With the exception of baseball caps, hat-wearing has fallen out of favor for most men. That doesn’t stop Brian Melendez, incoming president of the Minnesota State Bar Association (MSBA), from wearing as many as he can on a given day. The difference is that Melendez’ hats are all metaphorical.
There’s the hat he puts on for his responsibilities with the bar association, the one he wears as state chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, another one for his role as a parliamentarian and contributing writer for grammar and usage books, and of course, the hat he wears as a partner with the Minneapolis law firm of Faegre & Benson, where he concentrates his practice in consumer credit law. These hats may not all be fedoras, but neither are any of them baseball caps. Those he reserves for his roles as a marathon runner and godfather to four kids under the age of ten.
All this talk of hats can disguise a key fact about Melendez: Between his law practice and his role as chair of the Minnesota DFL party, he already has two full-time jobs. And nobody doubts that he can take on the third job of heading the MSBA. The three-time Harvard graduate (he holds an AB, a JD, and a Masters in Theological Studies) is known far and wide for his exceptional drive, organizational skill, and occasional insomnia. Dubbed Captain No-Doz by his Harvard peers, Melendez was cited by one classmate in the Harvard Crimson as “the kind of guy who over-achieves in his spare time.”
If those assessments tempt you to write Melendez off as someone to make fun of, someone too intense to take seriously, then be warned. He will win you over. Donna Cassutt, associate chair of the Minnesota DFL, campaigned alongside Melendez in both his elections to become party chair (Melendez is serving his second two-year term). As she notes, “Some of his biggest detractors during the chair race are now some of his biggest supporters. He gained their confidence.” And once you’re on Melendez’ Rolodex, you stay there. John Gordon, a fellow law partner at Faegre & Benson says, “I’m thinking the guy doesn’t have any former friends. This guy can travel to any city in the country and know people.” Indeed, Melendez’ hand-signed Christmas card list approaches 2,000 each year, and his annual nonpartisan parties have become social highlights for local politicos.
That bulging Rolodex, or Blackberry in his case, is just one of several key assets Melendez adds to his role as MSBA President. In addition to an extensive national network of professionals who are willing to advise on almost any topic, he brings the experience of having headed not one or even two, but three substantial bar organizations. Like many MSBA presidents, Melendez has led the Hennepin County Bar Association (2001-02). But he also served as national chair of both the Young Lawyers Division (2000-01) and the Student Division (1990-91) of the American Bar Association. He even served as president of a national Latin club as a high-schooler. To say that Melendez was born for leadership may not be rhetoric. He has been chairing meetings and writing bylaws since he was 15 years old, and by all accounts, doing a very good job at it.
In her role with the Minnesota DFL, Donna Cassutt has seen a lot of meetings. Even so, she was so impressed with the first one she attended that was led by Melendez that she felt compelled to introduce herself. “The thing that really struck me was his remarkable ability to get business done and to make sure the process was fair,” she says. “I’ve never seen anyone run a better meeting than Brian. We’ve got a lot of competent people around here, but he’s almost superhuman.”
Sue Holden, partner at Sieben, Grose, Von Holtum & Carey, who preceded Melendez as president of both MSBA and HCBA, is also quick to note Melendez’ meeting management skills. She adds, “One thing that many people do not know about Brian is that he has a great sense of humor. That, I know, will serve him well in the coming year.” Pat Kelly, founding partner of Kelly and Fawcett and outgoing MSBA President, has appreciated his year with Melendez as second-in-command. “He’s very straightforward and concise and he was always available for his analysis of a situation. Those were great assets to me in a president-elect,” Kelly says. “I’ve seen him in a lot of meetings, and he’s a tremendous listener. And he does have a great sense of humor. Maybe he had to, to work with me.”
What about that sense of humor? The funny thing is, if you ask, everyone will say that humor is one of Melendez’ defining traits, but almost no one can put their finger on what they mean. Is there such a thing as stealth humor? Keith Dotseth, a founding partner of Larson•King in St. Paul and a good friend of Melendez, was willing to go on record with one story from their early days together at Faegre & Benson. It seems that, although Melendez gave the impression of being a very serious, very contemplative man, as a new lawyer in the firm he was already gaining a reputation for pranks. As Dotseth tells the story, they were joined early on by a colleague “who graduated from a well-respected institution that issued him a fairly large and well-framed diploma. Shortly after he joined the firm, this equally contemplative, serious man went off on a vacation after taking the bar and left, foolishly, his very prestigious and pristine diploma hanging in his office.”
