There are not many Minnesota civil litigators in private practice with as specific of a focus and practice area as Kristine Kubes.
Kristine is a construction litigator and, even more focused than that, she specifically represents design and construction professionals – contractors, architects, engineers, interior designers – “one side of the table,” as she calls it.
ML: Tell our readers how you got to be where you are today.
Kristine: I am a native of Minneapolis, Minnesota. I graduated from the College of St. Catherine in Saint Paul, with a double major of English and Political Science. I use my English degree every day, because I’m in the business of communication and have become an effective communicator as well as an effective listener.
Then I got accepted to the University of Minnesota Law School, and deferred my entrance for a year so that I could work and save money to pay for my education.
ML: What did you do for that year of work?
Kristine: I worked at St. Kate’s. While in college, I had worked in the Special Services department as part of my work-study program, first as a waitress and then was promoted to an assistant conference coordinator. I stayed on full-time for one year after I graduated, and saved all the money that I was earning so that I could pay for my law school education.
ML: When did you attend the University of MN law school?
From 1987 to 1990. At Christmas of 1988 my mother died, right in the middle of law school, so that was no easy thing. I remember at the time that my mother was sick and dying, I felt like my whole life was going to derail. Everything felt up in the air. But I was able to finish law school on time.
Then I went to work as a law clerk for Judge Doris Huspeni on the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Judge Huspeni has been my advisor and mentor since I was a teenager and first discerned that I wanted to become an attorney. I knew her through our parish. She is a consummate professional and has been an extraordinary role model.
When I left the court in 1992, I went to France for a semester to teach and work on my language fluency. When I returned home at Christmas, I discovered my father had fallen ill. He died five weeks later. So I have been without my parents since I was 28.
Shortly after that, Judge Fred Norton called me from the Court of Appeals. He’d heard that I was home from France and that my Dad had died. He had a mid-year opening for a law clerk and he offered me a job. We worked well together. He was only a few years away from the mandatory retirement age when I started working for him. About six months into my clerkship, Judge Norton said, “‘Til retirement do we part, Kristine?” I agreed and stayed as his law clerk until he retired, then just finished off my last clerkship year with Judge Robert Schumacher. These years at the MN Court of Appeals were critical to my formation as an attorney. Being courteous, on-time to court, well-prepared, humble, and deferential to the court. These qualities became part of my fiber.
My first job after the court was in private practice at the small construction boutique, Thomas R. Olson & Associates in St. Paul.
ML: As soon as you went off to the Olson Firm in St. Paul, that was the start of your construction focused career?
Kristine: That is correct. But I had never heard of construction law in law school. I went to law school to be a family lawyer. But my work at the court of appeals was initially about 60% family law and child protection cases. I started getting angry because of how poorly people treated one another and their children. I came to realize that I would not be able to sustain myself in family law, because I’m a tender-hearted woman. I thought, “I am going to either go emotional flat line, or I’m going to become a raging, mean, angry person.” I did not want to lose myself. So I examined my “personal tool belt” and identified what my skills and strengths were, and started considering what else could I do with my career.
When I discovered construction law, it felt like the perfect fit. I come from a construction family. My dad was a carpenter. I was raised in his workshop. He’d say, “You can come in and watch we work. You have to stand still. Don’t touch anything and don’t talk.” So I stood still, didn’t touch anything, and didn’t talk. But I learned an awful lot. My dad died before I ever became a construction lawyer, but the lessons he taught me are key to my practice and my success.
ML: What percentage of your work is litigation?
Kristine: Probably 60% litigation, 40% transactional and corporate advising. Plus I mediate other people’s cases.
ML: What kind of cases do you mediate?
Kristine: Design and construction disputes. Since I was young, I seem to be good at helping people hear one another – which is very helpful in mediation, to help parties get to resolution.
ML: You focus specifically on representing professionals, which is to say, architects, design professionals … What other kinds of professionals?
Kristine: I represent the contractor, the architect, the engineer, and the interior designer. I wanted to choose one side of the table in the construction arena. You’ve got the owner/lender side and the design/construction side.
ML: Is it fair to say that in most of your cases there are many different parties?
ML: And so that makes these cases enormously complicated sort of from the get-go, right?
