I had the great opportunity to talk with Minnesota lawyer, Laurel Learmonth recently. Ms. Learmonth has been practicing law in Minnesota for forty-five years at the same Minneapolis law firm with a primary focus on family law. On its own, forty-five years of practice is a staggering accomplishment, of course. On top of that Ms. Learmonth has navigated this long male-dominated profession and, in particular, the field of family law and amassed unsurpassed expertise, on display in our interview.
ML: I’ll start just by asking you about your legal career, big picture, as you come to be where you are today,
I went to law school at William Mitchell back when it was just William Mitchell and graduated in 1979. I had gone to the University of Michigan for undergrad and then started practicing.
I started at the Primus Law Office right away. Actually, I was a law clerk there beforehand and have ended up there since then, so I have worked there 43 years or maybe 45 years. I’ve worked 43 to 45 years at the same law office and that law office is now owned by Brent Primus and myself.
When I first started there in May of 1978, the only lawyers there were Lee Primus, Brent’s father, and Richard Primus, Brent’s older brother, because Brent was in the Amazon following the Amazon River. Then Lee Primus passed away and Richard left the firm.
Over the years various other attorneys worked there. Brent, as you know, did the transportation law. So he had the rate cases and we had a bunch of attorneys working on the same. When that litigation was pretty much over, we had fewer lawyers so it kind of went back and forth but it’s only been the two of us for a number of years.
ML 43-45 years at a single firm! Were you ever tempted to work elsewhere?
When I first started there were lots of advantages to being with a small firm because as a woman your choices were things like insurance defense or working with the big firms or corporations. You were expected to dress a certain way and act a certain way and that kind of thing – with Primus I could do what I wanted.
I could accept cases I wanted and not accept cases that I didn’t want and I got the chance to do several different areas of law, to figure out what appealed more because lawyers, back in the day, we all did more than one area of law.
It is a lot less common now and I do a lot less of the different areas of law than I used to.
ML: So today, what percentage of your practice is family law?
Probably 80% of the practice is family law or family law related.
I also will litigate the loss and damage claims for our transportation clients.
ML: Do you have a preference between the I mean I assume you have a preference for family law which is 80% of your practice, right?
You have a lot more contact with people, you have a lot more, I think, ability to help people. This is generally a traumatic part of your client’s life and you can help them get through that and to the other side.
Now the litigation involving the loss and damage claims can be delightful now and then in the fact that no one’s so emotionally involved in that litigation. It is not traumatic. But still, I like the interaction with people.
ML: As you might know, I have plaintiff’s-side legal malpractice expertise and I get a lots of calls from people unhappy with their family law lawyer, their divorce lawyer. Generally, unhappy former clients who contact me just think they got a bad deal and they think their lawyer should have gotten them a better deal. I’m often telling them, “I’m sorry, but that that’s not how legal my practice works. You have to show me a bright line, missed a deadline, or that your lawyer did something that definitively caused you damage. But, in family law, establishing a malpractice claim is particularly difficult because it seems all the standards are so malleable, indefinite, and squishy. It’s extremely difficult effort to prove that, but for an attorney’s actions (or inactions), the client would have done better. And is that highly contextual, fact specific, and “squishy” part of family law something that you appreciate or that you dislike?
That’s kind of a complex question because I don’t know the extent to which I understand what you’re saying entirely.
Family law is an area of practice; I don’t know what’s that different than any other. But family law is an area where you sometimes say to the client, “Okay, this is what you want. You can’t get that. So what do you want to do? Do you want to still argue it? Do you not want to argue it? What do you want to do in that regard?” I will try to involve my clients in those decisions and try to get them to understand. Because, again, this is a very emotional part of their life. It’s something I have expertise in, but they need to own where they end up afterwards.
So, I will try to involve my clients in the decision. And most of the time they’re receptive. They’re like, “Okay, I get what you’re saying, and we’re not going to do this because it costs so much money, because it would take so much time and because that argument could go on forever and we have kids and we have to get past this….”
