Inventive, Determined, Adventuresome
Some people make it look so easy. They seem to have been born to the practice of law and the status the profession can bring. By all outward appearances, they rise effortlessly through their studies and a seemingly preordained series of promotions, all the while amassing high-dollar legal victories and low-handicap golf scores.
And then there’s Brent Routman, a self-described late bloomer and a frightening golfer to boot. If the scions of law lauded by our culture are the hawks of the profession, flying with precision and speed toward their lofty ambitions, then Routman might be likened to a less probable flier, propelled more by a sense of adventure and personal determination than predetermination: Consider the bumblebee and you’ll have a better picture of Routman’s trajectory leading to the presidency of the Minnesota State Bar Association.
It’s not that Routman’s arrival at the post surprises anyone. Far from it: As a respected partner and general counsel for Merchant & Gould in Minneapolis, and the former president of the Hennepin County Bar Association, his leadership skills are well-known. He is highly regarded, extremely well-liked, and exceptionally qualified to direct the MSBA through what could be a tumultuous year. And yet, a backward glance at Routman’s history hints that his current career path would have been anything but obvious to early observers.
To begin with, there was his rocky start in academic pursuits. Never an actual troublemaker, the young Brent Routman was nevertheless an underachiever in high school. As his mother, Sylvia Ogron, tactfully puts it, “He was full of personality and a lot of energy that wasn’t always directed where it should have been.” Lifelong friend Jeremy Shapiro gives a more unvarnished account of Routman’s high school years when he says, “He was wild about socializing and he just didn’t have anything left for studying.” Shapiro, a psychologist who still lives and practices in Cleveland where he and Routman grew up, remembers seeing his friend’s high school diploma on his office wall long after he had become an attorney. When asked why, he says Routman replied: “Because that’s the one I didn’t think I was going to get.”
The youngest of four children, Routman was born seven years after his closest sibling and only five years before his parents’ divorce. His mother raised the clan as a single parent until she remarried, and recalls leaving the children on their own while she worked in a dental office. Apparently the older children were not completely reliable as babysitters, as many of the family stories feature young Brent wandering off on his own—taking the family dog to a hardware store blocks away when he was only three, for example, and walking to his mother’s workplace unannounced when he was a bit older. Perhaps the early treks presaged Routman’s later love for travel (he has visited 30 countries to date); at the time, his mother says, they were more an indicator of an independent streak. Later, the independence and Routman’s native humor combined frequently, including the time his stepfather required him to mow the lawn before he could go out with friends. As his mother recalls, “I think Brent was showing rebellion at the time, and his stepfather was rather strict. So when the time came and he finished the job, there was a definite pattern on the grass—a great big peace sign was cut in, but the rest of the lawn wasn’t mowed. It was very funny, but I don’t think his stepfather was very happy about it.”
If the young Routman wasn’t much interested in studying or following orders, two things did capture his interest. One was civics, as taught by his 9th grade teacher, Clara Cowan, whom Routman calls “one of the most influential persons in my educational experience. She seemed elderly at the time but I’m guessing she was in her mid 60s, and very sharp. I learned about government from her and I loved it. As a result, I’ve always been politically active.”
The second revelation for the teenage Routman was music. Although he had played in school bands from a young age, discovering choral music made a big impact. However, even his love of music didn’t trump his sense of justice. As his friend Jeremy Shapiro recalls, “when the choir director demanded that the boys cut their hair for concert, Brent, who had “an incredible head of wild, curly, Afro-style hair that the girls loved,” chose instead not to perform, filed a formal complaint with the school board, and prevailed changing school policy. Building on his music studies, Routman eventually assumed leadership of a community choral group, The Uptown Trolley, and arranged local performances that netted each singer $200 or more a year—which, Shapiro is quick to point out, “was a lot more money in the ’70s.”
