Mr. Kenneth Udoibok’s passions, it seems, are justice and empowerment. He’s a 20+ year solo Minnesota litigator who focuses on criminal defense, police brutality, employment cases and insurance coverage cases. He fights for “the little guy.”
His story, his journey from Nigeria to the Minnesota, is extraordinary as he, himself, is. Our interview concludes with an obviously heart-felt and important message from Mr. Udoibok about our legal system, about fairness, and about the challenges we still face with regard to prejudice and bias.
ML: How did you get to where you are today?
Udoibok: I don’t know. Frankly, I think I have a very low self-esteem. I’m just kidding. No, how did I get here? I don’t know that it was calculated. It was happenstance.
ML: You’re a Nigerian man.
ML: You’re a Minnesota lawyer.
ML: You’re probably the only Nigerian man who’s a Minnesota lawyer, am I right?
Udoibok: No, there are many.
Udoibok: There are probably about 20 of us in Minnesota?
ML: How does that happen? How is it that you were born in Nigeria, and here you are, a Minnesota lawyer.
Udoibok: I don’t know. University of Minnesota and Wisconsin are big international draws. For me, I had a cousin who attended University of Wisconsin. No, he’s not my cousin. My mother’s first cousin, so he would be a second cousin, attended University of Wisconsin, Madison, and he studied forestry. He was a very funny man, nice guy. Of course, anything he did was the the best.
At a time in my life that was I was one of the civil rights student leaders in my junior college, it was called HSC, like two years above high school here. It was a bad thing to be an agitator against the military folks. I got wind that there would be a crackdown.
ML This was in Nigeria?
Udoibok: This is in Nigeria and this facilitated my desire to travel overseas. Madison was too expensive. I had another second cousin, who studied fisheries at University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, who was also related to my second cousin. I sent him my transcripts and I was sent a letter of admission. It was significantly cheaper than Madison, so I went to the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point.
ML: Your family is still, by family I mean your parents, still in Nigeria?
Udoibok: No, everyone is here. Between 1982 and today, everyone moved. My dad went back to Nigeria and he passed in Nigeria two years ago. That’s how I got here. I didn’t study law. I studied Film/ TV in college. I worked in television stations in Wisconsin. I think I was the first black news photographer in Wausau, African American … should I say Nigerian or African American? A black photographer in Wausau, Wisconsin. WAOW, Wausau. Then I left there to the big city of La Crosse. That was WKBT. Then I came to the cities, and went to KSTP Channel 5, Channel 9, and Channel 11.
ML: You have been a lawyer since 1995, is that right?
Udoibok: Yes. Compared to my age, I’m relatively young as a lawyer.
ML: I’m not sure what you mean by that.
Udoibok: I haven’t been practicing that long.
ML: 20 years?
Udoibok: Yeah, compared to some of my opponents. They’re usually 30 years or so. For me, it’s only 22. I’m still learning.
ML: Tell us your legal career path.
Udoibok: I went to Mitchell, now it’s called Mitchell Hamline College of Law. I worked for the law firm of Knutson, Flynn, Deans & Olsen as a law clerk and later worked for MNSCU as a legal relations representative. I never worked as a lawyer for a law firm until I opened my shop.
ML: Now at some point I thought I saw on your website that you were a prosecutor.
ML: In Duluth. How long did you do that?
Udoibok: That would have been 2007 through 2011. I was the head of the Juvenile and Social Services Prosecution, as well as as child protection prosecution.
ML: Then it was after that you’ve been on your own.
Udoibok: With some iteration of small partnerships.
ML: I have one associate who works with me. I am intrigued to hear your thoughts on partnering up with other lawyers, which you’ve done and then undone. What would be your advice to lawyers out there who are thinking of joining up with other lawyers?
Udoibok: I think, I would prefer a partnership over solo. I always do, because of the economy of scale. Also, it gets boring, just being by yourself. It’s hard. It’s good to have someone who will share in your causes. The difficult thing is the synergy, shared values, and shared aspirations. That’s difficult to find because that changes.
ML: What do you mean when you say shared values?
Udoibok: My last partnership, I thought it would have been a very good partnership in the sense that we narrowed the area of practice to a manageable scale. Marketing was easy. There were three of us. I had two full-time staff. I thought that was the just the start and that we would grow and add onto it. The problem that I ended up having was the other two lawyers were much younger than I am. In fact, one had been my law clerk before I left to go to Duluth. I came back and we became partners. But the insecurity of a solo, small practice, not all can withstand it or endure. So, one lawyer left to join Liberty Mutual, that’s more security. My other partner went with Medical Solutions, the marijuana group.
