The new president of the MSBA is first in several spheres: first MSBA President to graduate from Hamline Law School, first known president of Native American descent, and first Iron Ranger to hold the office. He also offers continuity in his commitment to professional and community service.
By Amy Lindgren
When Leo Brisbois was asked by his alma mater, Hamline University School of Law, to address an incoming class of law students, he chose as his theme Robert Frost’s famous poem about the path less traveled. His advice to the first-year students was to resist defaulting to the obvious career choices, while exploring less-evident options. His other message was to seek out opportunities for public service, in whatever roles they chose. Both pieces of advice reflect Brisbois’ own approach to work and life, which he will bring to his position as president of the Minnesota State Bar Association.
On the surface, Brisbois’ story resembles the story of any Bar president in Minnesota or elsewhere over the decades. A family man with two children and 18 years in private practice (he’s a senior counsel at Stich, Angell, Kreidler & Dodge in Minneapolis), he has devoted himself to an increasing level of Bar service while building a reputation for legal writing and appeals work. That he is Minnesota’s first Bar president of Native American heritage (and the first from the Iron Range) can seem almost like a footnote until he starts to describe just how much his background has influenced him, especially in taking the less-traveled path.
To tell Brisbois’ story, you really have to go back to the 1700s, when his family tree records the convergence of French voyageurs and members of the Ojibwe tribe. The families eventually made their way to the White Earth Reservation where Brisbois’ paternal grandparents eked out a difficult living from 180 acres of barely arable swampland. Leo’s father, Gabe, was raised on that land and says they survived in large part because the town grocer gave theirs and other Indian families credit for years on end. “I can tell you,” Gabe Brisbois says, “he was a humanitarian. He kept us alive. Not just our family, but every family. Once in a while my father would sell a bull calf and that would go toward the grocery bill. When my father finally sold all the cows, he was able to pay it off.”
From that difficult upbringing, Gabe Brisbois chose a different path. He spent seven years putting himself through college to become a teacher, then settled on the Iron Range with his wife Mary Ann to raise a family. Leo and his younger siblings, Ron and Shelley, were born in the tiny town of Aurora, Minnesota, but raised in Hibbing where their father landed a position with the junior high school. The Brisbois parents held high standards for their offspring and the children were raised with disciplines that seem strict by today’s standards. An 8:00 p.m. bedtime, even in high school, produced teenagers who rose by 6:00 a.m. to read the daily newspaper and eat breakfast together at the family table. In summers the alarm clocks went off even earlier as the kids woke at 5:00 a.m. to run five or ten miles before the summer heat set in. In between, the children accompanied their parents to antiwar rallies and door-knocking campaigns for political or union causes. Both Gabe and Mary Ann were deeply involved in public service, with Gabe even serving as campaign secretary for Rudy Perpich’s bid for lieutenant governor.
Leo and his siblings blossomed and became known throughout the state for their prowess as long-distance runners. Tom Anzelc, now a state representative (District 3A), introduced Leo to the sport when he hosted an invitational run for 6th graders. Anzelc immediately recognized the young boy’s talent; within a year, Leo was racing with the high-school team and taking top honors against runners five years his senior. Anzelc, who has fond memories of coaching the three Brisbois kids through high school, recalls Leo as “a fierce competitor.” He says of Leo, “He was competing at a very high level at a very young age, yet he was a balanced, very mature young person. He was always in the top positions. This activity requires tremendous discipline; he’s self-disciplined, tough, driven to succeed.”
