There has to be a technical psychological expression for the phenomenon that (1) people envy the lives of other people, seeing the positive differentiators, and then (2) reassure themselves that their envy is unjustified, perhaps because of an inability to see the whole picture. Maybe this is captured in the simple concept of “rationalization.”
This, of course, is the underlying message of, “The grass is always greener on the other side.”
But, sometimes it just is. The most fortunate lawyers have great and fulfilling jobs, in which they are challenged every day, alongside dedicated colleagues, and their work makes our communities better, stronger, safer, fairer.
We had the opportunity to talk with Ana Voss of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota and her practice warrants envy.
ML: Tell us all what your position is right now.
Ana Voss: Well, I’m currently the Civil Chief of the United States Attorney’s Office. And, by the way, I want to note that, in this interview, all of the views I express are my own, not the opinions of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
ML: Understood. How long have you been Civil Chief?
Ana Voss: I have been that for a little over three years?
ML: Before that?
Ana Voss: Before that, I was an AUSA. I came to our office in 2008.
ML: What did you do before that?
Ana Voss: Before that, I was in DC. I was at a firm in DC doing private practice.
ML: What kind of private practice?
Ana Voss: I did general civil litigation. My practice was kind of all over the map. I did 1983 defense. It was mostly defenses, 1983 cases. I did asbestos litigation. I did attorney malpractice and medical malpractice. I did tax government contracts. I really was all over the place.
ML: What brought you from D.C. to Minnesota?
Ana Voss: My husband. Well, he claims that it was me bringing us here with my job, which is partly true. We were in D.C. and I was thinking I might want to leave private practice and looking around at what would be the ideal job that I’d love, and working in the US Attorney’s Office fit all of my wants and needs and all my hopes, so we were looking at US Attorney’s Offices as well. Smaller cities than D.C.
ML: Tell me why does working at the US Attorney’s Office fit all your “wants and needs”?
Ana Voss: The thing about our practice is that you don’t have to specialize at all. Frankly, we don’t have the resources to specialize. We have to be generalists, so we work all kinds of different cases. I never had an interest in any particular subject area of the law. I jumped around a lot at the firm, and I liked the practice of litigation, but I didn’t necessarily care what the subject matter was of any lawsuit, so working at a US Attorney’s Office allows me to continue to be a generalist. I really love that. Plus, I don’t have any billing or other requirements. We’ve got no shortage of work. I don’t ever have to drum up business for people, from clients.
ML: What do you like about litigation?
Ana Voss: The strategy is really fun. Being a generalist, I like doing a deep dive into some area that I would never otherwise have ever known about, especially at the government. There are agencies that I didn’t even know existed that I get to learn the nitty gritty about their work, and then I get to move on and learn something else. I just think … I like the different subject matter, becoming an expert on some small piece and then moving onto something completely different. I like the strategy of litigation. It kind of feels like a big game, and I think that’s really fun to try to think how things are going to play out. Do that forward-thinking.
ML: Are there some areas that you knew nothing about, some agencies that come to mind as things you’ve gotten to know deeply in your work?
Ana Voss: For a while there I had a couple cases with the Federal Aviation Administration, and so I got to do some really fun field trips down to see how they do their work, because they’re traffic controllers, and that was really fun. It’s fascinating to see how they work and how different that agency is. Just the variety of work that the federal agencies are doing is amazing, so I’m working on environmental cases and employment cases and everything in between, and just seeing how the agencies work. It’s pretty fascinating.
ML: What kind of cases involved the FAA?
Ana Voss: I had an employment discrimination case. There were two employment discrimination cases that came up at the same time. Actually, all three of those were employment discrimination now that I’m thinking about it. One was Title VII, one was Rehab Act, and one was I think a combination, but we have also done some cases with them on medical certification for pilots and other qualifications for pilots, and other airport personnel. So there’s kind of a variety from the agency side, too.
