We all recognize that the failure to repay one’s mortgage loan can result in the foreclosure of the loan and eviction from one’s home. It has been a painful reality for many homeowners for many years and, of course, for a whole lot of families in Minnesota and across the country over the past ten years in particular. It’s not a lot of fun for the lenders either and, belief it or not, it is hard on the lenders’ lawyers too.
Unfortunate Minnesotans faced with these hard circumstances are lucky to have the likes of attorney Christina M. Snow helping mortgage lenders and mortgage servicers, working things out as best as possible with borrowers, in these challenging times. She brings expertise and humanity to the table in sometimes extremely challenging situations.
Where did you go to law school and how has your career path been?
William Mitchell College of Law. I graduated in 2005. Then I spent one year at a firm now called Tarrant & Liska in St. Paul. I did a wide variety of things. Real estate work. Very little mortgage work. Estate planning. All sorts of things. And then I went to Wilford Geske & Cook in the fall of 2006.
And you are now a shareholder at Wilford Geske & Cook, congratulations!
Your practice is specific and specialized and relates 100% to representing mortgage lenders and servicers in residential mortgage foreclosures?
No. I’d say we are about 90% residential mortgage-related. But not everything that we do involves foreclosures. In fact, until the past year and a half, very little of what I did dealt with the actual foreclosure of a mortgage. There is typically some default or non-payment related component. That’s how our office gets the file. But even that is changing to some degree. We have maybe hundreds of files in the office where there may not even be a default, but there may be an issue with the mortgage that can jeopardize its security or position so my office gets involved on behalf of the mortgage company.
What is an example?
Right now, we have a property in southern Minnesota where the Le Sueur River has eroded to the point where the house is nine feet from falling in the river. County officials have gotten involved and are leading efforts to secure funding from the federal government to help offset the remediation costs to the home owners and satisfy outstanding liens. As a lien holder, our client might be the lynch-pin as to whether they can work out a deal.
What is the biggest surprise between your expectations of being a lawyer and the reality?
I did not anticipate — this speaks to what I, in particular, do — but also having many attorney friends and working in other areas…there are very few attorneys that come into peoples’ lives at a good point. We are employed to fix problems and it can be difficult to step into that position.
The interactions — I am very much “a people person” so I did not anticipate that the interactions could be as burdensome as they can be. As an attorney, you have to manage a lot of difficult relationships;, manage client expectations; figure out a way to work cooperatively with opposing counsel who are being difficult or unreasonable. Sometimes they are being completely reasonable but you are in such conflicting positions that it can still be difficult.
Obviously, you know that that there will be difficult interactions when you go to law school but I don’t know if anything adequately prepares you for those interactions and managing them all at the same time. Despite the fact that William Mitchell did a great job in giving me practical application and practical skills. Until you are actually in the position, I don’t think you can know how difficult that can sometimes be.
What is your day like?
Despite the fact that my practice is very specific, my days are varied quite a bit. Many days, though less and less these days, I start the day in court. That used to be a primary part of what I do. But having been at my job for eight years, there are less senior attorneys that are doing most of those court appearances now. So, a lot of what I do is research and writing. A lot of motion writing.
Because of what we do at Wilford Geske & Cook, we have a unique set-up. We have nine attorneys and approximately thirty staff. A lot of what I do is answer questions, figure out problems, address particular files that may take two minutes or four hours to figure out. I answer a specific question or address a specific issue and then the paralegal or legal assistant takes the answer and moves the case forward.
Do you miss showing up in court now that you are functioning more as a manager?
I do. Sometimes. Motion practice is my favorite thing. So I still do quite a bit of that. Do I miss eviction hearings? No. But I miss being out of the office. Days in the office can get long for me and I liked the variety of court appearances. But I am enjoying my new role.
Have you experience hostility by representing lenders in our current economic climate?
Yes. Not so much from opposing counsel. Truthfully, we have a fairly good working relationship with the majority of lawyers who represent borrowers. Most of them would tell you that we are a fairly easy firm to deal with. Other individuals in general, though, yes. Perhaps hostility isn’t the right word, but there are definitely times when the person on the other end of the conversation is wondering why I do what I do. The industry itself has been difficult, though it has been getting better from my perspective. We do what we can. Someone will be doing this job and we try to be compassionate and understanding of peoples’ misfortune in their difficult time.
Our job is not just about foreclosing peoples’ homes. We work to try to figure out what is right and we try to do what we can within the context of representing our clients, which is what we are ultimately required to do.
What is the worst part of your job?
That is where the rubber hits the road for most people. It is not fun to have conversations with people regarding leaving their homes. Despite all of the notices and the fact that they may have not been paying on their mortgage for a year or more, people are shocked that it is happening. It is a difficult piece of my work, for sure, but certainly more difficult for those having to leave their homes.
How big is the geographic scope of your firm’s work?
We practice in all 87 counties throughout Minnesota, the entire state. For a lot of initial appearances, evictions, or whatnot, we’ll hire local counsel to attend for us and only attend if things become contested. We also have licensed attorneys in Wisconsin and North Dakota.
If you could change an area of Minnesota law, what would it be?