I can do small partnerships and not a large law firm because at my age. Money isn’t my driver. I need money to meet certain basic needs but I don’t desire that much. It will be hard for me to go to a large firm where I am expected to generate a lot of money.
The second issue is I’m always concerned with getting along with people. It matters. For me, that’s probably the most important thing. Am I going to enjoy the firm? Do I like these people? Do I enjoy them? Would I like to meet these people after work even though I’ve spent so much time with them at work? Would I miss not doing something with them in a month? I have relationships like that with people that if I haven’t seen them in a month, I’d call them and say, “Hey, where you’ve been?” They happen to be lawyers. I haven’t had a firm with that type of community. If you consider community and the money issue, that eliminates the possibility of joining any large organization for me. I don’t know that may not make sense to you.
ML: That makes perfect sense. You got into your practice area of excessive force and criminal law from your experience as Assistant St. Louis County Attorney’s Office, as Deputy County Attorney?
Udoibok: No, no, I’ve always, had that as part of my practice area. Remember it was because of civil rights that I left Nigeria. I’ve always done that. When I came out of law school, I was practicing mostly immigration and employment law. When I went to Duluth I didn’t do it anymore. I still had one or two community members that I would handle their immigration, excessive force, and employment law caes. I would dabble into first party claims, which is almost the same thing for me.
ML: What do you mean by First Party Claims?
Udoibok: Suing insurance companies for insurance coverage.
ML: How does that fit into your other areas of practice?
Udoibok: It’s empowering people. Insurance companies, next to government are some of the most powerful entities in the country. They have been responsible in driving the creation of so many laws that we follow and we don’t think about it: laws that affect any transportation means, plans, cars, boats—they impact all of our lives—but are influenced by insurance companies.
ML: You’d mentioned marketing earlier and I’m curious, what are your marketing efforts?
Udoibok: Marketing is very difficult because of the costs. My preference would have been content-based marketing. I think that’s the most effective but the hardest to do because it takes time.
ML: What do you mean by content-based marketing?
ML: Writing where?
Udoibok: Publications that lawyers read and also that your gate-keepers would read. In my case, say a Minnesota Lawyer, the MSBA Bench & Bar magazine, even blogging.
ML: What other kind of marketing do you do or do you wish you had time to do or money to do?
Udoibok: I would love to do radio. To a lesser extent, television.
ML: You mean advertising?
Udoibok: Both, you know, programming. Advertising in television but also getting a regular program about excessive force, employment discrimination but that takes time and money.
ML: Can you tell us what kinds of cases you’re working on?
Udoibok: In one, I have two plaintiffs now who are suing the United States by way of the Federal Tort Claims Act. The perpetrator is a United States probation officer, Dennis Bresnahan. There’s something in the Star Tribune about it.
ML: Remind us what his misconduct was.
Udoibok: Sexual misconduct, solicitation, and sexual abuse.
ML: Is it breach of the duty to supervise or negligent hiring or what is the claim?
Udoibok: You cannot sue an individual under Tort Claims Act, you sue the U.S. as the defendant, because there’s no respondeat superior doctrine for the federal government. You sue the federal government for the conduct of its official.
ML: And you’d mentioned also a wrongful death case. Can you tell us about that?
Udoibok: That’s the case I went up to the Eighth Circuit and back. It’s a case of deliberate difference. My client suffered some mental psychosis in jail. The county delayed providing him medical care for over 10 hours. They claimed they were going to give him medical service by extracting him from his jail cell. In the process he was crushed to death.
ML: Crushed by what?
Udoibok: Six, seven officers piled up on him.
ML: That’s going to be a jury trial?
ML: Before what judge?
Udoibok: U.S. District Court Judge Donovan W. Frank in federal district court here in Minneapolis. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kyle had it originally and dismissed everything. I then I appealed to the 8th Circuit and 8th Circuit reversed Judge Kyle. On remand, he recused himself. I don’t know why he did that but he didn’t explain and it was transferred to Judge Frank. He’s pretty good. He’s lets the lawyers try their cases. That’s my experience with almost all the federal judges, anyhow.
ML When was your last trial?
Udoibok: Last trial was in North Dakota last year. I believe was before Judge Tunheim as a conflict judge.
ML: What do you mean, a conflict judge?
Udoibok: My client developed a conflict with the panel in North Dakota.
ML: With all the federal judges in North Dakota?
Udoibok: Yes. There were allegations that my client wanted to harm a sitting federal judge, the public defender and the prosecutor. You can see why the entire panel would be conflicted. The 8th Circuit appointed Judge Tunheim.
ML: This was a criminal case?
ML: How did it go?
Udoibok: How do you expect it went? He was convicted.
ML: Have you, in the course of your career, been fairly stable and predictable, to the extent one can be, in trying cases, or have you been trying fewer cases as the years have gone by.