With some encouragement from his colleagues, Melendez apparently managed to remove the diploma from its frame and make a color reproduction – back when color copies weren’t common – which he proceeded to alter by deleting and replacing key signatures, dates and phrases. As the crowning touch, he rested a coffee cup on one portion, leaving a distinctive ring. Melendez then painstakingly reframed the sullied document and rehung it. As Dotseth recalls, “Then we all sat and waited. And waited, and waited. It took about a week after this person returned from vacation, but finally we heard this horrific scream from the office down the hall. It was several days before he noticed, but we knew that he would, because he had great pride in his institution. Of course he knew right away who had done it.”
Naturally, Dotseth recalls, Melendez returned the real diploma in its original condition. And true to form, Dotseth says, Melendez still enjoys conversations and debates with the diploma holder, despite their significant differences in perspective and political views. It’s this willingness, or even desire, to talk with people who hold divergent views, that many people count as another of Melendez’ key assets for the Bar presidency. John Gordon attributes this trait to Melendez’ ability to separate the person from the issue. “He is a great organization person in the good sense of the term,” Gordon says. “He disagrees with people without having ad hominem thoughts about them. The disagreements are always on the merits.” Gordon adds, “He doesn’t take anything personally and he kind of teaches you not to take anything personally, because everything is fact-based and logic-based.”
John Dornik, a principal shareholder at Mackenzie & Dornik in Minneapolis, has noticed the same qualities in Melendez. “He’ll sit for hours to try to see the other side,” Dornik says. “His patience and willingness to listen to folks who differ from him is really amazing. He truly believes that everyone has a voice.” Dornik and Melendez first met more than a dozen years ago when Dornik was running for chair of the New Lawyers Section of MSBA – at Melendez’ behest. “He said he thought I was the right person for the job and he put his weight behind me,” Dornik recalls. “I’m not a campaigner; he basically went out there and got me elected.”
Dornik credits that early role in the MSBA with his later success and participation in the organized bar, and feels he has Melendez to thank for it. “If I hadn’t had that position, I probably wouldn’t have gone on to be the president of the [Hennepin County] Bar Association. He encouraged me the whole way.” In fact, Dornik recalls, Melendez gave such a moving speech at Dornik’s HCBA inaugural ceremony that he had Dornik’s mother crying in the audience.
Mentoring others and encouraging their participation in the bar association is yet another strength Melendez brings to his new role as MSBA President – and one which others have recognized in him for many years. Rick Stafford of Minneapolis chaired the Minnesota DFL in the early ’90s and has been a mentor to Melendez over the years. From that vantage, he says, “I saw the immense talent that Brian had, in terms of motivating people and engaging volunteers, and that’s so important in volunteer organizations. There are so many spokes that go into that wheel. He has a great sense of nurturing people and being able to reward them in terms of recognition.”
If you’ve been keeping track, there are at least five key strengths on the table that Melendez will apply to his new role as MSBA President: related experience, an extensive network, killer meeting management skills, a nonpartisan approach, and a gift for recruiting and motivating volunteers. Humor makes six. The big question: What does he plan to do with his year at the top?
The Year Ahead
It may surprise those who know Melendez as a master strategist to hear that his plans include not making many plans. Precisely because of his previous bar leadership experiences, he says he has learned not to cling tightly to a personal agenda. Unexpected and important events are bound to interrupt plans that have been too tightly woven. Instead, he will pay attention to overall and ongoing goals for the Bar, such as membership, while giving special attention to three projects: an effort to formalize and increase pro bono contributions, the implementation of an arbitration program in high schools, and oversight of the MSBA role in promoting soon-to-be proposed legislation regarding judicial elections.
This last topic is one Melendez expects to take a lot of attention in the next year. Already he and approximately 30 others have invested significant time in the issue as members of the Minnesota Citizens Commission for the Preservation of an Impartial Judiciary – more familiarly known as the Quie Commission. At issue has been the question of how Minnesota should select its judges — by election, appointment, or some combination of these. Understandably, the answer to that question does not come easily or quickly. After more than 16 months of meetings, the commission was able to present two distinct options with nearly identical support. Melendez authored the minority report favoring a primarily appointive model, and has been traveling the state with Justice Barry Anderson and former Governor Al Quie to explain both options in district bar meetings. Now, as president of the State Bar, he will swap hats and advocate for the measure that wins support of the Bar’s governing Assembly. As the proposal will come in front of the Legislature in 2008, Melendez says, “It’s probably the most important and long-lasting change that we’ll get made, if a change does occur.”
Whatever the outcome of these projects, Melendez has already resigned himself to the likelihood of leaving things unfinished when he completes his one-year term. It’s a prospect that doesn’t bother him as it once might have. “They tell you in Bar president school, if you think you’re going to change the world in a year, get over it,” he notes. “Basically if you come in as a Bar president at any level and you’ve got an initiative that you want to be exclusively yours and put your stamp on the bar association, you’re going to be disappointed. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a very collegial enterprise and only things that people buy into over several years last.” That’s one reason that Melendez’ fourth and final initiative in his term will be to continue the Wills for Heroes program started by Pat Kelly to provide estate planning to Minnesotans serving in the armed forces. “That was Pat’s main program and I want to see that continue,” Melendez says. “If there’s anything else that he wants me to keep doing, I’m happy to do it. I’ve really enjoyed working with him, and with Sue Holden before him.”