Running wasn’t the only sport in the Brisbois household. Both Leo and Ron also played hockey, appearing in 60 or 70 games a year between them. Leo’s position was goal tender, a role that earned him notoriety in a hockey-crazed town like Hibbing. Indeed, one of his favorite memories of high school sports isn’t about winning races or hockey games. Rather, he recounts the last time he played on the outdoor rink down the street from his house, behind the Catholic grade school. He didn’t know it would be the last time before the ice melted; he was just skating around and playing hockey with the grade-schoolers on a crisp Sunday afternoon as he usually did. As he recalls, “I’d bring my goalie stuff and there’d be one big kid—me—and all these little elementary kids just playing on this little rink. We’d play for hours and they just thought it was fun. This last time, in my senior year, there was this little boy, Tommy Sullivan, I think. We were done and I was packing up to go and he brought his stick up and he said, ‘Will you autograph this stick for me?’ Oh my gosh. I think about that now and I think, what a special time in my life, that without even realizing it, I was a role model for someone.”
Drawn to Service
As it turns out, being a role model and learning from role models has been a major theme in Brisbois’ life. When he left Hibbing to attend Hamline University, he planned to become a teacher like his father, and like his grandmother who had taught in a one-room school on the White Earth Reservation. He continued running track and cross-country too, and was soon joined on campus by his brother Ron. Their friend Dean Friesen, now chief operating officer of Beacon Bank in Shorewood, remembers training with them, including one long run when the Brisbois brothers couldn’t stop kidding each other about who was better at sports. “We were on this eight-mile run together,” Friesen recalls, “and Leo and Ron got going back and forth about who was a better runner, who was better at hockey, who had won more meets—and the more they argued, the faster the pace went and the faster they ran until we were all going all out—and they were still arguing. It was just entertaining to hear.”
Leo and Ron maintained their winning ways at the college level (as did their sister Shelley at the University of St. Thomas) and found that much of their social lives involved their teammates. Friesen remembers enjoying trips to Hibbing with the rest of the team, where the Brisbois family would host them in their green stucco house with the giant steam boiler in the basement. Even when the temperature dipped well below zero, the house seemed cozy, filled as it was with the friends sleeping on all the floors. As Gabe Brisbois wryly recalls, bringing teammates home was just the beginning of Leo’s hospitality in his parents’ home. At one point in his college career, Leo chanced upon a Brazilian student on campus who seemed at loose ends. He brought Marco home for a summer visit, but the student ended up staying more than a year in the Brisbois’ spare bedroom. “Some kids bring home stray cats and dogs,” Gabe laughs. “Leo brought home a stray Brazilian. But he fit right in; he went to junior college in Hibbing, and we kept in touch for a long time.”
The connection with Marco probably had something to do with Leo’s choice of a student teaching assignment in Belo Horizonte, Brazil in his senior year—a student teaching experience that could certainly be called the “path less traveled.” He spent a semester there, even learning some Portuguese before he left. But by the time Brisbois returned in April, the plan had changed. He completed his teaching program and even got his secondary teacher’s license, but now he had decided on law as his future career. From Brisbois’ perspective, the two fields were quite similar in the aspect that mattered most to him: Both were professions with a heavy emphasis on public service.
“The teaching aspect was not just because my family did it,” Brisbois explains. “It was also about giving to the community. I was thinking, ‘Who’s more of a public servant than a public school teacher?’ And that was important in my family, and in my larger family. And so the next natural area seemed to be law, because there are many ways of being a public servant as an attorney. Even in private practice, you’re representing individual clients but in doing so, you’re advancing the public good, by maintaining respect and confidence in the rule of law and the system that we live under. And by how you conduct yourself, and your integrity and ethics.”
Diverse Legal Background
Brisbois chose Hamline for his law school, but made a surprising choice for his first assignment after graduation: The Judge Advocate General’s Corps. In other words, the U.S. Army. Having been raised on antiwar rallies, Brisbois knew this was certainly the path less traveled in his family, but he also knew it would create opportunities. Immediately after law school, he found himself immersed in physicals and vaccination shots, while also studying for the bar exam. Everything culminated in a single weekend in October when he and two others were sworn into the bar in a private ceremony by Justice Rosalie Wahl, only to find themselves on the way to military training two days later. By January, Brisbois was in Germany, beginning a two-year assignment as a prosecutor in the military justice system. In a third year of service, he managed a legal assistance office serving a military community of 10,000, and in a later assignment as a reservist, he returned to Germany to assist in the Bosnian deployment.