Udoibok: I think I’m trying less over time.
ML: Do you think that’s a function of your better lawyering? Is it that the cost of litigation or maybe the uncertainty of litigation has gone up? What are your thoughts on that?
Udoibok: I think I’m trying less civil cases because in criminal cases the stakes are usually so high you can’t afford not to try the case. The offers you’re given are usually high jail terms. With civil cases, the cost of litigation and the risk of the outcome compel resolutions on both sides, I think. Then again there are cases that normally would not go to trial that I am trying. Case in point was an employment case that I tried a year or two ago before Judge Frank. Nonetheless, there’s no reason that the case should have gone to trial. The defense attorney, either he didn’t do the analysis properly or failed on the empathy issue or couldn’t see why I would have brought the case.
ML: Did you say that was an employment case?
Udoibok: Yes. We got a plaintiff verdict at a substantial cost to the defense. I was asking for about 10% of what the jury ended up giving us. At that point, I couldn’t get to him. I didn’t get along with this lawyer. He was a terrible person. I like to say that…I’m just kidding.
ML: Do you do any mentoring work with younger lawyers?
Udoibok: I do. But I don’t have a system of getting them.
ML: It’s happenstance if somebody reaches out to you?
ML: What would you say to someone thinking about law school right now?
Udoibok: First, I would discourage them from going to law school.
Udoibok: It’s a lifestyle that most people don’t understand. Even if you’re successful, it’s a lifestyle of hard work. If I get a sense … my kids are really smart. None of them want to be lawyers even though I would like them to be lawyers. I like people who have developed an interest in an area other than law and then go to law school. Then you have expressed interest in something. You have a desire in something. Having a desire to practice law is very vague because law is just a vehicle for us to accomplish certain things in life. If I see someone in high school or in college that’s about to graduate or just graduated college and says I want to go to law school, I’d say don’t. Do something else first. Then go to law school.
ML: What advice do you give a hypothetical person who just graduated from law school?
Udoibok: That’s a tough one. What is it you want to do and why? It can’t be money. It shouldn’t ever be money. Unfortunately where you went to law school influences that position. Hopefully you can go to law school in a way that you would allow you to go to an area that you’re going to enjoy and want. I would have been a very terrible business lawyer. I don’t enjoy it but could you imagine if you have to work at a firm or work in that area? I’ve met lawyers who can’t afford to do what they enjoy. They have to pay their student loan and make life happen. If you’re just coming out of law school, depending what your debt load is, if it’s manageable, do something you will enjoy.
ML: If you could speak to the entire Minnesota bench and bar, is there anything you would say to them?
Udoibok: What you do is important. Your decision affects lives in fundamental ways. As a minority, as a black lawyer, fairness — and obviously that’s the opposite or antithesis of bias — fairness is such an important issue. Sometimes it is relative, right? The perception of what is just and fair. Personal world view. Over the years, this is something that I have struggled with. I don’t know if I’m going to get in trouble saying it, but it is the truth. If I could gather lawyers and judges in this state or around the country and have a one hour impactful comment from this Nigerian guy, solo practitioner, there’s a statement that we hear from certain lawyers that troubles me.
They’ll say that a firm is “a conservative law firm” or a judge is “a conservative judge” or they’ll say certain judges are hostile to individual rights…that for me is so disappointing. Because I have to go before you, judge, already knowing that that you’re hostile to individual rights…Or I have to appear before you, a judge widely thought to be hostile to corporate interests. If I am representing a corporation and I am going before that judge, it would be so disheartening.
As a black man, I have been dealing with biases. For example, I go trainings and the trainers try to teach me how to present an employment case, or how to defend a black defendant before a white jury. It’s disheartening; it’s frightening, it’s fearful, because the facts don’t matter. What matters is the jurors “world view.” You read for example that southern Minnesota is thought to have conservative juries. But we have one system to resolve conflicts. That’s all we have to resolve these conflicts. Over time, it would seem that we would have one group of citizens that would dismiss our judicial system.
What we say about ourselves, our judges’ opinions and the way they try their cases, have such fundamental impacts on our lives beyond what we readily can imagine. If you sit back and think about it, it influences how we view things. Just look at what has happened in Minnesota in the last two years–24 months– to our evaluation of our grand jury system in connection with the death of certain minorities. How is that possible? One group thinks that the process is completely fair. Another group completely delegitimizes it. That influences are system over time. There’ll come a time when people will not want to engage with the courts. They’re already doing it with law enforcement.[Previous Minnesota Litigator Profiles: Bill Tilton, 40 year St. Paul civil rights lawyer, Kristine Kubes, advisor and litigator for construction professionals, 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.]