Under the dark suits, every family lawyer has a history worth sharing. But how much do we really know about one another, beyond an attorney identification number and the name on firm letterhead?
So much of our work is about relationships. Taking a genuine interest an adversary’s story makes our otherwise difficult task more fulfilling. Many of us find ourselves in divorce court as a second career.
St. Paul family law attorney Victoria Taylor is a founding partner with the law firm of Taylor, Krieg & Reinke. She was raised in the Ozarks and moved to the Frogtown neighborhood when she was 12.
Taylor had a rough go of things as a child, with two working parents who struggled to make ends meet. At the same time, she is grateful that her parents ensured she was sent to the best school they could afford.
She was three months pregnant when she graduated from Hill-Murray. Her friends were “diverse in class, race, color, creed and everything in between.” Those friends, she says, “saved my life and provided for me when I had no other options.”
Taylor worked three part-time jobs while on MFIP and WIC. She found a career in cosmetology through the Ritter Beauty School in St. Paul.
Taylor found modest financial stability as she approached her mid-twenties, but divorce struck. She indicates she was blessed in finding an excellent divorce lawyer who was willing to work within her means. “I wanted to be like her when I grew up.”
Taylor eventually remarried. Her spouse supported her decision to enroll in college with an eye toward law school. Taylor obtained her law degree from William Mitchell in 2010.
She says her time as a hairdresser “cultivated and honed my gift for building trust in relationships and giving honest advice.” It has also served her well in dealing with the raw emotion of family court litigants.
Interestingly, when she was a young lawyer she assisted with a civil jury case. As the jury was seated, she recognized a former hair client in the front row. During a bench conference it became abundantly clear this was a conflict never before seen in the judge’s courtroom.
Ben Henschel is a well-known family law attorney in Minneapolis who grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Columbia Heights.
Henschel worked in corrections after he graduated from college. As a pre-med student with an interest in psychology, the idea of sitting in a basement lab for five years of graduate school didn’t appeal to him.
As a teenager, Henschel worked for his father’s family law practice. He says, “Because it seemed boring at the time, I swore to myself I would never be a lawyer.” A few years later, he found himself at the University of Minnesota Law School.
As Henschel graduated in 1991, a significant recession had hit. The legal market had tanked. He continued to work as a probation officer.
Six years later, Henschel found himself arguing a probation revocation in (then Hennepin County District Court) Judge Joan Ericksen’s chambers. After Judge Ericksen issued her decision she said, “Ben, you should really be a lawyer.” Henschel replied, “I am.”
Judge Ericksen offered Henschel a job as her law clerk.
Henschel didn’t actively choose family law after his time with Judge Ericksen. In fact, he was aiming toward commercial litigation. He happened to interview with several senior family attorneys at Moss & Barnett and it felt like a good fit.
Henschel says, “it turned out I was well prepared. … I didn’t fully appreciate how much I had picked up from [my dad] until I started practicing.”
Johanna Clyborne is a shareholder with Brekke, Clyborne & Rich in Shakopee. The one constant in her life has been the United States Army. She joined as a private just after her 17th birthday. Three decades later, her leadership and service continues in, and out of, the courtroom.
Clyborne comes from a military family. She is the child of a Vietnam veteran. She says, “PTSD, alcoholism and domestic violence … was alive and well” in her home growing up.
For a time, Clyborne and her husband lived in Los Angeles. She worked as an assistant director of admissions for a small university that was looking to expand into Minnesota. After her transfer, Clyborne was laid off because of market forces. She opted to go to law school.
Clyborne left the California National Guard but decided to rejoin the Army through the Minnesota National Guard. After graduating from the St. Thomas School of Law, she was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom for two years. She has since risen to the rank of assistant adjutant general.
In addition to her distinguished military service, Clyborne continues to focus on helping family litigants. “I didn’t choose it; I think it chose me,” she says. “I often joke the Army is a demanding mistress. But it helps me stay balanced and sift through what truly is important and what is not.”
Clyborne says her time in the Army has instilled confidence, a sense of leading others through chaos and to remain calm in the face of uncertainty and adversity.
On one such occasion, an OFP litigant brought the family dog to Clyborne’s office for an exchange. The rambunctious pooch broke free and burst into a nearby conference room — where another attorney was working with clients on an estate matter.
The chasing around the conference table (dog and three lawyers) left everyone in stitches.
After many years with another reputable Twin Cities family law firm, Zak Kretchmer recently struck out on his own. Born in New York, he is a former account manager for his father’s marketing firm and holds a master’s degree in business communications.
While in graduate school, Kretchmer took an intellectual property class. Motived by the practitioner/instructor’s ability to provide “guidance to those in need,” Kretchmer entered law school. “I thought it would be cool to be known as the marketing guy with a law degree,” says Kretchmer. “I had no real interest in practicing law until midway through law school.”