Kristine: Correct. Construction cases, generally, are complicated factually. And they’re complicated based on the relationships involved. One might think that there’s a clear delineation between the parties, but oftentimes the parties are entangled. For instance, an owner may hire a general contractor, who then takes a portion of its work and hires it out to a sub on a design-build basis. The result is that a sub will also have a design professional working for that sub to design that scope of work for the sub to perform. It’s fascinating, but it’s complicated.
ML: Are these cases generally document intensive? I would think with all the contracts and work orders and change orders and just the amount of documentation is enormous for any significant construction project.
Kristine: Documentation in construction cases is extensive. It is a prime example of how technology impacts litigation. Consider how many devices employees might have for communicating – via text, email, instant messaging. Plus often software platforms manage construction data, or capture, or exchange it. The technology today makes document production exponentially more complicated and expensive than in the past. To manage it and search it, you really have to be strategic in figuring out what you need to find.
ML: As a small firm, it seems to me that’s a particularly difficult challenge. You don’t have an IT department or an in-house technologist, do you?
Kristine: We have an IT contractor that works with our firm regularly and has set up our whole system. But we contract out for document management services in large cases.
ML: You mentioned earlier that construction is a male-dominated business. I don’t think there’s a lot of controversy about that proposition. Have you felt at any time sort of disadvantaged or challenged by that?
Kristine: I wouldn’t say I’ve ever felt disadvantaged by gender. I don’t let that happen. But I have felt impacted, if you will. I don’t let it get me down, but when you are the sole female in a room with a group of male counterparts, even though we are in 2017, it’s remarkable how unenlightened some people can still be. I’ll just leave it at that.
In the past, I often encountered the expectation that the female would get the coffee, take the meeting minutes, go fetch whatever was needed. I experience much, much less of that today. But I never know how it’s going to go when encountering a new environment, so am always prepared not to react, and to use the moment for an education opportunity, if necessary.
ML: Tell me about your how you set up your firm:
Kristine: In the beginning, I was a solo practitioner with my husband, Michael Callaghan, as my office manager/Guy Friday. We had a part-time paralegal and a bookkeeper. We just celebrated our 8th anniversary as Kubes Law Office, PLLC on June 1. Michael and I are now thrilled to have Mary Schwind with us part-time as special counsel – she just joined us in February – and Dana McNamara, our full-time paralegal. Plus we have a team of four other lawyers who work with us on contract as needed. These are – first and foremost – wonderful people. In addition, they are great team members for whom I am so very grateful.
ML: If you weren’t practicing law, what would you be doing if you could do anything?
Kristine: My husband and I would be traveling a lot to Italy and France, because we love it there. I would be running a restaurant where the main feature would be homemade pie, because making pie is my thing! I would do volunteer work around cooking, helping young people gain cooking skills. And I would love being at home, working in my garden, cooking for my husband, family, and grandkids. Home is our safe haven.
ML: Do you do any mentoring in context of your work?
Kristine: I do a lot of mentoring.
ML: What kind of mentoring do you do?
Kristine: On a regular basis, I do most of my mentoring through the American Bar Association Forum on Construction Law. I serve in the national leadership of that organization and encounter many young professionals who are starting their careers, looking for direction. Mentoring happens organically through the Forum, because we’re working on projects together in committee. I have the opportunity to serve my committee members, as we get to know one another and the doors open for answering their questions. They will call to ask, “what do you think … how do I handle this.” Mentoring has been a real joy for me, to support these people as they have sought leadership opportunities and grow their professional skills.
The other main area for mentoring happened after I took the leap and created my own firm. I have mentored several people as they were exploring their own possibilities and their own futures. I am also sensitive to the fact that I have a natural opportunity for mentoring women in the law, because it is a male-dominated field. Even though law school enrollment is near parity, that parity does not exist in firm environments or in firm leadership.
So I’m that person with the open door. I have had many, many colleagues come and sit in the big chair in my office and talk things out – be it a problem situation in the office, a problem with work environment, an challenging opponent – whatever it might be. I listen. Help sound out options. Lend support. Sometimes a person just needs to know that s/he has someone in his/her corner. That person is often me.
At the root of all of this mentoring and support is my gratitude for the mentoring I received from Judge Huspeni and others throughout my career, so I am keenly aware of the finding those opportunities to give back/pay it forward.
ML: If somebody came to you today and said, “I’m newly minted college grad and I’m looking at law school,” What advice would you give them, if any?