Still, singing and organizing shows isn’t the same as studying, and Routman’s grades showed the difference. When it came time to have “the college talk” in his senior year, the high school’s vice principal made a point of telling him that going to college would be a waste of time and money. They told his older brother Lloyd the same thing and he too is a practicing lawyer in Florida. Luckily for Routman, his independent streak announced itself and he went anyway, attending Ohio University at a time when Ohio mandated that state schools accept all high school graduate residents who applied. To this day Routman expresses gratitude for that mandate, without which he doubts he would have gained acceptance to a college at all.
Once inside the doors of the university, Routman completely reversed his course, buckling down to become a serious student. With no funding available from his family, he worked at whatever he could to pay tuition: from washing windows to waiting tables to serving as the residence hall advisor for international students. He excelled in his classes, won election as senior class president, took on professional internships, and graduated with cum laude after his name.
If the pattern for success in Routman’s life was finally established, the actual direction was not. At Ohio University he majored in psychology, fully intending to build a career as a clinical psychologist. He handled the classes well and managed to get through the crisis hotline job he took on the side. But somehow the intensive internship at the state mental hospital proved to be too much. At the end of a seemingly endless semester of talking with nonresponsive patients in the locked ward, he asked a nearly catatonic woman, “Are you okay? You seem tired today,” and received the surprising, but less-than-heartening response, “I’m tired of you.” For the extraverted Routman, it might have been the last nail in the coffin for a career in mental health. In any case, he submitted his application to law school, worked as a waiter to save money, and took off for a five-month backpacking trip in Europe with his soon-to-be-wife, Sarah. It was the beginning of dozens of international trips he was to make eventually, but first there were more career turns ahead, and more decision-making.
Among those career turns were the years Routman spent after law school as a partner in his brother’s Miami-based immigration practice. As much as he enjoyed the work, he says, Sarah’s pregnancy with their first daughter, Allison, convinced him that workdays ending at 11:30 p.m. were not good for a young family. He chose a new field, education, and set out to become a school administrator. But first he made a brief stop as a classroom teacher on a provisional license, working with 8th graders who had a multitude of challenges. This career path came to an abrupt halt when Routman was offered a role in the career services department of the University of Miami School of Law, followed by the directorship of the career center at the University of Georgia School of Law. Meanwhile, his family grew to three daughters.
It was during this period that the Routmans’ third daughter, Jacqueline, was diagnosed with a rare immune system disorder, requiring almost constant hospital care for nearly two years. Over the course of Jacqueline’s illness, Brent Routman focused on caring for the couple’s other two children, ages three and five, at their home in Georgia, while Sarah stayed in Jacqueline’s Duke University hospital room in North Carolina. Even with extensive support from their community, it was an unspeakably difficult situation for both Routmans, as well as for their children. While Brent juggled child care and work, Sarah advocated for her sick daughter, often sleeping on the bathroom floor in the hospital room to stay nearby. Despite their efforts, and two bone marrow transplants, Jacqueline died at 21 months of age.
Both Sarah and Brent say that the experience of caring for and losing a sick child created a bond in their family and a method of coping with difficulty that remains in place today. It’s a sentiment echoed by daughters Allison (24) and Monica (20), who were raised with an appreciation for working together to overcome challenges. “We have a strong family structure,” Allison says. “We’ve dealt with a lot of stuff that’s unique to our family; that brought us closer together.” Sarah also describes a change in her approach to others after this experience. “There’s no question that I became a more generous person,” she says. “I think that when you go through something like this it makes you much more in tune with others. As for our take on life, you don’t know if you’ll get a second chance. This is in keeping with our Jewish values in that you make your life count. Our family will never be the same and we talk about that. The four of us are very close.”
Minnesota & Beyond
The Routmans stayed in their Georgia home another year after Jacqueline’s death and might be there still had Brent not gotten a surprising offer from a former colleague and friend turned law firm recruitment coordinator. “I’ve got the perfect job for you,” she reportedly told him, while describing her law firm that wanted someone versed in management and intellectual property. When he demurred, she replied “Oh, just send me your resume.” Not long after, he was flying north for interviews and studying for Minnesota’s bar exam; two weeks after accepting the job with Merchant & Gould, Routman and his family had packed and moved. Routman was back in a firm again, serving clients.