Summing up his years as a JAG Corps attorney for his audience of new law students at the Hamline gathering, Brisbois said, “I came away from that service with unprecedented and invaluable professional experience in diplomacy, office and court administration, client counseling, and significant trial practice—a level of experience I would not have obtained had I chosen to join a local private practice immediately following graduation. Moreover, had I not chosen the JAG Corps, I would have missed out on the opportunity and privilege of being a firsthand witness to history as the Warsaw Pact and the totalitarian governments of its former members collapsed in the fall of 1989.”
Brisbois returned to Minnesota in 1990 and took an appellate court clerkship for a year, a role which balanced the 40-plus trials he had conducted in the Army by providing him with extensive writing experience. Indeed, that combination of skills proved enticing to Robert Stich, president of Stich, Angell, Kreidler & Dodge, who hired Brisbois in 1991. In the 18 years since, Brisbois has built a reputation as a writer of appeals, having been lead counsel or principal author on more than 50 appeals in state and federal court. As Stich notes, “He’s a very good lawyer, and he’s thought of very highly by the lawyers that he deals with. He’s well-known at the court of appeals and at the supreme court for his briefing and arguing.”
For Brisbois, the position in Stich’s firm has at least two principal benefits: It allows him to team with attorneys he respects to produce quality work, and it provides a platform from which he can conduct his community service. Although Stich acknowledges that losing Brisbois to outside projects, such as his earlier Army Reserve duty, can be difficult, it’s also a source of pride. “We’re happy that he can do it,” Stich says. “He has a very strong desire to give back to the community.”
Serving the Community
The range of that service is extensive. From serving on a dozen or more committees in several different bar organizations, to the organizing of an annual golf tournament benefiting Indian law students, to filling roles on the board for numerous nonprofit groups, Brisbois is, as several people describe him, “tireless” in his community service. He even ran twice for public office: once for a judicial position in 1994, and then in 1998 as a candidate for the Minnesota House of Representatives—against Tim Pawlenty. He lost those races, but not for lack of effort. His father Gabe, who came with Mary Ann to doorknock on Leo’s behalf, credits his son with getting “pretty much every Democratic vote” in a then-Republican stronghold in the race against Pawlenty.
Brisbois’ parents weren’t the only ones door-knocking on his behalf. Susan Birmingham, an acquaintance of several years, also joined the campaign team—giving her a closer view of a friend she had earlier deemed “the nicest man I’ve ever met.” The attraction deepened and the two were married in 2003. “We had a lot of the same values, and our stance on political issues was aligned,” says Susan, a case manager for Medica. “It was exciting to see his interest in service. That’s something we have in common.”
Brisbois, continuing his quest, put his hat in the ring for judicial posts during Ventura’s term as governor and very nearly gained an appointment. George Soule, a trial lawyer with Bowman and Brooke in Minneapolis, headed the Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection at that time and oversaw the process. “[Brisbois] was recommended to Ventura by our commission,” Soule recalls. “He has a depth and breadth of legal experience which translates well into being a judge. He came close; Governor Ventura liked him, I know. My sense is that we just ran out of vacancies in the 1st District before he got that opportunity.”
At the same time that Brisbois was organizing his campaigns, he was also volunteering more intensively with the Minnesota American Indian Bar Association—an affiliation which led eventually to his work with the State Bar Association and his current role as MSBA President. This, perhaps, represents one more turn in the path less traveled, as it is certainly more common for Bar presidents to have first led other bar associations, such as the Hennepin or Ramsey County bars. Having learned about association governance from his roles in the Indian Bar Association, Brisbois brings an interesting cultural perspective and approach to the position. And, as always, he sees his presidency—and the Association itself—as public service.
“I see the Bar Association as an extension, not just of professional service, but of public service,” he says, “because the mission and goals of the Association are not just to improve the practice of law for attorneys but to improve the administration of justice for all Minnesotans. And to work to do the things that foster and develop respect and trust and confidence in the courts and the appearance of the rule of law.”
