Going the Distance with Richard Kyle
With respect to all past MSBA presidents: The Minnesota State Bar Association may be welcoming the most physically fit leader ever to take the post when the gavel passes to Richard Kyle this summer. And, as luck would have it, he’s an endurance athlete rather than a sprinter—a distinction that gains meaning when placed next to Kyle’s goals for the organization.
This is the year Richard Kyle intends to build on what past presidents have begun, from Brent Routman’s restructuring of the governing body to Bob Enger’s leadership of the revised Council to Phil Duran’s reorganization of key committees and structures. “Now the table is set,” Kyle says. “We have no excuses anymore. We couldn’t have done it without the past presidents’ work, but now we have to carry it forward.”
The “it” Kyle refers to is the reshaping of the Minnesota State Bar Association to meet the challenges of a changing legal profession and the needs of an ever-more diverse membership. And the urgency he conveys springs from the certain knowledge that the future is much closer than anyone might imagine.
To achieve this vision, Kyle says he is planning a year of streamlining and refocusing in lieu of introducing new initiatives. “The MSBA has become stretched too thin,” he says. “My agenda is to begin a sustained, multiyear effort to focus the MSBA’s resources on what it does best. For example, we have great sections, popular online services, and a strong legislative presence. We need to build on those successful programs and up our game in other areas such as diversity.”
The goals are ambitious, even if they’re not particularly flashy. To capitalize on the organization’s current strengths while simultaneously improving less robust areas will require a full-force approach without the emotional lift that comes from introducing something new. This sounds like a job for an endurance athlete. Luckily, the Bar has one at hand.
The sports Kyle loves best are those that demand the most from him, physically and mentally. A former runner, the 52-year-old switched to bike racing a few years ago after discovering spin classes at the local Y. In 2009 he graduated to exceptionally intense workouts led by Sophie St-Jacques, an international cycling champion, and Larry Foss, an expert level coach who helped prepare Olympians for the Sydney and Athens games. At twice-weekly sessions at The Fix Studio in Minneapolis, Kyle trains at a notably high level, eliciting Foss’s assessment of him as “a ridiculously good athlete.” Foss elaborates, “Richard has some God-given ability, the work ethic, and an ability to suffer. That’s critical because suffering is part of the work to get better. The best athletes I’ve coached have patience, they focus on goals, they have the ability to get along with others. If you don’t have those, you won’t do well; Richard has those.”
Wait–suffering? It turns out this sport hasn’t been without pain for Kyle. A member of an amateur racing team (the Loon State Cycling Club), he has twice sustained injuries in races that required surgery. And while the broken wrist didn’t cramp his style, Kyle doesn’t want to repeat the experience of trying a case with an arm strapped to his side, as he did for a six-week recovery from the broken ribs and collarbone. Partly as a precaution, and largely as a life-balance issue, Kyle plans to forgo racing and many of his long rides this year as he pursues his goals for the Bar Association.
Some of the rides he’ll miss most are those he takes with Steve Wells, partner in charge of the Trial Group at Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis. Wells, who also does The Fix workout, frequently enjoys a weekend coffee with Kyle—as part of a 60- to 75-mile bike circuit from the metro to Stillwater or Delano. Wells describes his friend as “Type A+.” He explains, “The ‘plus’ is he’s one of the most generous and selfless and social people that I know. But he pushes very hard. This is a metaphor for Richard’s life.”
On the other hand, Wells says, Kyle will abandon his own aspirations in an instant if someone’s in trouble. “If you’re riding with him or racing and you falter, he’s the first person to drop back to stay with you,” Wells notes. “I’ve experienced that personally, more than once. Richard is right there, making sure you’re not having heat stroke. And his time goes out the window. That’s his personality; he’s always looking out for other people.”
Surprisingly, Kyle didn’t discover his love for cycling, running , and most recently, cross-country skiing until later in life. Indeed, as a youth he was almost comically mismatched in sports when he followed his friends into football. As a 5th grader, size differences didn’t matter much, but the story changed as he moved onto high school teams and faced opponents almost twice his size. Kyle wisely skipped the football tryouts when he entered St. Olaf College to study history.