ML: Are those agency proceedings that have to do with certifications, or are they actual civil lawsuits in federal court?
Ana Voss: Well, yes. For example, if someone won’t surrender their license after the FAA has determined that they’re medically unqualified, then we could bring a civil enforcement action to enforce the agency’s administrative order. That would be how that would get to us in district court.
ML: Had any cases involving the so-called “no-fly list,” whether claims that it is overbroad or that someone was wrongly included?
Ana Voss: Not personally. I think we had, we may have had a case several years ago on that, but I don’t know that my office is involved in any current lawsuits.
ML: Now, where it’s fitting and appropriate — we won’t talk about your present cases — but can we get an idea generally of what your docket looks like? How many cases are you on? You are a Civil Chief, so I assume that means there are people who work for you?
Ana Voss: Absolutely. Right now, we have 10 assistant US attorneys in the civil division, and then we have about 20-some paralegals working for the civil division. We run about … Our numbers have been in the 800s for the past several years, opening 800 new cases a year so each attorney, depending on their practice, some people are more specialized than others, the attorneys might have anywhere from 40 or 50 to 150 or more cases, just depending on their practice.
For example, we have two attorneys that specialize in asset forfeiture, and so they are involved in almost all the criminal cases. Their workload is different, and it’s a very high volume practice. They would have hundreds of cases at a time. My caseload, I do civil defensive work, so I do employment discrimination defense, I do tort defense, and a variety of other things. I have a Quiet Title action case. We do APA review cases. I handle all of our immigration habeas cases right now.
Then I do collections work, so I handle half of the 2000 collection cases that we have in our office. Then I have some affirmative civil rights cases, ADA investigations and things, so depending on how you count it, I have some high volume practice areas. I probably have several hundred cases, but they’re not necessarily in litigation.
ML: You used a term there that I’m not sure I understood. It was “affirmation civil rights action,” I think?
Ana Voss: Yes. Our office handles civil rights litigation on behalf of the public. We enforce the Fair Housing Act. We enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act. We enforce Fair Lending Laws. We enforce service member statutes, so USERRA and the SCRA. We get complaints under the ADA. For example, we might get a complaint about physical accessibility of a building, and we can investigate that and open a case if we need to, or we have compliance review authority under several of these, under the ADA to … We did a compliance review of Minneapolis downtown restaurants and hotels, for example. We might have some of those going on.
ML: You mentioned that your work is mixed between plaintiff’s practice and defense practice?
Ana Voss: That’s part of the being a generalist. I like having that good portion of defensive cases that are in court and responding, and so I always have a big chunk of my practice as defensive. Probably more so than other people, but we have some attorneys in our office who skew much more heavily on the side of doing affirmative work. Those folks will do False Claims Act litigation. We have a lot of healthcare fraud cases and procurement fraud, other kinds of … any sort of fraud on the government. Some folks have a much more heavy affirmative practice.
ML: Some people view so-called plaintiff’s lawyers and defense lawyers as temperamentally different. That might be due to the economics of those two practice areas. Or maybe it has to do with some sort of temperament that makes people inclined one way or the other. Do you subscribe to that, view that there are people who are more plaintiff’s lawyers and people who are more defense lawyers?
Ana Voss: I think there’s probably something to that, but obviously your litigation skills are going to be transferable across either side. I think people can jump back and forth. I think it’s a challenge. For example, for me, I do employment litigation defense, so I might be defending the government on a Rehabilitation Act claim. Well, then I also do affirmation ADA enforcement, so the interpretation of what’s a disability or some of the finer points on what proof should be required on those different types of cases, I might find myself on opposite ends.
