Call Them the Divas-in-Law

By News-Media

Some came for the wine. Everyone came for the women.

The other women, that is. It had been a while since the members of Juris Divas, a social networking group of female lawyers and judges, had gotten together for an off-hours debriefing. It was high time for a different kind of bar exam.

So, on a recent Thursday evening, a little vino-tasting party in the rehabbed basement at North Loop Wine & Spirits drew nearly 40 of them out of the courtroom and into the easy conversation of what is essentially their good ol’ girls’ club — and a strong, sisterly support network for women who work in law.

Hennepin County Family Court Judge Regina Chu seemed very pleased to have left her robe at the office, cutting a chic figure in a black dress and red stiletto heels as she chatted with a table of young lawyers. First-timers Ali Sieben and Courtney Lawrence of Schwebel, Goetz and Sieben were as eager to soak up the wisdom of their elders as they were to kick back with a glass of wine.

Christa Groshek, a criminal defense attorney who runs her own Minneapolis practice, said the group was a godsend.

“Some of the other [women in law] groups are a bit buttoned up, bless their hearts,” she said. “The Divas are all about enjoying ourselves. And I love being with the girls, not having to act like a guy.”

Except in one way: “Now when we see each other in court, we can do what the men do — joke around with each other.”

The club was co-founded by Carolyn Agin Schmidt, a criminal defense attorney, and Kristen Naros, who specializes in personal-injury cases. Both opened up their own shops in fields dominated by male lawyers.

“It used to be that women in our business were extra-competitive with each other,” said Schmidt. “Sisterhood is more important than ever, with how competitive it is out there. So many women in our profession feel they have to emulate the guys to be successful. We’re all about being feminine and successful.”

See ya, guys

It began with an errant cigar.

At an after-work gathering six years ago, a male colleague sitting next to Schmidt ashed on her lap. It was accidental; still, she thought, that’s it. We women need our own type of party. Besides, “I was getting tired of being left back at the office while the guys all went golfing,” she said.

Through word of mouth, the two drew 45 women to their first party, many of whom thanked them profusely, saying they not only loved the idea, they needed it.

“A lot of women, especially those with families, said they had absolutely no social life, no time for one, and this was a way of filling that void,” Schmidt said.

Since then, the two have organized a variety of events, including a holiday shopping and decorating charity party at the Galleria in Edina that raised $3,000 for ovarian cancer research.

Today, the e-mail list numbers more than 400 — and even some of their male colleagues have come knocking.

“Now they’re all jealous and want to be invited,” Naros said. “Some have even threatened to come in drag.”

Equal numbers, unequal pay

While the Juris Divas club puts an emphasis on fun, its members are seriously appreciative of one another for the professional solidarity, as well. Significant gender gaps still exist in the field of law.

Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor sit on the Supreme Court. The dean of Harvard Law School, one of the nation’s most prestigious, is a woman, Martha Minow. About half of all law school graduates in the country are women, a trend that’s held steady for the past 20 years. Yet only 30 percent of the jobs are held by women.

Men still make up 74 percent of judges and 82 percent of general counsel for Fortune 500 companies, according to an American Bar Association study released this year. Fewer than 20 percent of women in private practice are partners in their firms. Among the country’s 200 largest firms, only 6 percent of managing partners are women. And women’s salaries round off to about 75 percent of their male counterparts.’

“Social networking is really key to how people advance, particularly in a depressed economy,” said Fionnuala Ní Aolain, a professor and associate dean at the University of Minnesota’s law school. “Men have historically used social networks; now women are learning that they are their own best network. These groups also offer a way to develop relationships with mentors, recognizing who’s the best fit for you in a whole roomful of women.”

Such groups are also about learning to find balance, together, between work and home life, said Ní Aolain: “Women still bear the bulk of the responsibility for child care. Men aren’t balancing in quite the same way.”

Gifts and girl talk

After the group had tasted several wines described by Twin Cities wine importer Annette Peters, Naros and Schmidt held up their arms to show off their custom Juris Divas charm bracelets, including charms depicting legal objets like the scales of justice, gavels and, of course, handcuffs. The bracelets are made especially for the club by Bergstrom Jewelers.

Another Divas tradition is a gift exchange. Everyone brings a surprise gift bag containing a $10 to $15 trifle, and pick up one as they leave theirs.

Danielle Shelton Walczak, who started her own family-law practice in St. Louis Park, snagged one of those gizmos that clip a handbag onto a restaurant table. She was a Divas newbie, and said she was definitely making it to the next outing if possible.

“I only knew three faces when I walked in the door, and now I’ve met some more on such a fun level — more fun, anyway, than meeting them for the first time as opposing counsel,” she said.

In a high-pressure profession like the law, Groshek said, “These are my kind of women.”

There’s just one rule, Naros said:

“No ashing on the divas.”

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For Women Only

By News-Media

Successful women bonding over martinis, gossip and high fashion—sounds a bit like Sex and the City, only this group is exclusive to attorneys (sure, SATC’s Miranda could join) and convenes in downtown Minneapolis and its surrounding suburbs. Meet the Juris Divas: “Smart, sassy lawyers or judges who enjoy good times, good stories and good friends—and a good martini or two,” as the tagline goes.