A Link in the Chain
As the first MSBA President with Native American heritage, Brisbois will have an additional opportunity to be a role model, which he sees as a link in the long chain leading back to the 1700s and beyond. As he says “I’m only here because of the fortitude and the perseverance of generations of Minnesota American Indians, people in my family among them.” Already, friends and mentors from Brisbois’ Indian affiliations have organized ceremonies and rituals to honor this occasion.
Friend and mentor Judge R.A. Randall (ret.) was proud to be part of another ceremony to celebrate the other first in Brisbois’ presidency: he is the first Iron Ranger to be passed the gavel. At the Iron Range Bar’s annual meeting this April, the group surprised Brisbois with a handmade, leaded-glass lamp commemorating the occasion. The lamp sits on Brisbois’ office credenza as a constant reminder of the support behind him as he begins this new role.
And what kind of Bar president will Brisbois be? Judge Randall has an answer. “In one of the Star Wars films, Luke Skywalker is about to enter an unknown swamp, filled possibly with terrifying things. He asks Yoda, ‘What’s in the swamp?’ and Yoda answers, ‘Only that which you bring.’ Leo will bring his core values and his work ethic, his experiences in life. I expect him to go on being the complete person he is.”
Cooking with Leo
Everyone has a signature recipe for a dish they like to prepare on special occasions. Never mind that for some the signature is on the bottom of a credit card slip at a favorite restaurant—it still counts as a meal that bears your mark.
According to Susan Brisbois, Leo’s wife, he prepares at least two dishes that have become family favorites. They are as different from each other as Iron Range hockey and an appellate court brief, but both get the job done in terms of delighting friends and family.
Following are Leo’s favorite recipes, in his own words. Enjoy.
My recipe for stroganoff comes from Brazil, and I have never seen any stroganoff recipe like it in any Minnesota restaurant. I was first introduced to this form of stroganoff in the spring of 1984 during my senior year in college when I was teaching for a semester in an international school in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. It’s a very rich dish, and I would describe it as sweet compared to the typical stroganoff recipe you might encounter in a Minnesota steakhouse.
Ingredients (serves 2-4 adults):
2-3 lbs. thin-sliced lean strips of beef sirloin, tenderloin, or filet
9 oz. sliced button mushrooms
1 pint fresh cream
12 oz. ketchup (approximate)
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
5 tablespoons butter
White Jasmine rice (1 cup of steamed rice per anticipated serving)
Melt the butter in a large frying pan and then brown the meat and mushrooms in the butter; remove frying pan from the heat.
Spoon off 3/4 or more of the grease after meat is browned; add enough Cognac to slightly cover frying pan bottom, return frying pan to heat, and ignite the Cognac to flambé the meat and mushrooms.
Reduce heat to medium and add the salt and paprika to taste; add the Worcestershire sauce, cream and ketchup and stir well until all ingredients are mixed and sauce is a light pink.
Continue to heat over medium heat, stirring regularly until sauce just reaches a boil; remove from heat.
Serve immediately, spooning meat and sauce over a bed of steamed white Jasmine rice. Because this stroganoff is on the rich, sweet side, I would recommend a drier white wine.
Grilled Summertime Frozen Pizza
My son Paul’s favorite frozen pizza gets cooked on the grill in the summertime. This is a quick and easy way to give the kids a frozen pizza in the summer months that still seems a little special.
The secret really has nothing to do with me—rather, the secret is that my grill (a Traeger brand—www.traegergrills.com) burns small wood pellets as a heat source, which gives the pizza a great, smoky Neapolitan wood oven flavor. (This same effect can be achieved with a gas grill by using oak or hickory wood shavings in a low-sided pan set to one side of the inside of the gas grill and preheated to the point of beginning to smolder just before cooking the pizza on a medium- to medium-high heat setting.)
