Sisters In Law: Five women joined local legal community over the past two yearsWORTHINGTON – When a new attorney begins practicing in Worthington, it’s usually notable, as many local lawyers have been here for decades.
By: Jane Turpin Moore, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON – When a new attorney begins practicing in Worthington, it’s usually notable, as many local lawyers have been here for decades.
And if a new attorney here happens to be a woman, that’s somewhat more remarkable, given the majority of legal professionals in the area are male.
So when, within less than two years’ time, five new female attorneys move to Worthington, it’s definitely newsworthy.
“Nancy Gruchow was the first female attorney in town, arriving here around 1976,” recalled Mark Shepherd, a member of the Worthington firm Malters, Shepherd and Von Holtum since 1979.
Since then, several other women lawyers have come and gone —among them, Catherine Brown, Linda Titus (now a District Court Judge in Jackson), Melissa Fraser and Barb Ludwig Jeppesen—but three who have been here for over 15 years each are deputy Nobles County attorney Kathy Kusz, assistant public defender Christina Wietzema and Margaret Erickson of Southwest Minnesota Regional Legal Services, Inc. (SMRLS). There is a handful of other female attorneys practicing in the surrounding counties.
However, between August 2007 and May 2009, five more women began practicing law in Worthington, representing several different angles of legal work. And while only four of the roughly 18 local male attorneys are younger than age 50, six of the now eight female attorneys here are well under 50—and four are still in their 20s.
That statistic reflects the trend of the past few decades that saw female law students rising from a small percentage of their schools to, today, comprising about half of most law school classes.
“When I graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1981, one-third of my graduating class was female, and with our graduation we effectively doubled the total of U of M female law school alumnae,” detailed Kusz. “Things have certainly changed a lot in the number of women who are in the overall legal community, although women are still underrepresented in law firm management and rural judgeships, which don’t tend to turn over as quickly.”
“I think it’s really interesting that most of the younger lawyers here are women, and it will be exciting to see how that will affect the profession in town,” continued Kusz.
Lora Hopp, Carla Olson, Kim Pehrson, Jessica Nault and Kristi Loose come from different backgrounds and represent a range of legal practices.
Hopp was the first of this new wave of female attorneys to arrive, beginning work at SMRLS on August 6, 2007.
She graduated from Drake University Law School in 2007, having completed her undergraduate degrees at Bethany Lutheran College and Gustavus Adolphus College.
With her mother being an ELCA Lutheran minister, Hopp grew up in Olivia, Granite Falls, Hector and Paynesville, ultimately graduating from Yellow Medicine East High School.
“I was a financial economics/political science double major in college,” said Hopp, “and I spent a semester each in Vienna, Austria, and Freiburg, Germany.
“I always say I want to die in Vienna because then I’d know I was happy at the end of my life,” revealed Hopp, by way of explaining her enduring love of Vienna.
A runner since her junior high years, Hopp just completed her first marathon (Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth) in June. Hopp is also quite musical; she sings and plays flute, piccolo and piano.
During her law school years, she did an internship with Judge Celeste Bremer in U.S. District Court in the southern district of Iowa, and worked at the Drake Legal Clinic as a student attorney and clinic assistant.
“Now I primarily do family law and work mostly with custody, divorce and domestic abuse cases,” explained Hopp. “The high level of emotions involved throws in an unexpected wrinkle sometimes, and my work definitely can be trying, but it also has its rewarding moments.”
Hopp’s interest in law was sparked in a junior high government/civics class, where she admired “the idealistic structure put in place by our founding fathers. As I got older, I knew I wanted to be in a job where I could give back to the community and help people in need, and that basic idea is there at SMRL, helping people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the legal system.”
Olson’s path to a legal career was less direct than Hopp’s, but the two were classmates at Drake University Law School, where Olson also earned her J.D. degree in May 2007.
A 1995 graduate of Luther College, where she was a theater/dance major with an emphasis in dance, the native Iowan was working for Bankers Trust Company in Des Moines when she realized she would like to advance in the real estate or trust areas.
“I figured, to do that I would need an additional B.A. in finance or accounting but since I already had a bachelor’s degree, I considered law school as a way to get into trust work and estate planning,” related Olson.
Olson, who is licensed in both Iowa and Minnesota, explored employment possibilities and found a position at Worthington’s Hedeen, Hughes and Wetering firm beginning in November 2007 doing just what she’d hoped to do — trust, estate planning and real estate work.
“I’m not really a ‘criminal’ girl,” joked Olson. “I like detail work, and working on things that have a clear answer, and that’s how it is in these matters.
“I dealt with a lot of death in my family — my father died when I was 13, I lost my first set of grandparents before that, and when I was in my 20s, my mom’s parents died, as well as an uncle and my brother — so I know firsthand that you can smooth the transition after death for families with careful planning ahead of time, and that can give great peace of mind.”