Six years ago, at a rooftop party above the Barristers Trust Building, Twin Cities attorneys Carolyn Agin Schmidt and Kristen Naros dreamed up the all-female social club. “We have our own style,” says Agin Schmidt, a criminal defense attorney with a solo practice. “We don’t have to emulate the guys. It’s about celebrating women.”

What began as a group of 30 at Trocaderos restaurant two years ago has increased to more than 300 attorneys. Membership qualifications: any female lawyer who thinks she’s a diva, says Naros, a personal injury lawyer with Rambow Law Firm. “We also have ‘divas in training’—those who are in their last year of law school.”

And contrary to their Sex and the City counterparts, “designer bags are not a prerequisite,” adds Agin Schmidt.

“It’s about networking and socializing in an informal setting,” says Naros. “I’ve met so many wonderful women in different areas of practice.”

As the group has grown, so has its mission. In addition to happy hours, Juris Divas hosts charity fundraisers “mostly benefiting underprivileged women and children,” says Agin Schmidt—partnering with local businesses such as Bergstrom Jewelers, Rocco Altobelli and Neiman Marcus. The events have raised nearly $10,000 for Ronald McDonald House, Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance and Perspectives Family Center.

“We’re going beyond the original concept,” she says. “It’s allowed us to meet our goal and help others. We’ve taken this from a ‘diva’ thing to giving back.”

If the group continues to expand at its current rate (Naros gets at least five inquiry e-mails a week), the founders will look to outside help. “The hard thing is having our own lives and practices,” says Agin Schmidt. “Maybe somebody will design our Web site.”

Meanwhile, they’ll continue on with their mission. “Women communicate differently when it’s just women,” says Naros. “It’s an opportunity to get together and not be spoken over.”

“Or,” says Agin Schmidt, “be distracted by the boys.”

View original article here.

Five Years, One Bounty Hunter Later — A Verdict

By News-Media

A personal injury trial with an empty chair where the defendant should have sat has resulted in a $66,711 verdict from a Scott County jury last month.

The case was a fairly straightforward auto accident and a resulting soft tissue injury to the plaintiff’s neck and back. However, it took five years, a trip to the Court of Appeals and $15,000 to bring Hornberger v. Wendel to trial. The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Kristin Naros of Minneapolis, says the case shows why Minnesota needs a statute authorizing direct actions against insurance companies.

“It’s not right to put an injury victim through the litigation wringer like this,” Naros said. “It would ease the burden on the courts and the victim to have the insurance company the named defendant from the outset.”

Hornberger v. Wendel was complicated by the fact that the defendant could not be served. Naros proceeded initially with service by publication under Minnesota Rule of Civil Procedure 4.04, but the Court of Appeals in 2009 said the service was insufficient. The court said that the District Court had to make findings that the party had departed the state or remained concealed within the state with intent to avoid service, and it was not enough to say that the plaintiff’s lawyer believed that to be true.

That seemingly requires the plaintiff to produce an affidavit from somebody who has firsthand knowledge of why the defendant left the state, Naros said. “If I could find that person I could find the defendant so what is the purpose of the [service by publication] rule? If that is the law is it a strong argument for a direct action against the insurance company,” she said.

So Naros proceeded to find the defendant. “I just happen to know a bounty hunter,” she said. She refiled the case and began again, having accomplished personal service in California.

But being served was the first and last time the defendant had a handprint on the case. He did not respond to discovery requests or appear for a deposition. Eventually Naros moved for a default judgment and an order to compel discovery.

At that point, the attorney for the defendant, William Strifert, admitted liability on behalf of his client. (The Court of Appeals had said in its 2009 opinion that the attorney hired by the insurance company represents the defendant as a matter of law, even if the defendant doesn’t participate in the case.)

Strifert conceded liability to avoid prejudice to the plaintiff, he said. “It was only fair to the plaintiff to admit liability,” he told Minnesota Lawyer.

Due to that admission, the trial court denied the motion for a default judgment. “I was told by the court I would have to try the case to an empty chair,” Naros said.

“It seems to me that negates the default judgment rule in Rule 37,” she said. The rule provides, in pertinent part, that as a sanction for a discovery violation the court may issue an order “rendering a judgment by default against the disobedient party.”

So Naros proceeded to trial without a defendant but the jury was never told why there was an empty chair.

“In a pretrial ruling the judge prohibited me from making any kind of a big deal about the defendant’s absence. Not only do we have an empty chair, we can’t talk about why,” she said.

“It’s just not right. Everybody’s uncomfortable about not telling the truth to the jury,” she added.

However, the plaintiff still got a good result at trial, Naros said. The verdict was more than four times the Rule 68 offer, she said.

The defense put on one witness, an independent medical examiner, who testified that the plaintiff’s injuries were pre-existing.

Naros said that a cursory look at the medical records would say that the injuries were pre-existing. But the plaintiff’s witness, Dr. Kris Huber, the treating chiropractor, provided a good explanation of how the new injury added to the old one, Naros said. “He had true caring and compassion for his patient. He spent a day and a half at court.”

The plaintiff had large medical bills and made a good witness, Strifert said. The jurors could have drawn a negative inference from the defendant’s absence, even though they were instructed not to, he said. “Kris Naros did a very good job with the case, and she got a very good result,” he said.

“The important thing is,” Naros said, “if you hang in there, you reach the right outcome.”

View original article here.