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Balancing act: 22 legislators practice law to some degree

Dan Heilman//May 16, 2023

The Minnesota State Capitol building

The Minnesota State Capitol building (File photo)

Balancing act: 22 legislators practice law to some degree

Dan Heilman//May 16, 2023

Minnesota’s 201 state legislators, you might not be surprised to learn, all have other professions, ranging from farmer to chiropractor to mechanical engineer.

At present, 22 Minnesota legislators also maintain a law practice to some degree. Those who do so say there are burdens and rewards to managing both jobs at once.

According to colleagues, Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, is one lawyer who finds time for trials even during the legislative session. Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton, a partner with Grell Feist in Minneapolis, is also one of the brave ones who keeps both gigs going full throttle.

“I never considered suspending my practice,” she said. “You don’t make much money being a legislator. There’s also the fact that I love immigration law. I never had any intention of changing my practice. There happened to be an open seat in my district, so I felt like the moment sort of called for me to try to do both. My plan was to bring my immigration law expertise into the Legislature.”

Sen. Michael Kreun, R-Blaine, is in-house counsel for ECMC Shared Services Co., a nonprofit student loan guarantor in Minneapolis. He’s found the best way to manage the professional balancing act is by easing back on his legal work while the Legislature does its business.

“I went in-house in 2019, managing litigation,” he said. “That’s a pretty big job. But the structure of it allows me to do both by going part-time during the session. I’ll ramp up my hours again once the session is over.”

The day job of Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, is assistant attorney for Hennepin County, where she specializes in domestic violence cases. At least, she was. With committee assignments and a growing family, Becker-Finn recognized that the demands of her work at the Capitol meant she would have to let her work for the county go for the time being.

“I’m still technically a county employee, but once I was named chair of the Judiciary Committee, I don’t actively practice,” she said. “Especially with the nature of working in a prosecutor’s office, being gone half the year makes it hard when you don’t know how long a case is going to take.”

From left: Sandra Feist, Michael Kreun, Jamie Becker-Finn
From left: Sandra Feist, Michael Kreun, Jamie Becker-Finn

One advantage of the lawyer-legislator hybrid is the ability to bring legal expertise to the Capitol. Feist, whose specialty is immigration law, got a bill passed to create more strict timelines and requirements of response around visa certification. The bill requires law enforcement agencies to more timely process a specific immigration-related request from victims of certain crimes who are foreign nationals.

“Right now I’m working on a bill that passed the House floor and would change the definition of gross misdemeanor by one day,” she said. “Now some gross misdemeanors are classified as aggravated felonies under immigration law. That makes the offense almost automatically deportable. We can avoid that by making the maximum sentence 364 days instead of 365.”

The most obvious benefit for Kreun is in his work on the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.

“There are so many legal issues, and I try to use my skills there to ask good questions,” he said. “It helps me get to the heart of the matters we’re discussing.”

In Becker-Finn’s case, it’s softer skills that are most transferable.

“Attorneys don’t shy away from conflict, and that’s helpful in the Legislature,” she said. “They also know how to speak on the fly. Sometimes it’s almost like a cross-examination vibe in there, especially in a committee.”

The challenges of managing dual professions are manifest. Feist said she’s had to staff up to keep things running smoothly at her firm

“My first term was during COVID, so I was able to be more physically present at my firm, doing more hands-on work,” she said. “This term, I’ve staffed up to where I can supervise and step in when a client needs extra attention. But for the most part my team is able to do the day-to-day things.”

The hardest part for Kreun is the unpredictability of the work schedule that comes with being a senator.

“It’s hard to know exactly when you’re going to be available to do your outside work because you don’t get much notice about when floor sessions are going to start, or what bills will be under discussion,” he said. “Fortunately I have a supportive employer, and the job can be somewhat flexible because I don’t have court dates to worry about. When I was in private practice, it would have been much harder to juggle that.”

Becker-Finn supplements her Legislature income by teaching a class on legislative process at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. Between those two commitments and grade school-aged kids, that’s about all her schedule can handle.

“I can’t do my best for client when I’m being pulled in a hundred different directions,” she said.

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