In the area where I practice, in the past three years, there has been a requirement of “strict compliance” with the Minnesota non-judicial foreclosure statutes. I understand the rationale behind the rule and agree that borrowers’ rights need to be protected. But everyone makes mistakes. Some of the issues that now invalidate a foreclosure are difficult to stomach because I feel that there has typically been a component in any recovery that requires you to be damaged, and to the extent someone is not damaged by an error, I don’t know that there should be redress. But the requirement of actual harm has been taken out of the non-judicial foreclosure process.
What are the top three screw-ups that cause problems in non-judicial foreclosures?
They are all going to be typographical in nature or timing related; essentially scrivener’s errors that don’t impact or prejudice anyone’s rights with respect to the foreclosure. Service issues have become huge. If a borrower truly has not been served, that is a mistake. I would never deprive anyone of that notice. They can be difficult claims to defend. They all come down to “he said, she said” and can become expensive to litigate.
When was your last trial?
March, 2012. Jury trial. And I lost. In Hennepin County, before Judge Chu.
What were the issues?
The case involved a large real estate development deal. One person took out a loan from another person. That was what the plaintiff was arguing. My client felt that it was more of a partnership, a joint venture, where no repayment was required until “x, y, and z” happened.
So not your normal foreclosure work?
Right. It was really the same issues but I was arguing the other side this time.
You represented the defendant who got hit with a jury verdict? Yes.
With 20/20 hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently or was it just that there is risk in every trial?
It was the single most educational experience of my career. Ultimately it could have gone either way. But there were many reasons why we could have lost. I think I let myself be bullied and my confidence waned as a result. I should have been more assertive. That is what kept me up for a long time afterwards. I did not feel that I was the confident person that I typically am. I let myself be intimidated. It did not have to do with the trial itself but everything leading up to trial.
What advice would you give a junior lawyer about going to trial?
You can never be too prepared and you will never be able to bill for all of the time you put in. Just accept it. The mental time alone…if we could bill for all of the time, we’d all be millionaires.
Think about the trial from day one. That is imperative. It is easy to think about the day-to-day activities but you have to have an idea of the big picture.
What would be your advice to someone graduating from your law school now?
Figure out what type of lawyer you want to be. I don’t mean that by practice area, but do you want to work an 80-hour week to the detriment of every other aspect of your life? Are you the attorney who lives to work or who works to live? I think that can make a huge difference.
I have never been the attorney who wanted to live that kind of life and try to have a family. I always wanted to have a family. So, for me, that meant not working at a large law firm. It meant figuring out a different way. That does not mean that I don’t work hard. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have stress in my job. I certainly do.
If you could get on a soapbox to the Minnesota bar, what would you want to say?
For the most part, I appreciate the civility and understanding with which we practice law. I deal with attorneys in all sorts of jurisdictions. Many of my clients are attorneys. I hear lots of stories about other states’ bars and how they practice and we just don’t do that here for the most part, so I do appreciate that. So, do I have anything soap-box worthy to say to Minnesota lawyers? I don’t know.
How about to judges?
Be on time. A lot of court appearances we make are on “cattle call” kinds of calendars. To ask us to show up at 9 a.m. and not take the bench until 10:15 is not a good way for me to spend my morning.
And, “Read orders before signing them.” Because we do make mistakes. And I think there have been times where it would have been good to have been called out on a particular issue. We have had to go in and get amended orders because something was left out.
But there you are basically asking the judges to do you your work, no? You’re asking them to catch your typos?
That’s fair. I agree. But sometimes it’s opposing counsel or a pro se litigant going in for ex parte relief [editor’s note: that is, when a litigant goes to court without notice or the presence of its adversary or its adversary’s lawyer].
I have dealt with more ex parte or temporary relief orders than most lawyers in the state in recent years and I guess what I would want to say to Minnesota judges is, “Interpret the requests.” When this mortgage lending crisis started, ex parte orders were getting signed as a matter of course and, from my perspective, it was not always clear that the claimants were entitled to the relief sought. That is a more representative example of what I mean.
Truthfully, I think the judges in this state do a good job. There are cases I thought we should have won that we didn’t and vice-versa but I think the process really does work.
If you were not practicing law what would you be doing?
My husband and I would be investing in real estate, buying run-down houses, fixing them up, renting them out, selling them, those sorts of things. My husband works for an independent rep agency here in the cities and they rep various products. His bread-and-butter is mostly kitchens, kitchen cabinets, bath hardware. So we’re both kind of tied to housing and we both have an interest in real estate.[Previous Minnesota Litigator Profiles: Clayton Halunen, plaintiffs’ employment lawyer, consumer rights lawyer, Stephen L. Smith, straddling a civil and a criminal litigation practice, Kevin Dunlevy, Minnesota real property authority, Vildan Teske, consumer rights class action litigation and service members class actions, Jim Behrenbrinker, civil rights/excessive force cases, Eric Cooperstein, “ethics maven“, Mike Flom, Gray Plant’s General Counsel, Phil Gainsley, veteran solo civil litigator, John Halpern, collections, Elliot Olsen, foodborne illness litigation, Dave Potter, railroad industry litigator, Katherine Mackinnon, ERISA plaintiff’s lawyer, Kristine Boylan, international IP/Complex Litigation lawyer.]