I don’t know if that addresses the issue.. I don’t know how squishy it is, so to speak. But what I will say is that I often see cases myself where I’m speechless at the lack of care it appears the other attorney is putting into a case.. Sometimes attorneys charge a lot, as much as $700/hour…What are we doing here that can be worth that much? But again, that’s hard to judge because I’m not dealing with their client.
ML: Are there particular legal issues or legal areas in family law that you think are particularly interesting or have particular ambiguity, which the court needs to straighten out or the legislature?
Not really, but there’s a confusing issue right now with child support, but that’s on a low income level. The legislation in this area has advanced over the years. In the old days, the very old days, you’d go in on a child support case and if your client just bought a Maserati and his payment was a thousand dollars a month they’d say, well, okay, he doesn’t have that much income left for child support. If your client was incredibly fiscally conservative and walked everywhere instead of having a car, then he’d have more income available for child support and would end up paying more. So what the legislature did is make child support a statutory calculation. Where you can actually go on the website, fill in the blanks and it’ll give you a number.
Whether that calculation is the ideal calculation, I don’t know. And lately, I’ve seen cases in which it seems to me, from my experience doing legal clinics for Volunteer Lawyers Network and for Chrysalis/Tubman, I’ll get these orders for support and I’ve got 20 minutes to advise someone coming to one of the clinics. So, I’m reading this order thinking, “Okay, well you ended up having the magistrate order a lot less in child support than the calculation says it’s supposed to be…” and I understand why they’re doing that but then what good is the calculator?
I’m not sure that really there’s a legal right to do that. So there’s conflicts like that but I don’t know if there is an ideal way to do it.
They also changed the child support calculation from a net income calculation to basing it on gross income for the obvious reason that some people can and do manipulate their net income.
So they’ve solved a lot of problems but could there still be improvements? Probably, but I couldn’t tell you what they would be.
And then there are interesting areas, like the concept of what constitutes non-marital property.
For instance, I think winning the lottery in Minnesota is marital although having never had a client that won one, I can’t tell you that for sure. It’s an interesting question.
Every now and then, as I’m sure you know, we get some issue and think, “Oh my god. This must have been litigated 20,000 times”, but we cannot find the issue addressed in case law.
ML: How has the practice of law changed in your mind for you about over your 40 plus years of practice?
It’s changed a lot. For one thing, there are more women in the practice of law. For another thing, there’s a little less… there is less overt, at least… sexism on the part of lawyers and the judiciary. And the law has also gotten a lot more specialized.
Each area of practice is more elaborate in and of itself. There’s more to know about. As a family law lawyer, for instance, I have to have some basic knowledge of tax law . . .that’s the other thing about family law. You have to have a little bit of knowledge about various areas of law, at least to know what you don’t know., which is interesting.
But I always tell my clients that I don’t understand a lot of tax law in the first place. In the second place, it seems to be changing every 12 minutes. I can’t be a divorce lawyer and a tax lawyer at the same time…tax law, I think you’d probably have spent all your time doing just that, so that has changed.
I did workers compensation law for a number of years and personal injury. And that again was kind of like family law in the sense that you have a personal relationship with your client who’s going through a difficult period.
But then work comp law changed enough that you kind of — somebody may be offended by this — but kind of have to do it like a mill to make any money and that I couldn’t do. I couldn’t. I couldn’t say to my clients, “All right, we’re only going to talk for 20 minutes before we go into court….”. I’m not saying it’s wrong to do it in the “mill way.” It’s the only way lawyers can afford to do it but that’s not the way I like to do cases.
ML: So you have been in practice for more than 40 years…Did you have a computer on your desk when you started?
When I started, we had a fancy electric typewriter. I have a vague memory of going with a boyfriend who was in physics at the University of Minnesota where I saw a computer with the punch cards and a big computer that took up the whole room. Computers, at that point, in the dark ages, were too big to have on your desk. It was just those fancy electric typewriters that had some programming ability.
ML: Have computers changed your experience of practicing law?