I think it’s kind of a fun challenge, and part of the work being at the Department of Justice is we hope that people are going to try to get to the right answer on things rather than automatically saying, “Well, I’m a plaintiff’s lawyer. I’m going to push for the most aggressive position possible that will be beneficial on the plaintiff side,” and forcing people to switch back and forth I think maybe can help people come to a, “Well, wait a minute. What does this really mean? What was it intended to … What position is right,” if you can figure that out…
ML: You mentioned that one of the reasons, and maybe the sole reason why you find yourself being a generalist working for the US Attorney’s Office, is that of limited resources and how you’re staffed. If you were given a big pile of money and told, “Allocate it for the justice system,” not just for your office, for the justice system, how would you do that?
Ana Voss: I think we need improved technology and more people power. We’re dependent on agents at all of the federal agents we serve. If we’re going to bring an affirmative case, we need agents to have boots on the ground to go out and do interviews. We need those agents not to be pulled in so many different directions so that they could focus on some of our cases, so I think I would want additional people power at the agencies and then within our office to handle the cases once they come in.
Technology-wise, I just think we could really use a boost up in the federal government on our technology. We’ve got document review software, obviously, and those sorts of things, but information sharing across the government, there’s a lot of barriers to sharing with our own agencies, and security issues, and just also having the people power within our offices to do things like loading giant projects into document software. There’s a lot of technology improvements I think that we could make. If I had money, though, I would hire more people.
ML: More lawyers or more support?
Ana Voss: I would hire more lawyers, I would hire more support, I would hire more technology people. I think as lawyers, one of the challenges that a lot of people have, and certainly for me too, is when you have this big caseload and you feel like you’re moving from emergency to emergency, what’s the most efficient way to get paralegals involved and how much does the cost of keeping people up to date and up to speed take away from the value that they can provide, and so I think it’s a struggle that a lot of us have in our offices, just how to most efficiently use the support staff that we have.
I think we could use more lawyers, but probably it would be great to hire a consultant to come in and tell us how we could be more efficient and make sure we’re using the support staff that we have in the best way so that we’re not just jumping from those emergency to emergency and not really doing the planning that you need to do. I have a big wishlist.
ML: As we speak, there is no U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota. Does that impact your work on a daily basis?
Ana Voss: On a daily basis, for the most part, it doesn’t, especially in the civil division. Our defensive caseload is not going to change necessarily. We’re still going to get sued, and we’re going to have to respond to those. We’re just going to go ahead with that work. The good thing about us is we’ve got Greg Brooker as acting US Attorney. He’s been in our office for a long time. He knows the civil division, he knows the criminal division, he knows how to work with Washington and the Department of Justice, and our executive office. So having a steady acting US Attorney in place makes things very smooth. We’re just kind of going on with business as usual until we get the new US Attorney, and maybe there will be different priorities, but generally things don’t change very much for us.
ML: Do you work a 9 to 5 day, five days a week?
Ana Voss: No. Not exactly. Now that I’m a manager, I think I do need to be in the office more frequently to talk to people about what’s going on in their cases, and be available if people have questions or need authority for different things. I do work 9 to 5:30 on your average day, but there’s lots of … Anybody in litigation, there’s lots of nights and weekends. I keep strange hours sometimes, getting up at 4 in the morning and working. I used to be able to stay up late, and now I’m having a harder time with that, so I’m more likely to get up early in the morning if I have something coming due.
ML When was your last trial?
Ana Voss: I have not had a trial since I’ve been at the US Attorney’s Office.
ML: So how long has that been?
Ana Voss: It’s been nine years.
ML: In the office, is that regarded as quite a long non-trial stint?
Ana Voss: I don’t think so. Obviously, the statistics for settlements in government cases are the same as reflected across the private bar. I think 99-some% of cases settle, so I don’t think it’s that unusual. I came to the US Attorney’s Office because I really wanted to have more trials, but I don’t know what the function of it is. I’ve had some cases that I’ve almost … the day before we’ve settled, and that’s about the worst. You do all the work to get ready for the trial and you don’t get the fun part, but I’ve had some good luck on some summary judgment motions in cases.