Kretchmer’s family law career took off after spending time with the Civil Division of the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office. “Before I knew it, I was doing expedited process child support hearings all day, every day.” Given that experience, he decided applying to family law firms made the most sense after graduation.
Kretchmer says his previous work in the business world keeps him in tune with prioritizing the interest of the “client/customer” and communicating without legalese, while watching the bottom line.
Interestingly, Kretchmer enjoys serving in a neutral capacity far more than as an advocate. “Advocacy can be fun, but the opportunity I have as a neutral to bring people together to reach a resolution is extraordinarily gratifying.”
Michelle Travers is a family law attorney with Henschel Moberg in Minneapolis. Travers has a long history in the legal profession, capped by her work as a lawyer.
Travers wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after she graduated from high school. She dropped out of community college after her first semester because of poor grades. She says her parents were “so disappointed” because she was “supposed to be the first of their generation to get a college degree.”
The next fall, Travers enrolled in the Minnesota School of Business to become a legal secretary – like her aunt. She found a job before she graduated, but quickly realized she wanted something different.
Travers went back to school to obtain her paralegal certificate. She went to work for a reputable family law attorney in the west metro and, after a time, felt the need to stretch herself even further. She had her eye on a law degree. Trouble was she didn’t yet have a college degree.
Travers enrolled in Bethel University’s adult accelerated program. Despite two young kids at home, she started picking away at credits and graduated with a degree in Organizational Leadership in 2008.
She was accepted into the Hamline Law School in 2010 and continued working full-time. Travers says she would study after her kids went to bed.
Travers earned her J.D. in 2014 and hasn’t looked back. She says “the natural fit for me was family law.” She knew she would be able to make the most positive impact in that area of practice.
Her time as a legal secretary and paralegal allowed the influence of some really good mentor lawyers to take hold. “I will be forever grateful for being able to learn from them.”
Jim Williamson founded his Chaska family law practice in September 2020. He has practiced exclusively in family law since 2004.
Williamson’s past involves a lot of “1’s and 0’s.” He is a former IT and network support specialist. He says, “Although I enjoyed the work, it did not inspire me.” Williamson always had an itch to try law school and says he was hooked from day one and hasn’t looked back.
Working in a corporate environment helped Williamson learn how to work with a wide variety of people.
He says, “I was required to support everyone from all aspects of a corporation. Being able to navigate those waters and work with people from diverse backgrounds has been instrumental in working with clients from all walks of life.”
Many are not aware that Williamson was also in the Air Force, stationed in North Dakota. He notes that he is proud of his time in service, but does not miss the Grand Forks winters. “I know it gets cold here, but that is another level.”
Minneapolis family law attorney Amanda Sekula arrived in Minnesota about 15 years ago. She’s lived in the South, on the East Coast and in Europe.
Armed with dual degrees in French and International Finance, Sekula entered law school in 2007. At the time her (now) oldest daughter was 18 months of age. Sekula, without wanting to sound cliché, says “For as long as I can remember, I wanted to become an attorney. I just knew it would be part of my journey.”
When she entered law school, Sekula felt a pull toward corporate transactional work. Then, she went through a divorce. Everything changed. She saw where “holes in the system were” and that fueled her passion for family law.
In her “first career,” Sekula worked in corporate America. She says having that experience has helped her with managing her own law firm. Sekula notes that working for herself was the “only way to go for me and my family.”
Tony Toepfer is a solo practitioner in the St. Cloud area. He will soon add an associate attorney because of the success of his practice. His URL? www.atonyatlaw.com.
Toepfer indicates he matured with a lot of aptitude and ambition, but no sense of direction. He says he grew up in an environment where everyone knew what they wanted to be. He changed majors six times in college and suggests he went to law school “to delay real life.”
Toepfer knew he wanted to be self-employed and engaged in a profession where he wasn’t doing the same thing every single day. He says, about family law, “every case is wildly different and I never get bored.”
The route to family law wasn’t a straight line for Toepfer. He started at a big firm, working on oil and gas title issues. “The pay was great, but it was mind numbingly boring and soul sucking.” He went in-house for a while and then relocated to central Minnesota. After trying divorce on for size, he was hooked.
Having worked in sales for Dell Computers, he feels at home with the selling aspect of a lawyer’s work. Toepfer says he will always remember taking on a case involving neighbors switching spouses and houses. A found A and B found B. “They are still great friends.”
You won’t find that in gas and oil.
Jason Brown is a shareholder with Barna, Guzy & Steffen, Ltd. in Coon Rapids. In addition to his work as a divorce lawyer, Jason provides mediation services for family court litigants. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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