Attorneys of the Year: Jonathan Schmidt and Tara Reese Duginske
Posted: 1:10 pm Mon, February 25, 2013
By Holly Dolezalek
Briggs & Morgan
Jonathan Schmidt and Tara Reese Duginske are business litigation lawyers in the Appellate Practice section at Briggs & Morgan. They have full caseloads: Schmidt works mainly on railroad cases, while Reese Duginske focuses on utility litigation. But it’s what they do together in pro bono work that sets them apart.
A couple of years ago, Schmidt and Reese Duginske helped to start a pilot project with Hennepin County’s public defender program. With budget cuts hindering public defenders’ ability to handle every case, the two worked with the Minnesota State Bar Association’s Appellate Practice Section to put together the Appellate Public Defender Pilot Program.
They recruited some of the biggest firms in the area to encourage their lawyers to handle appeals in criminal trials. Coordinating with the public defender, they would identify issues for appeal, write briefs and prep oral arguments for the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court. Everyone would win: clients, the public defender’s office, and attorneys who were looking for more courtroom experience.
“The public defender had a pro bono program, but you had to know whom to contact, and they still had to do a lot of the heavy lifting,” said Schmidt, a shareholder in the firm. “With this program, the participating firms help with the work and take on the financial burden of filing and copying.”
The project got off the ground in 2010, and the number of firms participating has doubled. Today, as the pool of volunteer attorneys continues to expand, Schmidt and Reese Duginske act as matchmakers between new participants who may not have as many resources as the big firms and mentors who can help guide them through their cases.
They have also created a training program in conjunction with the public defender’s office that will be offered this fall to potential volunteer attorneys. The training will cover the program itself and the criminal appellate process.
Schmidt mentors other participating attorneys, although he’s careful to advise without interfering. “I’ve reviewed drafts of briefs and helped attorneys to prep their oral arguments, but I tell them, this is your case,” he said.
Although efforts continue to fully fund the public defender’s office, Reese Duginske, a fourth-year associate with Briggs & Morgan, said that the program will continue to be valuable. “Even if they were fully staffed, this program could continue to provide a benefit,” she said. “If nothing else, it keeps up the awareness among civil attorneys that this is a vital need, and it gets volunteer attorneys on their feet arguing before the appellate court.”
The two joke that they’re practically the same person. Schmidt and Reese Duginske have both done fundraising for the Legal Aid Society at Briggs & Morgan, and Reese Duginske is still the co-chair for fundraising among Twin Cities law firms for Legal Aid. Reese Duginske is on the Pro Bono Committee while Schmidt is on the Recruiting and Technology committees. Each has written a chapter for the 8th Circuit Appellate Practice Manual, and both are recipients of the firm’s Outstanding Pro Bono Service Award.