The Personal Side
If Melendez is willing to go with the flow when it comes to his MSBA presidency, he’s quite a bit more determined when it comes to achieving goals in his own life. It probably would come as no surprise to learn that Melendez makes out New Year’s resolutions. After all, personal goal-setting is a common and well-proven tool in the lives of successful people. But ten pages of goals, written in clauses? Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the resolution list would be the “Board of Directors” that receives a copy each year. Ten of Melendez’ friends, some dating back as far as 26 years, have agreed to keep Melendez accountable to his goals each year. When he doesn’t meet a deadline, he must check in with one or more directors for insight, and sometimes to gain permission to extend the deadline.
Keith Dotseth, who serves as a director, doesn’t think the concept is so unusual, although he concedes it’s a bit more structured than most people would make it. “Among the things Brian is,” Dotseth says, “he is a certified parliamentarian and I think that may have had an influence on his life. He adds a level of formality to things. I think we all have a board of directors in some light, but we don’t have the structure the way Brian has set it up. It is in large measure, a collection of his very close friends that he goes to for advice, just as we all do.”
Tracy Giles, another board member, and a friend from his law-school days, says “We’re like his godparents. We make sure he’s on the straight and narrow and when we think he’s doing the wrong thing, we tell him he’s being an idiot. One of the things about being friends with Brian is that if we ask each other for advice, it’s unvarnished.” Giles, who lives in Roanoke, Virginia, and is a president in the firm Giles & Lambert, has a system in place for arranging long talks with Melendez. “Everyone’s so busy, it’s hard to have the time to talk deeply,” Giles says. “I make sure that when he comes to visit I have some heinous yard work to do. Some sticky, icky thing that needs to be dug out or hacked to the ground. I save that for when Brian visits and we get out the tools and spend all day getting it done.”
In addition to being board members, Giles and Dotseth share another role in Melendez’ life: both selected Melendez to be a godfather to their children. In Dotseth’s case, that means Melendez spends frequent quality-time with Dotseth’s nine-year-old son, going to church or ball games together. Because of the distance between their homes, playing godparent to Giles’ three young daughters (aged three, five, and seven) more often involves sending them books to read. But once or twice a year, Melendez will see them in Roanoke, and every September he looks forward to the Giles’ family trip to his home for a grand tour of the Minnesota State Fair – a day Melendez has dubbed “better than Christmas” in his calendar of holidays.
For now, Melendez says, his role as godparent is one of establishing a foundation with the children so they know they can come to him with their questions. As they grow into adolescence, however, he plans to make himself available for the more complicated issues of faith and spirituality that plague most adolescents. It’s a role that he’s uniquely prepared for, given his own spiritual journey.
Although he was raised Roman Catholic by his mother and the stepfather that adopted him as a youngster, Melendez found himself with enough questions that at age 12 he refused to be confirmed into the church. He was allowed to step away from the faith, as long as he continued to attend some service every Sunday – a requirement that launched him on an early tradition of church-hopping and sermon-sampling. A few years later, he joined his family in a conversion to born-again Christianity, but felt compelled to reject many of its tenets when he discovered a more intellectual community at Harvard. Gaining a graduate degree in Theological Studies at Harvard added another plank in the bridge of Melendez’ faith journey. Today, although Westminster Presbyterian church in Minneapolis claims him as a member, Melendez is again engaged in a search for a spiritual home – an effort being overseen by his Board of Directors.
In the meantime, Melendez will continue his work as an attorney, DFL strategist, and MSBA President, as well as all the other roles he plays, switching hats in the blink of an eye, but rarely wearing more than one at a time.