That was 1995 and, to hear Routman tell it, no one was more surprised than he was at this turn of events. Although he had invented one product and licensed another (see sidebar), he was not touting himself as an IP expert; nor was he remotely considering a return to law practice. But he had reached “the top of the learning curve” at the University of Georgia and the chance to take on new challenges was most welcome. “I am interested in inventive activity,” he explains. “I am an entrepreneur at heart and this is the perfect setting because you deal with entrepreneurs and cutting edge, creative people.” Routman began his tenure at Merchant & Gould by overseeing the international patent filings, then added the duties of chief operating officer. By 2006, he had exchanged those roles for a new position that he developed as general counsel, serving the firm’s attorneys as they wrestle with ethics questions that arise in the practice. Through every transition, Routman has maintained his own practice and his role as Asia Regional Trademark Attorney, a combination which takes him out of the country on a frequent basis.
To his friend Jeremy Shapiro, with whom Routman has remained close, the work with Merchant & Gould represents the poetic completion of an arc begun in Routman’s teens, grounded in his outgoing nature. “There’s a really nice macroscopic trajectory in this,” Shapiro says. “That social thirst he had his whole life worked against him in high school. When he got to college he found a way to keep the social and academic sides going, but now in his legal career he’s actually fused the two together. It’s part of the engine for the way he practices law. He’s networking with people all over the world, he’s making friends all over the world, and he brings business to his firm because he’s found that combination of connecting with people and doing the work.”
According to Randy King, chairman of Merchant & Gould, that assessment is pretty accurate. “The guy knows everybody,” he says. “You go to a foreign country with that man and somebody knows him. It’s amazing.” King also appreciates Routman’s ability to turn a negative situation to the positive through the force of his personality and hard work. “He had a very difficult situation a few months ago,” King says, “involving a date that had been missed at the firm on a foreign filing, through pure human clerical error. It resulted in the loss of some rights in the Netherlands, which he had to explain to the company. So he and the company president went in person to the appeals board in the Netherlands and made a presentation that got the rights reversed. I heard from the president of the company what a fantastic job he did and how he turned it around. We were all sweating bullets over it.”
Kay Fredericks, president and CEO of TREND Enterprises, a longtime client of Merchant & Gould, also has good things to say about being represented by Routman. “Brent is one of TREND’s best friends,” Fredericks says. “He is a natural teacher who obviously enjoys seeing people learn and grow. My team always enjoys working with Brent because he is so friendly and capable.”
An Entrepreneur is Born
Brent Routman, incoming MSBA President, describes himself as “an entrepreneur at heart.” And indeed, the record shows that to be true.
Like generations of college students before him, he of course launched the customary service company to pay tuition. In Routman’s case it was a one-person window-washing business that suffered a setback when he fell off a second-story deck. After crawling to a neighbor’s for a ride to the hospital, he emerged with crutches and a furlough from scrubbing panes of glass—as well as a valued handicap parking sticker to use at concerts while his broken foot healed up.
Transitioning from services to products was a smart move, and
Routman deserves serious kudos for his invention of a smoke detector that wakes sleeping children with evacuation instructions in their parents’ voices. Winner of the Consumer Electronics Show top “Best of Innovations” award, KidSmart continues to build sales since Routman and his partner sold licensing rights to a manufacturer/
If KidSmart merits respect for its potential to save lives, Routman’s other product—pickles—earns credit for simply adding amusement to the world. The year was 1992 and the Routman family was living in Athens, Georgia, a virtual desert when it comes to crunchy, kosher-style pickles. Unable to buy his favorite deli treat in the south, Routman reasoned that others must also be suffering. A series of conversations ensued and soon Routman had pickle licensing rights and the agreement of three friends—all busy professionals with their own careers—to join him in forming the Mensch Brothers Pickle Company. As Neil Rubinstein, one of the Mensch Brothers, notes ruefully,
“If Brent says he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it and if he’s your friend, you’re going to help him. It’s that simple.”