Choosing a Profession
Just as it took him a while to find his sport, neither did Kyle gravitate immediately to the legal profession. This despite the fact that he’s a fourth-generation lawyer whose father (United States District Judge Richard H. Kyle), grandfather (Richard E. Kyle) and great-great uncle (John P. Kyle) all practiced law in St. Paul. If that weren’t enough to influence a child’s future, consider that the young Kyle was also christened the godson of Warren Spannaus—former Minnesota Attorney General (1971-1983) and his father’s good friend. Despite all these influences, Kyle initially downgraded law as a vocation, instead entertaining thoughts of becoming a journalist,
an Episcopalian minister, and even a Foreign Service officer. It wasn’t until a year after graduating, while studying in Oxford, that Kyle finally submitted applications to law school.
Having settled the question of becoming a lawyer, Kyle found that the next decision came more easily. As a law clerk for Ramsey County District Court Judge Margaret Marrinan, he had only to observe the criminal defense lawyers in action to know that he wanted to join their ranks. “I was sitting in the courtroom and it was like, ‘wow,’” Kyle recalls. “There’s much more at stake—the client’s liberty. And the lawyers just seemed to be having more fun.” Even so, he didn’t make the move immediately. When he learned that criminal defense is most commonly a solo venture, he accepted a position doing business litigation with Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi in Minneapolis while planning his eventual self-employment. He even took a practice swing as a part-time member of the federal public defender panel, taking public defender cases on the side.
Kyle stayed five years at Robins before deciding he was ready to go solo. It was a risky move and a difficult decision, both because he was doing well at Robins and because he and his wife, Elizabeth Wittenberg, were expecting their second child. Going solo wasn’t the most obvious choice in those circumstances but Kyle couldn’t shake his desire to do criminal defense. “I just wanted to try cases,” he recalls. “I wanted to do what I saw the lawyers doing when I was clerking. But there were a lot of trial lawyers already at Robins so I figured it was going to be a long line. So I leaped.”
Kyle cushioned the transition by officing with other criminal defense lawyers in a converted Minneapolis mansion at 2520 Park Avenue. Called simply “2520” by its denizens, the building housed a host of solo practitioners who provided advice, lunch conversation, and a sense of friendly competition that nourished Kyle’s fledgling practice.
He needed that collegiality, he says, to carry him over frequent losses and rough spots, such as the early client who refused to pay more than half his fee. Based on sage advice from a 2520 colleague (“Well, Richard, how fat is your checkbook?”), Kyle took the case and experienced one of his rare early wins. “I was so glad I took that case,” he says now. “I was just so relieved to win one after getting the snot kicked out of me so many times.” He commemorates the case and three others by keeping framed notices of the acquittals on his office wall, much as other attorneys display vaunted diplomas and professional awards.
Meanwhile, Kyle hadn’t let his personal life languish. Having met his wife Elizabeth at church—a courtship she laughingly calls “so wholesome it was almost treacle-y”—Kyle was ready to settle down. Also an attorney, Wittenberg was already practicing law at Dorsey & Whitney while Kyle was completing law school. Later, when she worked as inhouse counsel at General Mills, it was her steady paycheck that made Kyle’s self-employment feasible. “We felt we could swing it,” Wittenberg says, “even with two kids (Peter, now 21 and Joe, 18). “We’ve both had very big shifts where we’ve taken turns supporting the other. This isn’t a very sexy way to put it, but I feel like we’re yoked together, very partnered. We’re in it together, as parents, and in our lives together.”
Indeed, Wittenberg later made a similar leap when she left the practice of law to pursue training and licensure as a therapist. Now she is the self-employed solo practitioner in the household and Kyle is the one providing a steady paycheck. That change of venue occurred for Kyle when he let himself be wooed back into the life of a large law firm by a former officemate at 2520, John Lundquist. After eight years in a thriving private practice, Kyle says he wanted to compete for bigger cases—something he couldn’t easily do without more infrastructure.