I don’t mean to sound like a pitchman for Traeger Industries /grills, but the wood fire heat source they use in their grills creates a convection heat flow that almost never dries out whatever meats, poultry or fish we are grilling—and the wood smoke flavor lets us cut down on the need to add salt or other seasonings to the food.
To grill the frozen pizza:
We simply buy a Jack’s thin crust plain cheese pizza or two from the grocery and, while the pizza is still frozen, add whatever fresh toppings are desired, with a final layer of added fresh-grated Mozzarella. Since all grills will vary in temperature, cooking time will vary—so check the pizza once it’s on the grill every one or two minutes. Remove pizza when fresh Mozzarella has melted and has begun to brown.
Grilled pizza from scratch:
If I’m feeling really ambitious, I will make the pizza crust from scratch. You can use any basic pizza dough recipe. Roll the dough out as thin as possible into a pizza round (10-12” in diameter) on a flat cookie sheet that has been lightly dusted with flour. Cook the crust without any toppings on the cookie sheet in the grill for about three minutes to stiffen it up; remove. Add the pizza sauce, toppings, and Mozzarella to the partially-cooked crust, and return the pizza directly to the grill surface, sliding it off of the cooking sheet. (The crust will be sufficiently set up that it can now sit directly on the grill without sagging through the opening in the grill surface.) Check the pizza every one or two minutes; remove when Mozzarella has melted and begun to brown.
Brisbois in Brief
–Born in Aurora, MN, October 6, 1961; raised in Hibbing, MN
–Married to Susan (Birmingham) Brisbois; children Paul (12) and Gabrielle (3)
–Home in Eagan, MN
–Hibbing High School, 1980
–Bachelor of Arts, Hamline University, 1984 (magna cum laude)
–Juris Doctor, Hamline University School of Law, 1987 (cum laude)
–Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG), U.S. Army, 1987-1990
–U.S. Army Reserves, 1990-1998
–Law Clerk, Minnesota Court of Appeals, 1990-1991
–Adjunct Professor, Hamline University School of Law, 1994 and 1997
–Senior Counsel at Stich, Angell, Kreidler & Dodge, P.A., Minneapolis, 1991-present
–Litigation and appellate work for insurance companies and corporate clients in the areas of personal injury, product liability, construction litigation, employment discrimination, and insurance coverage disputes.
Awards / Recognition
–Law Review, Hamline University School of Law, 1986-1987
–American Jurisprudence 2nd Awards for Excellence in the Study of Evidence and Labor Law, 1986
–Highest personal AV peer rating, Martindale-Hubbell, 1998 et seq.
–Leading American Attorney – Personal Injury Defense Law, 1999
–National Registry of Who’s Who, 2000
–Rising Star in the Law, 2001 (Minnesota Law & Politics peer selection)
–Member, officer, Minnesota American Indian Bar Association, 1991-present
–Member, committee volunteer, officer, Minnesota State Bar Association, 1990-present
–Member, 1st, 4th, and Range District Bar Associations
–Member, Minnesota Defense Lawyers Association, 1992-present
Other Legal Affiliations
–Arbitrator, American Arbitration Association, 1993-present
–Member, The Defense Research Institute, 1994-present
–Conciliation Court Judge, Hennepin County District Court, 2003-present
–Member, Amdahl Inn of Court, 2006-present
–National Conference of Bar Presidents, Diversity Committee, 2006-present
–Member, Minnesota Commission for Judicial Selection, 2007-2011
Nonprofit / Community Service
–Member, Alumni boards, Hamline University, 1999-2003, and Hamline University School of Law, 1995-2003
–Board Member, Vice President, Treasurer, American Indian Policy Center, 1995-2006
–Board Member, Vice President, Indian Child Welfare Law Center, 1997-2003
–Board Member, Anishinabe Legal Services, 1999-2006
–Founder, Aaniin! Niiji Scholarship Fund, Hamline University School of Law, 2003
–Board Member, The Children’s Theatre Company, 2005-present