Which is how Rubinstein, who doesn’t even like pickles, found himself handing out samples in Kroger’s from a jar with his face on the label. As he describes it now, “It was pathetic. What did we know about pickles? The only one with any sales experience was me and I’d never even eaten a pickle.”
To make it worse, Rubinstein says, “It was a refrigerated product and yes, we were shipping these to Georgia. Our cars smelled like pickles.”
Nevertheless, the four men—Routman, Rubinstein, an IT professor, and an engineer—gave themselves a crash course in everything from designing labels to negotiating for shelf space. And of course, Routman’s family got involved. Daughter Allison, now 24, distinctly remembers handing out those samples, despite the fact that she doesn’t like pickles either. In truth, she says, no one in the Routman family likes them, except of course, Brent. For her part, Routman’s wife Sarah says, “I always wanted it to be chocolate chip cookies.”
Sadly, the reign of Mensch Brothers Pickles was a short one. The partners found it nearly impossible to balance their jobs with store appearances and the (very) occasional honor of signing pickle labels (Routman is the Mensch on the far right, by the way.)
Both Sarah and Rubinstein admit that the venture was fun, and Sarah loyally avows that profits would have followed if they’d had more time. Brent’s mother, Sylvia Ogron, might not go that far (“Remember the expression: ‘Don’t give up your day job,’” she says knowingly) but she’s still glad he did it.
“I knew from the moment he was born that he was going to be special,” Ogron says. “And he is. Does that sound like a proud mother talking? It is. I’m very proud of him.”
Oy—just like it says on the pickle label.
Leading the Bar
Of course, being a good attorney is one thing; being a good leader is another. How will Routman fit as head of the MSBA? According to Chuck Lundberg, partner at Bassford Remele in Minneapolis, that will be a natural transition for Routman, whom he has known since the mid 1990s. “I’ve known every Bar president going back 20 years and Brent’s perfect for the role,” Lundberg says. “I see him as a compromise-oriented, smooth-the-way, bring-things-to-consensus kind of guy. He’s not a bull-headed kind of leader.”
The Hon. Lorie Gildea, Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, echoes that confidence in Routman. “I’ve known him since he was involved in leadership with the Hennepin County Bar Association,” she says. “Brent is an innovative and energetic leader who understands the importance of the partnership between the bench and the bar.”
Routman himself cites several reasons he relishes the difficult task of leading attorneys: “It gives me a platform to make a difference, to be creative, to come up with programming, to enrich my life and the lives of others … and I think there’s a need. Bar association leadership is gratifying work.”
Sonia Miller-Van Oort, owner-member of Sapientia Law Group in Minneapolis, is especially excited to see Routman head the MSBA after experiencing his leadership style in committees. “He’s particularly good at building consensus and being inclusive, and he is amazing in meetings,” she says. “He deals with the difficult issues and makes sure that everybody at the table is heard. It’s one of the traits I’ve tried to learn from him.”
As a past-president of the Hennepin County Bar Association, Miller-Van Oort has particular appreciation for Routman’s accomplishments while he held that post (2004-2005). While some of his initiatives had roots in his earlier roles on the HCBA executive committee, his productivity for the year included trimming the board of directors extensively; rolling out the LINC program (Leaders Impacting the Nonprofit Community) which trains up to 20 attorneys a year in effective volunteerism; establishing the Council of Sections to ensure widespread inclusion in Bar operations; and even creating the Bench/Bar book club (with the Hon. Gary Larson, retired senior Hennepin County judge), which is still going strong.
Given that background, one could imagine Routman has some ideas for the MSBA as well. And indeed he does, jotted down while on a flight to Miami and ready to be brought to the appropriate committees and teams for discussion and action when the time is right. Routman promises more detail along the way, but for starters, he’s got five initiatives in mind: 1) To develop more cohesiveness within the MSBA, including sections and committees; 2) To advance civic education in some way; 3) To introduce structural changes that will help the organization act with more agility; 4) To start a conversation on a broader scale to address problems in legal education and the practice of law; and 5) To revive the Council of Bar Leaders and create an organization giving the sections a venue for direct feedback to the association.