We have a lot of cases that don’t set up for trial, like the APA cases for example. Those are not going to go to trial. Some of the cases that I’m working on now, if we’re doing collection or the habeas cases, those are not ever going to go to trial. So I don’t think it’s unusual. I think just most cases settle, and then we have a unique practice area. The good thing about this district and our office is how many hearings we get with the federal judges. I think
When I was at the firm, we had big summary judgment motions in federal court that wouldn’t get argued, which just seems crazy, so I feel lucky that we’ve got a bench that has a lot of hearings and I can get into court that way.
ML: As I ask a lot of interviewees, if you could change something in our legal system, aside from more resources for the US Attorney, what would you change, whether a rule or a procedure or anything?
Ana Voss: Does everyone say discovery?
ML: Well, honestly, I think a lot of people are stymied by the question.
I was surprised by one interviewee who said, “Things kind of work as is…”
Many people talk about the high cost, the fact that it is such a barrier to getting to court for most people, and probably the majority of businesses, all small businesses. But nobody has said, “My passion is allowing for 7 to 2 jury verdicts,” or identified any highly specific rule change. Nevertheless, I ask.
Ana Voss: I don’t think I have any particular rule changes. I think you’re exactly right about the cost. It’s very interesting. When we’re working with agencies on a defensive case, oftentimes I have to do a lot of counseling on, “Well, your liability on the subject matter is X and we’ve got limitations in the federal laws that protect …” In Title VII, for example, there’s limitations, but your attorney’s fees and so that is something that I think is an interesting question for the legal profession. With attorney’s fees getting so high in a lot of the cases that are going closer to trial, or to trial, what do you do and is that really a fair basis for consideration in settlement?
You don’t want to dissuade people from defending themselves, and certainly with the government, we’ve got a potential for lots and lots and lots of lawsuits against us. We don’t want to say … We don’t want to have a reputation that we’re just going to settle anything and everything that comes across our desk, so it’s an interesting calculation when you throw attorney’s fees in there. I don’t have a solution to that. I think it’s something that we should be talking about.
ML: You practiced at a firm in DC, you said. For how long were you there?
Ana Voss: I was there for five years.
ML: That is enough time to get a feel for the legal community/legal culture. I’m curious whether you note any difference between that culture and community and Minnesota’s?
Ana Voss: I was at a big firm in DC, and so I did have a national practice. I think one of the differences that I noted here, and one of the reasons I wanted to come to a US Attorney’s Office is people act differently when you don’t have an ongoing relationship. If you’re going to just pop into Kansas for one case, you might treat the bench and bar very differently than if you know you’re going to be there over the long-term.
So I think that there may be a tendency in DC, bigger firms, when you are popping around the country and you don’t have that ongoing relationship, to act differently than you would if you knew your opponent or you knew you were going to appear in front of the judge over the course of many years of your career. I think that’s one big cultural thing. I think there are lots of nice and collegial attorneys out in DC, just like there are here, but it might be a slightly different approach because for me, now I know I’m going to be in Minnesota forever and want to make sure that I maintain those good relationships with everyone going forward.
ML: Describe generally some of the more difficult or challenging opposing lawyers you find yourself having to deal with? Obviously not identifying them, but what are things that make someone on the other side, in your experience, make it more difficult?
Ana Voss: I think the people I’ve found I have trouble with are people who are aggressive for the sake of aggression, not necessarily because it serves the client or because it actually is productive for getting to either the right settlement. For example, in a discovery dispute, if you just want to ask for everything because that’s what you do and you’re not willing to be reasonable or tailor your approach for the appropriate case, I think that’s difficult to deal with, but I haven’t had a lot of bad experiences with opposing counsel. Certainly not the US Attorney’s Office, but over the course of my career most people I have had generally good experiences with.
ML: What is your favorite part of what you do?