Kristine: You need to want to do something good with yourself as a lawyer. You have to make sure that there’s something fueling you, feeding your spirit to get you through the rough patches. That’s the number one thing. Often people go into law thinking it is like “L.A. Law.” In reality, it’s a lot of hard work and it takes a lot of what I call “personal capital” – confidence, humility, courage, faith, integrity, strength, energy.
ML: Do you have a preferred forum for construction disputes? By which, I mean state court, federal court, or arbitration, or maybe you can get more specific than that?
Kristine: I prefer litigation as a general rule, because we have the civil rules that we can ask the court to enforce, if necessary, and the court’s calendar keeps the parties moving things forward. Arbitration is very helpful when you have a complicated case that would benefit from a construction-educated panel making the decision.
ML: You have the preference between state or federal court?
Kristine: I have no preference. I practice more in state court.
ML: Tell me about your work with the Minnesota professional licensing board.
Kristine: Minnesota has one board that licenses architects, engineers, land surveyors, landscape architects, geo-scientists and interior designers. The Board has 21 members total, five of which are public members, meaning the public is involved in developing licensing rules and statutes, disciplinary decisions, and standard board operations. Such transparency is a great testament to the state of Minnesota. Governor Pawlenty appointed me to serve as a public member on the Board for two terms, from 2005 to 2013. During the course of my service, the Board elected me to serve as Chair for two years, which was the first time in the Board’s 80+ year history that they had elected a public member as Chair. I was honored to serve in that capacity.
ML: I often offer people this sort of soapbox of my blog for any message you might have for Minnesota civil litigators, if any. Any thoughts or a message you would want the community to have, to know.
Kristine: Civility and professionalism are critical elements to our practice. We all do well to remember to keep things civil in civil practice. I am proud of our MN construction bar, because we are a very collegial bar. And that is because those of us who have been around awhile know that today, you and I may be opposed to each other, but tomorrow, we may be on the same side of the table. It does not serve anyone well to jump to conclusions, be dramatic, make unjustified accusations, etc. In the end, that type of conduct often leads to a lack of trust and distances a lawyer from colleagues, which ends up disserving the client.
ML: If I’m an architecture firm, tell me the top three things that you would advise me to protect myself from litigation or construction disputes.
Kristine: Well, I am not giving legal advice, as every situation is unique, but as a general rule, if you’re an architecture, engineering, or design firm, or a construction firm, I can tell you that the number one risk management tool is a good contract. It’s remarkable how often companies do not attend to their contracts. Or do not take the time to walk through the contract with their contracting party to make sure that they understand the terms. If the parties don’t understand the terms, the contract not going to be able to work for you. I do a lot of proactive counseling on contracting issues.
Number two risk management tool is communication. Communication is critical in any company, and having good communicators in charge and in the field is critical.
Third key risk management tool is document management. A case, a claim, an issue will succeed or fail based on whether a party has the documentation to establish it. Without that, the party is flung into a “he said, she said” situation, which is nothing more than a guarantee for a large bill for the litigation. It takes a lot of money to try and figure out who said what, when the case involves dueling words and differing recollections. Get the documents needed in place, get the signatures required, and then store the documents in a safe and accessible place, so available when needed.
So those are my three key points: a solid contract; good communication; and project document management.[Previous Minnesota Litigator Profiles: Rachhana Srey, plaintiff’s side wage-and-hour litigator, Eric Nilsson, banking/lending litigation, Roshan Rajkumar, products liability defense, Liz Kramer, Arbitration Maven/Author of Arbitration Nation, Bob Lear, Residential Real Estate Appraiser/Expert Witness, Tim Nolan, Lawyer/poet, Laurie Vasicheck, 25 year veteran of the Minneapolis office of the EEOC, Jake Holdreith, an IP litigator for “drug dealers” (better known as pharmaceutical companies), Pam VanderWiel, lawyer for Minnesota municipalities, Bill Dossett, Executive Director of Minnesota’s Nice Ride bike-sharing program, Christina Snow, lender/servicer real estate and foreclosure lawyer, Clayton Halunen, plaintiffs’ employment lawyer, consumer rights lawyer, Stephen L. Smith, straddling a civil and a criminal litigation practice (and later appointed to the Ramsey County District Court bench), 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,Karin Ciano, free-lance “federal sherpa,” Jerry Alcazar, products liability defense.]