And that’s just for starters. If anyone doubts Routman’s sincerity or ability to reach the goals he sets, it might help to remember that bumblebee: However indirect its course may appear, this productive creature not only arrives at its destination, but also manages to ensure the pollination and regeneration of the plants it passes on the way.
Or, as Routman wrote in his statement when he put himself forward for the role: “For better or worse, I am a person who loves developing and seeing good ideas blossom.” Bzzzz.
Brent in Brief
- Born in Atlanta, Georgia; raised in Cleveland, Ohio
- Married to Sarah Routman; children: Jacqueline (deceased), Allison (24) and Monica (20)
- Currently lives in Minnetonka, MN
- Cleveland Heights High School, 1974
- Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, cum laude, Ohio University, 1979
- Juris Doctor, Cleveland Marshall College of Law, 1982
- Minnesota State Bar, 1996
- Florida State Bar, 1983
- Merchant & Gould, Minneapolis, 1995–present. Partner, General Counsel, and Asia Regional Trademark Attorney; former Chief Operating Officer
- University of Georgia School of Law, 1989–1995; Director of Legal Career Services
- University of Miami School of Law, 1987–1989; Assistant Director of Career Services
- Routman & Routman Attorneys at Law, Miami, 1984–1987; Partner
Experienced in trademark, copyright, internet and advertising law, as well as domain name disputes, litigation, and international IP law.
- Inventor/founder, KidSmart smoke detector, 2003–present
- Cofounder, Mensch Brothers Pickle Company, 1992–1994
- Owner/operator, window-washing service during college
- “Super Lawyer” designation, Minnesota Super Lawyers, 2006, 2007, 2011
- Attorney of the Year, 2004; one of 15 nominated statewide by Minnesota Lawyer
- AV peer review rating, Martindale-Hubbell
- Best of Innovations Award, 2003 Consumer Electronics Show, for invention of KidSmart smoke alarm
American Bar Association
- Member, House of Delegates, 2007–present
- Cochair, Patent and Trademark Office Affairs, Trademarks IPL, 2006–2008
- Chair, Information Division of IPL, 2003–2004
- Chair, Ethics and Professional Responsibility Committee IPL, 2000–2002
- Chair, Special Committee on Global Patent Costs IPL, 1998–2000
- Representative, World IP Organization Standing Committee on Patent Law, Geneva, 2001
- Representative, 5th International Symposium on IP, Paris, 2001
- ABA Observer, 1st Diplomatic Conference on the Patent Law Treaty, Geneva, 2000
Minnesota State Bar Association (current roles)
- President, 2011–2012
- Chair, LawPAC, 2009–present
- Member, Governance Committee, 2008–2010
- Representative, ABA House of Delegates, 2008–present
- Member, Legislative Affairs Committee
Hennepin County Bar Association
- President, 2004–2005
- Cochair, Nominating Committee, 2009–2010
- Founder, Leaders Impacting the Nonprofit Community (LINC) Program
- Founder, Bench/Bar Book Club
- Founder, Council of Sections
- Cofounder, Pro Bono Advisory Board HCBA/VLN/HCBF
- Coalition for Impartial Justice: recent past-president of large coalition of nonprofit groups and bar associations created to ensure continued impartiality of the state courts through merit selection and retention elections
- Fellow, American Bar Foundation
- Member, American Intellectual Property Law Association
- Member, International Trademark Law Association
- Member, Minneapolis Cardozo Society
You Might Not Have Known…
- Routman loves the television show West Wing and owns a full set of all the episodes
- He has sung in performance groups and takes weekly lessons with a voice coach
- He ran for Minnetonka City Council a few years ago and won in the runoff against five others, but lost in the next round—somewhat to his wife’s relief
- He enjoys playing poker and is always open to the next game
ARTICLE BY AMY LINDGREN