Absolutely. I think they have changed everybody’s experience at doing everything. They clearly have. I remember back when the administrative assistants would type wills and couldn’t use whiteout. There was carbon paper for copies. You couldn’t use whiteout, so if there was any error you had to start all over again and retype the document. There has been obvious advancement since then.
And obviously in communication abilities. And now we get into social media, Facebook and the like, and judges having to order everyone not to post anything about the kids on Facebook. There are all those extra elements to consider but it’s so much easier.
We don’t have to write elaborate letters and put them in the mail. Sometimes we still do but most of the time we can just shoot somebody an email instead of juggling phone calls back and forth. I mean there’s a huge difference with everything and obviously it’s also easier to get information of any kind.
ML: Family law is generally not terribly document intensive, is that fair to say it?
That depends whether or not people have money.
ML: In your experience, in terms of the electronic data, are you conversant that so you can say, for example, my average case size is under a gigabyte of data?
I couldn’t tell you that.
I was just working on a post decree issue where the parties did the divorce themselves, which is usually a mistake unless you’ve got nothing, and it involved four different accounts with account statements going back to 2011 just to figure out what happened and what needed to happen going forward. If people have money, you often end up with a lot of account statements and valuations and sometimes you have to trace assets to decide whether they’re marital or non-marital. And then if there’s spousal maintenance you have expense documentation and all that kind of stuff. So, it really varies.
And then there are custody disputes and people are sending you screenshots, text messages, Facebook messages and all kinds of stuff.
Then you can have custody evaluations, medical records, school records and daycare records.
ML: And is there any specialized software that family lawyers use?
There is a lot of it. There is specialized software called FinPlan, financial planning software, used to figure out child support and spousal maintenance based on incomes and the software calculates tax and so on.
I don’t personally use it. I have a separate expert use it and generate reports. It’s very common for mediators to use it. They’ll run the numbers and say, “Okay, this is what we’re getting on these numbers”, which can be very helpful.
I believe that it’s a good program. I just don’t want to go into court saying, ”I’m the one who ran these numbers.” I don’t think that’s appropriate.
ML: I won’t ask you to specifically name any particular judge who you think “gets it” and does a great job in family law unless you want to volunteer anybody in particular but what makes a good judge and family law?
That’s an interesting question because there are two sides to that coin. What makes a good judge, I think, is a judge who’s familiar with family law, has seen cases and has some level of ability to assess the extraneous material, so to speak. On the other hand, you want somebody to pay attention and realize that each case is a unique case. So it’s kind of a conflict. You don’t want a judge on either end of the spectrum – one who is inexperienced or one who has so much experience and does not treat each case with a fresh perspective. Although, obviously, either end of that spectrum could end up benefiting you depending on your case.
I have a case that I’ve done pro bono for years and years and years and it’s been horrible. It’s a custody case and the parents do not get along. I represent the mother. At one point the father of the child brought a motion for an order for protection against the uncle, my client’s brother, and we went to litigate that and had a judge who had been a judge for many years who listened to the evidence and threw it out of court. We were completely happy with that result because that’s the result we wanted. But I was kind of afraid that the decision could be appealed because it was a little too summary. You want the benefit of the judge’s deep experience but you don’t want the prejudice of their experience.
ML: What to you is an ideal case?
That is an interesting question. An ideal case for the parties would be when they cooperate. One of the processes in family law that’s very common is one party will come to me and say, “Okay, we agree to everything. Can you represent both of us?” And I say no. Some lawyers will do what’s called joint petitions. I don’t think that is ethically appropriate but, you know, maybe it is. But there’s too much of a line there. And I will tell the person “I can represent you, but you’re telling me that you have agreements. So basically what we do is we write up the agreement, we send it to your spouse and your spouse has the opportunity to take it to a lawyer of his or her choice if they want to.” If they read it and think, “No, this is okay with me, this is what we agreed to”, they can just sign it (unless they have kids, then you have to have it before a judge if they’re unrepresented). A lot of divorces will go that way.