While in law school, Olson interned for Associate Judge Ruth Klotz (Polk County’s probate judge) and additionally clerked for a West Des Moines law firm, doing trust and estate planning work.
Olson is married to Peter Olson, proprietor of Worthington’s Olson Financial Counsel LLC, and the couple enjoys running, working out and spending time with their cat and two dogs. Olson was influenced, in part, to consider moving to Worthington by her college friend, Kay Williams Prunty.
Olson is a member of the Worthington Noon Kiwanis Club and joined the board of CCSI in the past year.
Expressed Olson, “There’s a lot of opportunity here for younger attorneys, and it’s refreshing to have other young, female attorneys here for the camaraderie.”
Like Hopp, Pehrson is a public attorney, although she has been employed as an assistant attorney in the Nobles County Attorney’s Office since March 2008.
A 1999 Luverne High School graduate, Pehrson earned her law degree at the University of Wyoming Law School in Laramie in May 2006. For nearly two years she served as a judicial law clerk for Judge David Mennis in Benson, Minn.
The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, Pehrson spends “about 90 percent of my time on criminal prosecution.”
“I’ve always been interested in criminal law, and I want to help make the world a safer place to live in and see justice done,” revealed Pehrson.
Throughout high school and college (at Southwest State University), Pehrson was a cheerleader and admits to being a football fan.
“I’m a big fan of the San Francisco 49ers,” she said.
A college history major, Pehrson was involved in student government, and during law school, she worked with the Prosecution Assistance Clinic and interned in county attorneys’ offices in Laramie and Cheyenne, Wy.
Being a real lawyer is not the same as what is shown on television, Pehrson readily agrees.
“There’s definitely a lot more work before and after court, and I never walk into the courtroom with just a few files — it’s usually a big stack, and sometimes it’s up to 25 files at a time,” related Pehrson. “The reality is there’s a lot less technology involved in a typical case than what they show on TV—it’s based much more on eyewitness or police officer testimony, and there aren’t videos of everything.”
Pehrson enjoys Worthington’s seasonal festivals, area plays and musicals, and is active in the choir at First United Methodist Church. She is also on the board of the Southwest Crisis Center.
“I like the people in my office, and the police officers and sheriff’s deputies do a good job,” offered Pehrson. “My job may not feel rewarding every day, but overall I feel I’m making a difference in society and moving things along in the court system.”
Nault came on board with Hopp at SMRLS in August 2008. A native of the Twin Cities suburb Lino Lakes, Nault graduated from Centennial High School and was a sociology major at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
While earning her J.D. degree at William Mitchell College of Law, Nault worked at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and at the immigration office of SMRLS in St. Paul before coming to Worthington.
“There was a bit of culture shock at the beginning,” admitted Nault of moving to small-town, rural Minnesota, “but I like it here.”
Nault is the first member of her rather large extended family (she has 23 first cousins on her father’s side and eight on her mother’s side) to earn a law degree.
“They are all pretty proud of me, as far as I know — at least, that’s what they’ve told me,” chuckled Nault.
Until ninth grade, Nault aspired to a medical career, but career aptitude tests in a class pointed her in a different direction. Once law became her choice, her way was clear.
“My goal was always public interest law,” said Nault. “I didn’t even consider big law firms — for me, being an attorney means I have a responsibility to help others who can’t help themselves.”
Two-thirds of her current caseload involves immigration, and one-third relates to family law. Because nearly all of her clients are immigrants, and many are Spanish-speaking, Nault was motivated to spend time on a learning vacation.
“I just returned on July 11 from two weeks at a Spanish immersion school in Antigua, Guatemala,” related Nault. “I found it on the Internet, and I took private lessons six hours a day and stayed with a Guatemalan family. It was pretty intense.”
Nault loved the fresh fruit served in Guatemala and relished the hard work and challenges she encountered.
“I’m pretty adventurous and fearless when it comes to that kind of stuff,” said Nault. “I met some really cool people I might not have if I had traveled with someone else. Having to sit around the dinner table and speak exclusively in Spanish makes you think quickly — and my host mom was a good cook.”
Having not yet been in the Worthington area for a full year, Nault is still seeking opportunities for additional involvement, though she appreciates the companionship of her fellow female lawyers.
“Law school very much prepares you for working, but you don’t realize how theoretical it is until you’re out there,” admitted Nault. “You have to learn it while you’re doing it.”
Loose was profiled in a separate Daily Globe article in the paper’s July 6 edition.
A December 2008 graduate of the University of South Dakota’s School of Law, Loose spent last summer interning with the Lucht Law Office and opened her own law office in the Lucht Law Office building in May 2009.
Loose is a general practice attorney, working in both family and criminal law.