Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

MSBA President 2010-11: Terry Votel

A Study in Cooperation & Teamwork

Growing up in a family of nine kids, Terry Votel, newly seated president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, had little opportunity to develop a big ego. Nor could he escape the lessons of cooperation and teamwork. Not only did he have to share a bed with his older brother Richard, but there was always someone around to remind him if he was getting too big for his britches. He did finally have his own room as a college and law student living at home, but the day he moved out, his next youngest brother took the room, “Kind of like scraping my name off the door,” he laughs.

If the kids were moving through the house like an assembly line, so too was Votel moving through his life, in all the ways that a productive young man could do. There were classes and sports at Cretin High School, then the Bachelor’s degree program at St. Thomas and the law degree at William Mitchell, just across the street from St. Thomas at the time. All the Votel children were invited to live at home during school, but expected to pay for their own extras and for college tuition. So there were jobs for Terry, starting in the 7th grade and not ending yet, almost 60 years later. And then there was marriage, starting a law practice, and four children who all came along in four years.

Looking back at it now, he says, “You get so busy, it’s just kind of a blur. My four children went through everything together: orthodontia, driving cars, smashing cars, college … I had four going through college at the same time.”

Lessons in Service

Layered into the work and family lives was an incredibly productive community life, ranging from PTA president and church finance chair to vice chair of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce and State Director of the Minnesota Jaycees. At one point he chaired and vice-chaired simultaneous efforts to bring two separate, national championship hockey tournaments to St. Paul. A few years earlier, he had founded and led the sponsors association for the LPGA tournament in Minnesota. If you’re not dizzy yet, you’re not paying attention. One thing that Votel can count among his skills has got to be time management, not to mention leadership.

Where did all this drive come from? According to Votel, his parents were very strong role models and provided both an example and an expectation of responsibility and civic engagement. In addition to the volunteering both did in the community, his mother, who was adopted, decided she wanted to repay the debt by adopting children herself. So after the first six kids—all boys—were born, the elder Votels adopted three girls from Korea. Terry Votel thinks there may have been some self-interest in the selfless act, at least for his mother. “She was tired of all the boys, I think. We’d go to the prom and she’d ask how it was and we’d give a one-word answer. And the toilet seat was always up. I think she was looking for a little more.”

Although the girls came into the household when Terry was nearly through high school, living at home during his studies provided him ample opportunity to witness—and possibly be tortured by—preteen girls as they slowly took over the house. No doubt, this provided more opportunity to learn cooperation and to keep one’s ego in check.

Even with all the hard work and mayhem, both Terry and his older brother Dick have fond memories of growing up in St. Paul. For one thing, they were exceptionally close as brothers, calling each other best friend and doing virtually everything together. Dick, two years the elder, would even pass some of his jobs on to Terry. “We didn’t have any rivalry,” Dick Votel says. “We went to concerts and outings and bonded pretty well as friends. And everybody who knew us had the same thing to say about Terry—that he was a really nice guy. Even recently when I bump into someone, that’s what they say. I’m proud of that.”

“One of my favorite sayings is, ‘It’s a good idea to ride the horse in the direction it’s going.’ That’s what I intend to do.”

Building a Practice

Dick, whose first job after college was with Travelers Insurance, may even have influenced Terry’s career, with his frequent dinnertime conversation about the industry. Terry went on to law school, but found himself clerking for, then serving 25 years as a partner in the insurance defense firm that became Reding & Votel. Meanwhile, Dick went on to found insurance companies of his own and currently serves as CEO of DRIASI, a business that serves the industry.

In those early years of building his practice, Terry Votel and his partner Jim Reding went all over the state and beyond to try cases on behalf of the insurance firms that hired them. It was hard work, but they were crafting a strong reputation. In one trial that lasted 17 weeks (Busch v GM), they were able to convince a jury that a car had failed, rather than the driver, in an accident that caused egregious injury. In pretrial work that presaged the current issues with Toyota accelerators, they literally took the car apart piece by piece until they found the errant chunk of plastic that had broken off in the steering column, causing the mechanism to lock. Repeated tests showed the steering would bind up a representative number of times with the plastic piece loose in the mechanism, and they were able to win the case.

Despite their successes, however, Votel found the practice of law as an independent to be “chicken today and feathers tomorrow”—not consistent enough, particularly when he factored in the variable nature of the industry itself. After 25 years, he surprised everyone but himself by trading a successful practice where he called the shots for a job with Farmers Insurance Exchange (now Farmers Insurance Group), with its full-fledged hierarchy and corporate structure, and 16,000 coworkers. Given that many attorneys would go from corporate to independent, but very few would do it Terry’s way, he almost seemed to be living his professional life in reverse.