An interesting aspect of that is that the client sometimes comes to me with an agreement that is more beneficial to that client than the court might agree to if it were litigated. The hardest thing there is that we’ve got to reveal that. We have to disclose that in the agreement. We don’t have to necessarily say, “You would get a better deal if we let the Court decide”. But, let’s say we didn’t get a real estate valuation. We have to say, “You recognize that you have the right to have this real estate appraised and chose not to” so it’s clear that the other party had every chance to choose something else if they wanted to.
Some clients will say, “I don’t want to give all the information about my finances”, and I answer, “Well, tough luck. The court requires it.”
ML: Do you think that the law has changed due to the increased number of women practicing law and sitting in the bench?
The actual law? I don’t know. I can’t tell you that. I can tell you that family law is an area of the law that has swings. Spousal maintenance…it may be hard to get spousal maintenance based on the law in one year and then the court or legislature alters that because this was so outrageous, and it goes, arguably, too far the other way. There’s a natural ebb and flow. How that ties into women being judges or legislators or lawyers is hard to say.
ML: How about, over time, the practice, dealing with increasing numbers of women. Has that changed the experience of practicing law?
The experience of practicing law has, yes. I would ascribe some of the change to more women being in the practice of law but that’s kind of a gross generalization. The practice of law is both more and less cut-throat than the old days.
Back in the day, you’d have the particularly “male warriors” in court, just saying horrible things about each other screaming and yelling and performing, so to speak. They would then go to the bar afterwards and share drinks. This may be a generalization but I think women are less likely to be able to do that – to behave like that.
There’s that performance and that has changed. There isn’t as much sort of vicious performance art as there used to be. And most of the lawyers I end up dealing with…we know what the realm of the law is and we’re trying to convince our respective clients that we need to settle within particular parameters because we know that’s what’s going to happen if you litigate. In family law, I really try to at least figure out what is an actual issue as opposed to, you know, all the issues you could possibly argue about…
ML: Do you have a sense of family, law, being more, collegial than your general business, civil litigation practice.
I’m inclined to say yes. In most family law cases you don’t necessarily know the opposing lawyer, but you know someone who knows them…There’s some connection. Whereas in regular civil law, particularly in our transportation practice, the loss and damage claims, I get lawyers from out of state.
You get New York lawyers, Texas lawyers, etc.… so it’s harder. And I don’t necessarily know somebody who knows them. Sometimes we do know them, but it’s kind of a different thing. Also, in the other areas of law it seems that you don’t know as much about the facts of the case before you start litigating it as we do in family law.
In family law, you generally know the issues right away. I mean there might be issues about valuations or custody but, generally, that doesn’t happen because, of course, your clients tell you the most evil stuff right away.
ML: You mean the clients’ own most evil stuff?
Well, the other side’s, but then you would get into their own backwards if you know what I mean.
ML: And from the opposing counsel, I assume?
Sometimes. But also, my clients seem to understand. I will say, ”OK, we have all this information in relation to him or her. What is it that they will say you have done? Because I’ve got to know that because we’ve got to figure it out.” I’m astonished at the number of people who will say, “Oh nothing. There’s nothing.” And I have to push them: “I’m not asking you if you’ve done something wrong. Let’s focus again. Are you actually telling me that your spouse isn’t going to say there’s anything you did wrong?” My clients generally get there.
In these loss and damage claims, though, sometimes nobody knows really what happened, how the damage occurred. It’s like, “What? Wait…what?” Sometimes it’s obvious, but a lot of times the most interesting part of the case is trying to figure out exactly what happened.
ML: At the end of these interviews, I often ask if there is a message that you would like to deliver to the Minnesota bar to Minnesota lawyers. What would it be?
You know, what I have on my mind right now is the situation of guardians ad litem in our family courts. The courts use and need guardians ad litem. They use them in Orders for Protection. They use them in juvenile court. They use them in divorce cases. We don’t have enough guardians and they don’t have the funds to hire enough of them to handle all of these situations where they are needed. I had an Order for Protection case where the claim was completely ridiculous.
