access to justice.
THL: What are the most significant challenges facing the bench and bar in Minnesota in the coming year?
CW-R: Judicial funding will be a significant priority in the coming year. The funding for our justice system has faced tremendous challenges in the Legislature because of the budget crisis. However, it is critically important to the public that judicial funding be maintained at the highest possible level. Deep cuts will slow the administration of justice, which in turn will profoundly impact individuals and businesses. For businesses, delay impacts the bottom line, which has a snowball effect: lower business revenues will result in a lower tax base which in turn will decrease the revenues available to fund the courts. A lack of court resources also has a profound impact on litigants of limited means who need to resolve issues quickly through conciliation court. Additionally, the courts may become even more clogged if alternative dispute resolution becomes too expensive to be an option. Finally, we all know that the decrease in funding has resulted in unacceptably high caseloads for public defenders. All of these issues must be addressed by the Legislature and our courts, and the association must play a vital role.
THL: What are your goals for the HCBA during your year as president?
CW-R: My first goal relates to membership: both bringing in new members and increasing the involvement of our existing members. I hope that lawyers will view membership as a “no brainer,” meaning membership in the HCBA and participation in its activities is automatically something one does as a lawyer. I understand the financial considerations, and I believe it is completely justifiable for firms to ask their attorneys to only join those organizations in which they play an active role. However, in my view, the county bar association is different. I believe that all attorneys should join the HCBA because of the work the association does on behalf of the profession, whether at the Legislature, at the courthouse, or with members of the public.
I am also hoping to raise the level of involvement of those who are already HCBA members by encouraging them to volunteer for more activities and to serve actively on sections and committees. Our events enhance communications among members of the bench and bar, and the more participation we have, the better our communications will be. We need everyone. I know it is difficult to balance competing demands of career and family, but the HCBA can even help with that. By participating in the HCBA, both newer lawyers and those with established practices can learn to balance their lives, enjoy what they do, and develop connections in furthering their careers.
A related goal is to enhance the HCBA’s communication with its members. A task force has been assembled to evaluate all our current forms of communication, including The Hennepin Lawyer magazine, mailings, and electronic communications of all kinds. I am eager to implement the results of this work and to enhance the association’s communication process. One thing I know we need to do is to increase our social media presence. I will be on Twitter as “HCBAPresident” to provide updates on association activities and interesting developments in the legal community—but I promise no CLE ads! I will also work with HCBA staff to increase the association’s presence on LinkedIn and Facebook. These tools will allow our members to communicate with one another and to have a deeper understanding of issues that are of interest to them.
A third priority for me is to increase the visibility of the Hennepin County Bar Foundation, in conjunction with incoming HCBF President Marshall Lichty. I want to assist the leadership of the HCBF to enhance its visibility by developing a foundation presence at the HCBA office, developing a separate website, and improving its methods of communication. Law firms have been very generous in donating to the foundation, and those contributions have allowed us to do tremendous things, such as increase public understanding of the law, enhance access to legal services, and improve the administration of justice. However, individual lawyers have slowly decreased their support for the foundation, which in the past came through the “dues check off” on the membership form. I would like to see more of our individual lawyers again supporting the foundation.
Finally, my most important task during the coming year will be to direct the search for a successor to Executive Director Larry Buxbaum, who will retire in June 2011. Larry has been at the helm of the HCBA since 1999, and he will be very difficult to replace. A search committee is being formed, and we will be formally starting the search process this fall.
THL: Tell us something that very few people know about you.
CW-R: People may not be familiar with my outside activities with various nonprofit organizations. I am active in fundraising for St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, and recently served as co-chair of its $2.8 million capital campaign. I have also served on the Board of the Minnesota Chorale and the Wells Foundation.
However, the nonprofit work I am most passionate about is my work with the Minnesota Urban Debate League (MNUDL). The MNUDL funds debate programs in urban middle and high schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul. These programs make a tremendous difference in the lives of talented kids, allowing them to achieve their goals to attend college and law school. Our teams have been amazingly successful. For example, a MNUDL team from Highland Park High School recently took second place at the National Urban Debate League Championships in New York City, and St. Paul Central High School’s team recently made it to elimination rounds at the Tournament of Champions at the University of Kentucky, finishing ahead of teams from Edina, Eden Prairie, Wayzata, and Blake School.
But perhaps the greatest achievement of the MNUDL is that, for the second year in a row, 100 percent of the participating seniors have graduated on time and are attending college. In my view, the MNUDL does more to solve the diversity problem in the legal profession than any other initiative because it gets to talented kids when they are young and gives them the means to develop their talents so they can pursue careers in the law or whatever profession they choose. It is rewarding to watch kids that face many challenges—ranging from underprivileged backgrounds, less funded schools, and even English as a second language—participate and win in debate. Getting young people involved in an activity that they love makes a tremendous difference in their lives.
THL: Besides your career and pro bono activities, what makes your life rewarding?
CW-R: My family always comes first. My husband, Kevin, publishes a website at www.ballparkdigest.com, focusing on baseball and baseball stadiums. He also publishes books and websites on baseball and other sports, as well as Yellowstone National Park. He has been wonderfully supportive of all of my activities. I also have a fantastic stepson, Sean, who is a junior at Minnetonka High School and, perhaps not surprisingly, will be co-captain of its mock trial team next year. My daughter Rachel is a first grader and enjoys skating and dance and wants to be a fashion designer. My youngest child is Sarah. She is four and loves gymnastics. She also does a great job of trying to keep up with her sister on the ice rink. They both skate at the Minnetonka Ice Arena. I am tremendously grateful to my entire family for their support as I take on this challenge.