Bruce Candlin, associate manager of Travelers Staff Attorney Office in Minnesota, works in a capacity similar to Votel’s first role with Farmers. He first met Votel when Terry took the job at Farmers, but had known of him by reputation previously. “I remember when Terry went to Farmers, I thought ‘Wow, they really got a good hire,’” Candlin says. “I was kind of impressed with Terry because he was in the heart of his career and doing well and he seemed to welcome the challenge of taking a new job. And he didn’t do a mundane job. On one case after he joined Farmers, I represented one client and he had another. Terry’s cross-examination of the witness was excellent. He accomplished all of his goals, but he did it in such a professional way. The person he was cross-examining had a lot of issues. [Terry] was so effective at being polite and respectful of her as a person, but at the same time, he just took away in such a skillful way her credibility. He decimated the case. It was fun to watch.”

“I think when I came here, I was honestly thinking, ‘Okay, I’m in my 50s. Maybe five or ten more years … and of course now, it’s been such a positive experience I’ll probably go however long they can stand me. Because I still have a lot of energy and this work is part of what’s reenergizing me. It’s been very enjoyable.”

If Votel’s trial work was one strong reason for his success in being hired, his ability to organize and lead others might have been another. As managing attorney of Farmers’ Twin Cities Branch office, which is still called Votel, McEachron & Godfrey, he was responsible for not only trying cases but also for overseeing the work of other attorneys. Overnight, he went from an office down the block with one other partner and a secretary to daily responsibility for mentoring, supervising, and disciplining a team of attorneys. Although he had sought and welcomed the challenge, Votel chuckles now at how he hedged his bets: By saving file boxes of his old invoice forms and paperwork, in case he would have to beat a hasty retreat from corporate life. When did he finally throw them out? He laughs: “Well, just in the last four months. You always wonder when you make a leap like that, ‘Is it going to work?’” Apparently, after 17 years with Farmers and a significant promotion to his current role as head attorney for the Midwest Division of the Claims Litigation Department, Votel is feeling like the answer might be ‘yes.’

The Way Ahead

Another source of Votel’s energy might be the turn his home life has taken recently. Divorced from his first wife a few years ago, Votel remarried in September 2008 to Lynn, a treatment manager with Minnesota Orthodontics and the mother of three grown children, the youngest of whom lives with the Votels in their Macalester Groveland home. With Terry’s children long grown (the youngest recently turned 40), interacting with Lynn’s kids is a chance to view parenting through a different lens. “This time I can be much more relaxed with her children and with the grandchildren,” he says. “I have no need for the disciplinary role anymore.”

Indeed, Votel seems to have traded his disciplinarian’s hat for a fishing cap, spending many weekends each summer on the dock at the family cabin, threading worms onto hooks for equally squirmy grandkids and taking what appears to be the same sunfish off the hook every few minutes, much to the amusement of his and Lynn’s adult children watching from the patio. This, then, is the scene he’ll be giving up for much of the coming year, as he travels the state as the new Bar Association president.

Still, it’s only one year and it will fly by quickly, the way these things do, especially with so much on the table to be accomplished. Votel, a seasoned volunteer and leader, says he knows better than to bring an agenda of his own to the position. Instead, he’ll be focused on taking the baton from outgoing president Leo Brisbois to move forward the key issues that are already in play. As Votel explains, “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘It’s a good idea to ride the horse in the direction it’s going.’ That’s what I intend to do.”

And the horse’s direction? That pony seems headed straight to the legislature, to deal with the topics of judicial selection, funding for the court system, and the impending threat to extend the sales tax to legal and other services. Each of these issues, in its own way, threatens the public’s access to legal services and the court system, and Votel is determined to hold the line by leveraging the efforts of the Bar Association over the coming year. And, although he has no agenda of his own, in the pockets of free time that remain, he’d like to touch on a few of his favorite issues: raising the public profile of attorneys and the pro bono work they do, improving the quality of civic education, maintaining the momentum of the diversity task force reenergized by Leo Brisbois this past year, and reinforcing the concept of MSBA as a statewide organization.

“To me, the really nice part of this is the caliber of the people who have done this. When I consider the past presidents, they are people that I have been in awe of. If I have a worry, that’s it: Do I belong in this group?”

It’s a pretty tall order, but it doesn’t seem to have Votel worried. When asked what his personal concerns are, he demurs by saying, “To me, the really nice part of this is the caliber of the people who have done this. When I consider the past presidents, they are people that I have been in awe of. If I have a worry, that’s it: Do I belong in this group?”

Andrew Rudnicki, vice president of claims litigation and Votel’s boss at Farmers for the past six years, can have the last word on that. “I think it’s a great honor for Terry to be president of the Bar Association, not only for Terry but for our company. I know that Terry can get a lot accomplished. He understands the politics and he can build collaboration, but he’s not someone who feels he needs to draw attention to himself. That maybe goes back to the old Greek idea that those who don’t want to be politicians are exactly the people who should be elected. I’m happy to see him go to the top.”

So there you have it, Terry. If your boss thinks you belong at the top, who are you to say otherwise? You can toss out that last file box you’ve been hoarding and get to work.

