Following a tumultuous 2017, the motto for the Bruno Law firm, circa 2018, might well be “The family that litigates together, stays together.”
The Golden Valley-based firm now runs firmly on the “family model” for operating a law practice, following a double-merger of sorts in 2017.
First in the order of mergers: the conjugal tying of the knot between firm principals Fred Bruno and Carolyn Agin Schmidt. The couple, both prominent criminal defense attorneys in their own right, slipped away to Croatia in May for a wedding ceremony.
Samantha “Sammi” and Steve Foertsch, daughter and son-in-law respectively of Carolyn, accompanied them on their matrimonial journey to the Balkan stronghold – a land of ancestral resonance to Carolyn and home to her other daughter, Alexandra.
The wedding proved more popular among their American friends than either Fred or Carolyn anticipated when they mailed out what they assumed were destined to be mostly perfunctory invitations. The wedding guest list swelled well beyond expectations when about 30 of the couple’s friends from their homeland showed up at the village church on the blessed day.
Judges, county attorneys, fellow lawyers and even some police officers numbered among the attendees who crossed the Atlantic for the wedding. Some were past clients who have become personal friends, says Fred.
Fred, Carolyn and family sojourned in Croatia for a few days after the wedding, savoring the time together. “It’s the first time the four of us have gone on vacation together,” Carolyn says.
Daughter Alexandra’s time with the family probably doesn’t count as vacation time, since she lives in Dubrovnik. That Alexandra didn’t become a lawyer surprised Carolyn. In fact, Alexandra and Sammi kind of switched tracks somewhere along the way. Sammi always had an interest in writing and communications growing up, whereas the more voluble and demonstrative Alexandra seemed more likely to follow her mother into the law. An internship at the Neighborhood Justice Center in St. Paul changed Alexandra’s course, however. She decided against going into law – and now she’s established herself as a freelance journalist and travel blogger.
Sammi majored in communications and business for her undergraduate work at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, then decided to pursue a law degree at Mitchell Hamline. She met her future husband, Steve, while both were students in Collegeville, but nothing clicked romantically between them until they rediscovered each other as law students in St. Paul.
Carolyn and Fred have their own slow-to-burn story as well. Even though they both officed in the stately Colonnade II mid-rise office tower overlooking I-394 in Golden Valley for years, they only met by chance at a Christmas party that the landlord put on for tenants one year. “I’ve been in the building for 20 years,” Carolyn says. “Fred used to just walk by me in the hall.”
That all changed after that fateful Christmas party, which started the sparks flying and ultimately led to the Croatian celebration last spring.
On their return home from the Balkan idyll, the couple moved forward on plans to merge their practices.
Combining offices made sense on paper, with or without the marriage agreement. Both Fred and Carolyn had built up their practices through decades of hard, independent work. Over the years, they had worked together occasionally, as when they represented co-defendants. And the idea of passing the torch on at some point had crossed their minds.
Even then, there were cross-familial ties in place between the two practices – Sammi has worked for Fred since she graduated from Mitchell Hamline Law School in 2013. She handles the firm’s appellate law practice, does all the writing and research for casework, and represents clients in state and federal court.
Steven looked to be an up-and-coming criminal defense attorney in his own right, having spent several years working for a firm in St. Cloud since his 2013 graduation from Mitchell Hamline. A law-school stint as a law clerk with the Minnesota 4th Judicial Court (Hennepin County), working specifically for Judges William H. Koch and Lyonel Norris, laid to rest any doubts he had about pursuing a career as a criminal lawyer. He liked being in court, and he liked working for the underdogs of society.
“Criminal law is where the rubber meets the road,” he recalls Koch telling him.
If Steve joined the firm, he could take on some of the case load from Fred and Carolyn, and of course give the firm an opportunity to expand. Most importantly, Steve was part of the family, and could be expected to stay on even as Fred and Carolyn might some at some point in the future decide to take a few more days off.
“Between Carolyn and myself, we have a combined 70 years of building a practice,” says Fred. “With the family model, we can now pass this knowledge along – because that’s the basis of a law practice.”
For Sammi and Steve, the opportunity to work with such an experienced and successful legal duo as Carolyn and Fred seems almost too good to be true. “We’re still learning the ropes,” says Sammi. “We can rely on their [Fred’s and Carolyn’s] expertise to learn the rules.”
“I think it’s impossible for us to separate what we have as lawyers from the mentoring and support that [Fred and Carolyn] give us,” says Steve.
The rules, as Fred and Carolyn are quick to point out, of running a successful law practice go well beyond being a good lawyer. “A lot of criminal lawyers don’t make it when they go out on their own, because they couldn’t do the business right. Because they couldn’t collect the fees,” Carolyn observes.
Both Carolyn and Fred land most of their business by word of mouth, which equates to maintaining a vast and ever-expanding network of contacts. “We have relationships with judges, lawyers, county attorneys, fire fighters, police officers,” says Fred. He’s established himself as the go-to defense lawyer for many police officers in the state who run into legal problems on the job, so the police contacts are very important to him.
He also maintains relationships with a huge national cross-section of experts who can shine a discerning light on various aspects of legal processes. “Knowing which experts to go with is critical,” he says. Knowing whom to call in for computer forensics expert testimony has become a huge factor in recent years, he notes — and he’s made getting to know the talent in that field a priority. “It’s taken 30 years to know how to answer the question, ‘Who you gonna call?’” he says.
“We do a lot of extra-curricular things, too,” Carolyn adds, such as speaking at seminars and symposiums sponsored by organizations such as the Criminal Justice Institute.
Carolyn notably involved herself with the Minnesota chapter of the Association of Criminal Lawyers for a number of years, serving on the board and as president. She helped lead the association’s efforts to enact criminal law reform in the state, working in particular to change state law on criminal record expungement. The law was changed to allow for ex-convicts who have repaid their debt to society to have their court cases sealed. Doing so makes it easier for those individuals to re-enter society successfully, she says.
“She [Carolyn] brought the association into maturity and made it successful,” Fred observes.
A large part of her current practice involves expungements, she says. “And we have a ton of cases involving people who are not citizens of the U.S.,” she says.
Having two powerhouse attorneys, long accustomed to operating independently, join forces didn’t happen by conjugal happenstance. “We looked at the merger of our firms every which way you can imagine,” Carolyn says. It had to make good business sense, first and foremost, and only after resolving all the technical issues did it come down to the nitty-gritty details: what to call it and who was going to be in charge.
“Fred said, ‘l’m the boss,’” Carolyn says. And she was fine with that, especially since she was already starting to step back from her own practice a bit. And given Fred’s high profile as a criminal lawyer, renaming the firm didn’t make a lot of sense either. Steve, looking into that distant future when Fred may be more content to hang around with Carolyn at one of their two off-campus homes (Fred had a place in Telluride, Carolyn owned a house in Duluth), and hand over the reigns to the younger generation, exclaims: “He [Fred] is crazy if he thinks I’m going to take the Bruno out of the firm!”
Fred sees the advantages of an expanded team paying early dividends. “We had big federal case recently. While Steve and I were working it in the courtroom, Sammi was back at the office, the ghost in the machine, turning out the pleadings.”
It sounds like it’s going to be a tough combination to beat, for some time to come.