Born 1964 in upstate New York; raised in Ocala, Florida
Resides in Lowry Hill neighborhood of Minneapolis
Single; godfather to three girls and a boy
Harvard Law School, Juris Doctor, 1991, cum laude
Harvard Divinity School, Masters in Theological Studies in Ethics, 1991
Harvard College, Bachelor of Arts in Government, 1986, cum laude
Partner, Faegre & Benson LLP
Adjunct Professor, William Mitchell College of Law, 1992-93
Top Ten Attorneys of the Year (Minnesota Lawyer, 2002)
Nonprofit Lawyers Award (ABA Section of Business Law, 2002)
SuperLawyer (Minnesota Law and Politics)
Contributing Editor, Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th Edition, 2004
Contributing Writer, Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2nd Edition, Oxford Press, 2003
Contributing Writer, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, West Group, 2002
Minnesota State Bar Association
Chair or participant: nearly two dozen positions on eight committees, including 11 positions with the New Lawyers Section
Hennepin County Bar Association
Chair or participant in 17 sections and committees
American Bar Association
Chair, Young Lawyers Division, 2000-01
National Chair, Law Student Division, 1990-91
Chair or participant on more than two dozen committees and sections
Other Organizations and Committees
Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota, State Chair, 2005-present
DFL Party of Minnesota, member of numerous caucuses and committees
Minnesota Citizens Commission for the Preservation of an Impartial Judiciary (Quie Commission), member
American Institute of Parliamentarians, member
National Association of Parliamentarians, member
Minneapolis Charter Commission, Commissioner, 2003-06
Volunteer Lawyers Network, Board of Directors, other positions, 1996-06
Central Minnesota Legal Services, Vice President, 2003-05
FairVote Minnesota, Board of Directors, 2002-05
Supreme Court of Minnesota, Advisory Committee on the General Rule of Practice, 2000-04
Harvard Divinity School Alumni/ae Association, President, other positions, 1997-03
Minnesota Distance Running Association
More than 5,000 books in home library
Runner of two to three marathons per year; best time was under four hours
Contributor of 63 reviews on Amazon.com
Brian Through His Books
Brian Melendez may be the exception. Not only does he remember his promises to himself, but he actually keeps them. The good news is that they seem to be good ideas, for any age. Take his elementary school vow to read a book a week. Although he may not always have met the goal, by his reckoning, most weeks he’s succeeded. To confirm this, one would only have to count the books in his house, as he rarely dispenses with a volume once he’s read it. To dig through Melendez’ boxes of books, therefore, would be one sure way to track his interests and intellectual growth over the past 35 years.
But why go to all that trouble? Like Hansel in the woods, Melendez has left a trail of crumbs for you to follow via Amazon.com. By entering Melendez’ name on this site, you can savor a slice of his reading tastes without leaving your desk. That’s because he’s posted more than 60 reviews to date, on everything from a 1962 novel about a southern family (The Moonflower Vine) to the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Yep. He even reviewed a dictionary. After he read it.
Interested in following in Melendez’ literary footsteps? Here are enough titles from his reviews to form your own summer reading list. Enjoy!
The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton. “I have reread this book probably more often than any other book in my adult life. The story unfolds in rural Missouri over the first two-thirds of the 20th century, but its themes and its allure are timeless: family, faith, rebellion, secrets, love, independence, and time … I never put it down without a catch in my throat.”
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition. “When clear and simple communication is the goal, this version is a good check against writing that is getting too high and mighty; if a word does not appear here, I think twice about using it.”
Markings, by Dag Hammarskjöld. “This book is his private journal, in which he struggles with a deeply personal and private faith in the context of a vocation that called him to one of the most visible and influential offices in international politics.”
Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, by Bruce Bawer. “This book raised many interesting spiritual issues for me. While it contains some ideas and arguments that I do not accept, it affords a context within which I can examine my own spiritual journey, and it has helped me articulate the discomfort that I felt with the churches that my family attended while I was in high school.”
Desiderata: A Poem for a Way of Life. “One of my favorite poems, a comforting and refreshing perspective on life’s big picture.”
Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy. “This book reminds me that it is better to lose on the right side than to win on the wrong one.”
Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, by Robin Dunbar. “Professor Dunbar’s thesis is that language evolved as a substitute for physical intimacy … as the basis for bonding a social group … .Very thoughtful and thought-provoking.”
A Creed for the Third Millennium, by Colleen McCullough. “Sophomoric, but well-written and engaging.”
Malevil, by Robert Merle. “This book was surprisingly good … about a subsistence economy arising after a nuclear holocaust.”
Embers, by Sandor Marai. “Henrik and Konrad, inseparable companions from boyhood through their thirties, meet again for one last time in their old age … . They talk from dinner until dawn … as they explore the mystery of a few taut days more than four decades earlier.”
One Heartbeat Away: Presidential Disability and Succession, by Birch Bayh. “This book offers a rare insight, practically unique in modern times, into successfully resolving a structural dilemma of modern government by means of amending the Constitution.”
The Forms of Action at Common Law: A Course of Lectures, by Frederic William Maitland. “F.W. Maitland is a genius at showing how the present got here from the dim past. … To commence a lawsuit in order to resolve a private dispute may seem perfectly routine today, but it was a fairly new concept in ancient England … and it did not grow up overnight.”
About Time: 12 Short Stories, by Jack Finney. “Finney defined the time-travel story as no other writer has.”
The King’s English (Wordsworth Collection), by H.W. Fowler. “If you liked A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, you will love The King’s English.”
ARTICLE BY AMY LINDGREN