The Court granted an Order for Protection because there was a claim that my client had injured the child. So, by law, a guardian is required to be assigned. We went to the guardian ad litem office and they said, “Yeah, fine. Except we have no idea when we can get to this. We have five other guardian ad litem and OFP cases ahead of yours. And we can’t even tell you how many family law cases.” Now, in that case, luckily we went back to Court and said, “We have to have a trial. This could be years before my client gets her child back.” The Judge allowed it. When we filed our exhibits the other side withdrew the petition.
Imagine how many kids there are out there that could be in danger or in the wrong place or whatever because the courts don’t have enough resources.
You can volunteer as a guardian.
And what you do is just Google Minnesota Guardian ad Litem. There’s a national organization that will send you information. Otherwise, talk to your legislator. Give money. Do all this stuff.
But one of the things that I would encourage lawyers to do and parents to do is consider actually volunteering to do that job. Now, it’s a hard job. I don’t think I could do it. Guardians have to make snap judgments and quick decisions, which is not my area of expertise. I like to have all the information before I do things.
Years ago, I had a case where my client had become addicted to opioids — prescription painkillers. He was on methadone. He was not well-spoken. His wife had less obvious issues but was much better spoken. But he was the one largely taking care of the child.
We went to the custody evaluation where they have a social worker and/or lawyers and they ask questions and have to make these instantaneous decisions. Well, we’re sitting there and they’re saying the mother should have sole custody of the child and what they want is for the parties to agree. My client is sobbing, you know, because this isn’t what he wants to happen. I thought they were wrong. And they actually got really mad at me.
They asked: “Will he agree that the mom should have sole custody?” And I said no. They answered, “Well, we should talk about this.” And I answered, “He is sobbing. You’re telling him he’s a useless piece of nothing. And you think we’re going to sit here and try and discuss this at this point?” They didn’t like it, but this was the result of a short term kind of evaluation and, for my client, I requested a long-term one. In the long-term one, it was recommended that he get joint physical custody of the daughter because, you know, they could then see the bigger picture. That’s my fear about being a guardian. At least if there’s a guardian, there’s someone neutral looking at the situation closely.
So I do think that it’s a really important role and I admire the people willing to take that on and perform that service.
ML: My last question for you: when was your last trial?
I’ve had order for protection trials a couple of months ago. I’ve done three recently. We did a harassment restraining order trial. I cannot remember the last actual full divorce trial I did.
It’s more harassment restraining orders or orders for protection.
ML: After all, as far as I’m concerned, a trial, and particularly in the family law context, is a complete failure and a breakdown of what should happen so it’s probably a good thing that it’s been a long while since you have had a full divorce trial?
People negotiating a resolution that no one’s happy with but everyone can live with… That’s probably the best outcome.
And here’s another thing that happens in family court that doesn’t happen as often in other areas of the law. We can settle many parts of a case and just go to trial on a narrow issue.
ML: All right, we’ll thank you very much for taking the time for this interview.
Thank you, but it’s a little traumatizing. I hate talking about myself!
[Previous Minnesota Litigator Profiles of Minnesota litigators: Sheila Engelmeier, employment lawyer (plaintiff’s side and defense side) and mediator, Mike Rothman, former Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Commerce, Kevin Dunlevy, Minnesota real property authority, Inti Martinez-Aleman, a third generation lawyer from Honduras enriching the Minnesota bar, Brent Primus, a 40+ year Minnesota litigator with decades of experience in cargo and transportation law, Emily McNee, employer-side employment litigator, Anna Voss, Civil Chief of the United States Attorney’s Office, Kenneth U. Udoibok, fighting for justice from Nigeria to Minnesota and beyond, 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, Jerry Alcazar, products liability defense, Liz Kramer, Arbitration Maven/Author of Arbitration Nation, 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),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.] [For Minnesota Litigator profiles of judges, see: Retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey J. Keyes, Hennepin County Judge SusanRobiner, Retired U.S. District Court Chief Judge James M. Rosenbaum (D. Minn.), Hennepin County Chief Judge Peter Cahill, Hennepin County Judge Thomas Fraser.]