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Walter Lehmann
Walter Lehmann is a solo practitioner with clients around the country. (Submitted photo)

Breaking the Ice: Drawn to museums, lawyer finds his niche

Walter Lehmann’s practice includes employment, tax and business matters, among other familiar areas, but in an uncommon context — museum law.

Working as outside legal counsel, Lehmann also focuses on legal and ethical issues related to collections at museums and historical societies. He specializes in intellectual property, addressing issues related to licensing and other items, and cultural heritage laws such as the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

“I’ve always been interested in museums and history,” said Lehmann, whose mother was an art historian at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. “I love working with objects, and as a lawyer you rarely get to do that.”

In January, the Mitchell Hamline School of Law alum returned to teach a short course on museum law, the fourth year he has done so.

Lehmann, a solo practitioner with clients around the country, also works in media and entertainment law, reviewing documentary and feature films and TV series for fair use issues. He is expanding into professional valuation and appraisal services for collectors and museums.

Name: Walter Lehmann

Title: Managing partner, Lehmann PLC

Education: B.A., English literature, Williams College; M.A., museum studies, George Washington University; J.D., William Mitchell College of Law

Q: Best way to start a conversation with you?

A: Ask me what museum law is.

Q: Why law school?

A: I was an English major in college and studied poetry. I enjoy working with language. Communicating complex ideas and drafting agreements to memorialize understandings and relationships, that’s really what a lawyer does.

Q: What are you reading?

A: “When Money Dies” by Adam Fergusson. The full title is “When Money Dies: The Nightmare of Deficit Spending, Devaluation and Hyperinflation in Weimar Germany.” It was originally published in 1975, during another period of high inflation. I have a personal interest in the Weimar because my father’s family came to the United States from Germany in 1935. “The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France” by James McAuley. It’s about assimilation and anti-Semitism in the decade leading up to World War II. It deals with, I think, five wealthy Jewish families in in France, who collected French art. They weren’t originally from France, but they were collecting French art to try to show that they were really French.

Q: Pet peeve?

A: Social media, which I don’t think is either social or real media.

Q: Best part of your work?

A: Helping my clients meet their goals and solve their problems. That’s very satisfying. So much of lawyering is about listening and figuring out what the problem is.

Q: Most challenging?

A: Keeping up with technology and having to wear all these hats, including the technology hat, which I have no clue about.

Q: Favorite activity away from work?

A: I love watching old movies, particularly film noir, crime movies.

Q: Where would you take someone visiting your hometown?

A: I consider St. Paul and Minneapolis my hometown. I grew up in Minneapolis. I’ve lived in St. Paul for a while. I would take them to Pike Island, which is the confluence of the Mississippi and the Minnesota Rivers. To me, it’s the center of all things in Minnesota. I find that a lovely place.

Q: Misconception that others have about your work?

A: That all lawyers are litigators, and I don’t think that’s the case at all. I’ve only been in a court hearing twice in my life. The first time was straight out of law school after I passed the bar. A high school friend called up and said her husband had a moving traffic violation and could I come down to the courthouse and help him out? I went down there and talked to the judge but at the end of it, I was afraid both of us were going to be thrown in jail.

Q: Favorite book, movie or TV show about lawyers?

A: “Made You Look” about the Knoedler Gallery in New York. It’s now bankrupt. But it’s a fascinating look at the art business and forgeries and authentication of artwork.

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