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When people take up a new sport in their 40s, they usually choose something easy to schedule, like running, or easy on the joints, like yoga. They may even consider their business interests and learn to swing a golf club.

What they don’t usually do is don black stretch pants and begin hurtling themselves down the sides of mountains on small planks of wood. Especially not if they work in the insurance industry.

By all accounts, Terry Votel didn’t plan to become hooked on skiing; he fell victim to a clever marketing scheme. When a popular ski hill not far from the Twin Cities offered free lift tickets to parents whose kids were skiing, he thought Why not? He was driving them there anyway; might as well strap on some skis and see what the fuss was about.

It was love at first schuss. “It just immediately became my favorite thing,” Votel says. “If I could have, I would have become a ski bum.”

Votel advanced out of the local ski hill very quickly and soon became the part-owner of a condo in Keystone, Colorado. That’s when he started getting his brothers more involved, and began planning trips that included piling numerous grown men into a single vehicle and driving straight through to Colorado for a few days of skiing. As a rule, Votel says, the brothers are usually chatting up a storm on the way out, but quiet and reserved on the way back, having spent all their energy on the slopes.

He’s noticed other patterns over the years as well. “The progression has been kind of funny,” Votel says of their ski trips. “The first 25 years or so we were young, strong, enthusiastic skiers. We were the first ones in line at the hills and we’d stay until they closed. Then we became gentlemen skiers. Now we get out there about 10:00 in the morning and ski three or four hours and that’s fine. We call it a day.”

Votel may consider himself a “gentleman skier” but his wife Lynn Votel and his older brother Dick have another word for his style. Dick, who calls Terry a lousy golfer (“You can quote me on that”) gives him his due when it comes to skiing: “Terry is a beautiful skier,” he says. Lynn uses the same word, and adds: “He’s really graceful, and really fast. It’s how he does the turns and his posture too—it almost looks like he’s dancing. He looks like he’s always been skiing.”
Terry may look at home on skis, but that doesn’t mean he takes foolish chances. He and his brothers all have different approaches to the sport, including Danny, the former Ramsey County Sheriff. “I would classify him as particularly aggressive as a skier,” Votel says. “If you’re not careful, he’ll take you on a run you don’t belong on. So us gentlemen skiers will split off on different runs from time to time.”

For the time being, Votel is sticking close to another skiing partner, his six-year-old granddaughter with whom he and Lynn recently shared time on Colorado’s Purgatory Mountain. But that could change if she continues to attack the hills like she did this time.

“She out-skied me,” Votel laughs. “She’s absolutely fearless, especially on the moguls.” Looks like it might run in the family.

Votel in a Nutshell

–Raised in St. Paul, MN, the second of nine children
–Married to Lynn Votel; four grown children from first marriage, three grown stepchildren
–Home in St. Paul, MN

–Cretin High School, 1960
–Bachelor of Arts, College of St. Thomas, 1964
–Juris Doctor, William Mitchell College of Law, 1968

Career Track
–Presentence Investigator, Ramsey County Probation Department, 1964
–Legal Assistant, MN Department of Taxation, Inheritance and Gift Tax Division, 1966-67
–Law Clerk, Attorney, Miley, Reding, & Votel, St. Paul, 1967-1972
–Partner, Reding & Votel, St. Paul, 1972-1993
–Managing Attorney, Twin Cities Branch legal office for Farmers Insurance Exchange (Votel, McEachron & Godfrey), 1993-2005
–Division Attorney, Midwest Division, Claims Litigation Department for Farmers Insurance Group, 2005-present

Practice Area
–Insurance Defense

Bar Organizations
–President, Minnesota State Bar Association, 2010-2011
–President, Ramsey County Bar Association, 2004-2005
–Member, committee volunteer, assorted roles, Minnesota State Bar Association
–Member, National Conference of Bar Presidents, American Bar Association

Other Legal Affiliations
–Minnesota Defense Lawyers Association, Board of Directors, 2005-2009
–CLE author and speaker
–Super Lawyer, Law & Politics Magazine
–AV Rating, Martindale-Hubbell

Community Leadership
–1992 Vice Chair, St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors
–1989 Chair, WCHA Hockey Playoff Championship Tournament
–1989 Vice Chair, NCAA Hockey Championship Tournament Committee
–First Vice President and Director, LPGA Tournament Sponsors Association
–General Chair, 1977 Patty Berg Golf Classic
–Past Board Member, Alumni Boards of Cretin High School and College of St. Thomas
–Past Director, Minnesota Jaycees and also St. Paul Jaycees

“Go Figure”
–Doesn’t golf, but helped sponsor national golf tournament in Minnesota
–Doesn’t play hockey, but helped bring national hockey tournaments to St. Paul
–Loves to ski, but has never brought a ski championship to the area


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Terry Votel

Terry Votel was the 2010-11 president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. The division attorney for the Midwest Division of the Claims Litigation Department of Farmers Insurance Group, he practices in the area of insurance defense. He received his J.D. degree from William Mitchell College of Law.