Ana Voss: Right now, as a manager, I think my favorite part of what I do is that I get to talk to all of the ten attorneys and all the staff about what’s going on in their cases, and talk through problems or strategy decisions with them, and just get to jump in and out of cases and see things at all different stages and across all the different subject matters, and see people who really are great lawyers, how they think through problems in a way that might be different than I would. I think that is really fun as a manager, just to see all the different cases and the way people approach things.
I definitely have learned over the course of my career that there is no one way to do things, and so that’s really, really fun, and a challenge for me every day. As far as actually working on the cases, I love writing. I love a good argument on the law. I think arguing a summary judgment is really, really fun. I love a good back and forth with the judge, and I like to be challenged, so I think that’s probably my favorite part.
ML: What is your least favorite?
Ana Voss: Well, I guess my least favorite right now in the government, it goes back to the lack of resources point. In private practice, I felt like we could, on a lot of cases we had the ability to do a “no stone unturned” approach, to think through, “Well, what if … Let’s play that out. Let’s get all the legal research we might need to make a decision if that happened… What about this?” Here, we do not have that luxury. There’s a lot of fun in a high volume practice, but sometimes it feels like there’s so much more I would do on every single case if I had more time and resources that it’s hard to prioritize sometimes. What is the most pressing thing, and how am I going to officially get to an outcome, a good result in a case while managing everything else that’s going on?
ML: So it’s the challenge of triage?
Ana Voss: Exactly, exactly.
ML: Yesterday, I had a deposition and had a court reporter who had been doing what she does for 30 years. I asked her, “What has changed, if anything, in her practice?” She said, “Well, it just seems more difficult to make a living. Fewer cases, less business.” I said, “Well, another thing that’s undoubtedly changed has been there are more women lawyers,” and she was quick to acknowledge that, as we all know. Have you found yourself ever being in any way mistreated or disrespected because of your gender?
Ana Voss: I like to think of it as people underestimating me. I think, certainly earlier in my career, now I’m a little bit more senior, I have some more experience. Maybe I can come across a little bit more authoritatively than I might have been able to at the beginning, but certainly there were situations where men, opposing counsel on the other side, might underestimate my capabilities. I think, “Fine. If you want to attribute a lack of ability to me because I’m a woman, then that’s all the more motivating for me.” Yes, I would say there have been situations, but I don’t dwell on it and I want to use that as a weakness in my opponent and exploit it if I can.
ML: So we mentioned changes in certain procedure. If you could wave your magic wand and change a law, a statute, is there one where you go, “Well, this process set out in this statute or anything else, I would like to amend it because it doesn’t work as written,” or anything like that?
Ana Voss: I had a couple USERRA cases, including one involving a police officer, and I think USERRA is a fantastic law that’s very protective of our service members, but it only allows for … It doesn’t allow for emotional distress damages. It just allows compensation for lost wages, and sort of your tangible damages, but I don’t think it really encapsulates what people feel when they are denied a job because they’ve been serving in Iraq, or whatever. So that was something, to me, that I just felt so hampered by the law that we could only recover so much for this plaintiff, and I thought that was a real shortcoming. Now, the law, USERRA, is very protective in other ways, and I can see the policy rationale but I think that playing out for at least that particular service member, it didn’t get to the best result.
ML: I often ask people if they have any kind of message to the Minnesota bench and bar. Anything you would communicate if you could to Minnesota lawyers and judges?
Ana Voss: I think we have it pretty good. I already talked about the fact that our bench holds so many hearings and gives us the opportunity to be in front of them and to really engage in challenging and tough arguments. I think that adds a lot for the clients and for the outcomes that we get. I think generally the bar is very, very collegial. We have an attorney who works on this inclusively in the bankruptcy bar, and that’s even smaller. I think people just are very respectful, and it lends itself to better results when you have a good working relationship with your opposing counsel. I do think we have it pretty good here in Minnesota, and I’ve been very happy and looking forward to staying here and having a long career hopefully.
[Previous Minnesota Litigator Profiles: 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, 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.]