To prove that Kyle didn’t leave his humor behind when he joined Fredrikson & Byron, Lundquist enjoys telling about one of Kyle’s smaller cases, involving university students. “The client was given a complaint in very formal, legalistic terms that accused the defendant of underage consumption on such-and-such a date and such-and-such a place, and then it says, very formally, ‘To whit, Whapatui.’ If you don’t know what Whapatui is, it’s a classic kind of fraternity drink where you get whatever alcohol or fruit juice you can and you pour it into a kettle and you drink it—the stronger the better. Well, Richard decided we had to reenact the crime. So he made Whapatui and we all had to drink it, which we do now every year in commemoration.”
Humor aside, Kyle’s spouse Elizabeth calls his field of criminal defense “noble work” and a calling that uses his gift for understanding human motivation. “We often joke that he’s the real psychoanalyst in our household,” she says. “He’s very much a student of human interaction.” His father, Judge Richard H. Kyle, agrees, saying “He’s a good guy and he has an ability to relate to people. He’s interested as much in them as he is in their case.” And, although Judge Kyle feigns surprise that his son carried on as a fourth-generation attorney (“I thought he’d be a minister”), he’s happy about the younger Kyle’s decision to go into criminal defense. “I like that choice for him because he loves what he’s doing. But I don’t think I could do what he does,” the senior Kyle notes dryly. “It’s pretty hard to lose that many cases.”
Well, actually, Kyle’s doing something right, given 12 years of being named a Super Lawyer and the consistent level of referrals he receives from attorneys in other firms. But yes, the life of a criminal defense lawyer is frequently one of defeat. Jon Hopeman, a partner with Felhaber Larson, has referred numerous cases to Kyle and even worked together with him on a jury trial in 2006 in which one represented the son and the other the father in a federal fraud case. As he recounts it, “We worked very intensively on that matter for more than a year. It was a great experience for me. Richard and I got very close to our clients and their family. It was a fun case until we lost!”
Shaking Things Up
Kyle, who is known for his intensity, has not confined that quality to his work and athletic pursuits. He has been active as a leader as well, taking such high-level roles as president of the Ramsey County Bar Association, senior warden of his church, and participant on the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board. In anticipation of his MSBA presidency, he recently rotated off of a three-year commitment as a founding board member of Call for Justice, a new nonprofit developed to create civil, legal access for people of low income.
Ellen Krug, executive director of Call for Justice, praises Kyle for his leadership style, as well as his multigenerational appeal. “I think he’s a great role model,” she says. “He’s very fit, very active, and he has a wonderful sense of humor. He has the ability to bridge between the older folks in the profession and the younger folks.”
In truth, bridging the generation gap in the MSBA is one of the challenges Kyle is preparing to meet in his year as president. In addition to the self-evident fact that a new generation is entering the field as a record number of members begin their retirement, the association must also account for a change in services new lawyers need and a difference in how they access those services. To assist in that analysis, Kyle says he will rely on reports from two task forces launched last year: one addressing The Future of Legal Education, and the other, Challenges to the Practice of Law. “I think the challenges are to remain relevant for our members,” Kyle says. “We have to deal with this new normal in the profession.”
Krug, for one, has no doubt Kyle will be able to adapt to the new normal and bring others along with him. To explain, she tells this story from an early meeting of the legal education task force, of which she is a member. “When we went around the table—and that includes law school deans and justices—we all said what we wanted the committee to accomplish. Richard was near the end and when it was his turn, he said something that really put a smile on my face. He said, ‘I want to shake things up.’ I thought it was great that in a room full of powerful people Richard would say, ‘You know, we need to do some things different.’”
John Koneck, president of Fredrikson & Byron, also appreciates Kyle’s meeting style, which he sees as an outward sign of his personality and approach. He says, “To see what kind of person Richard Kyle is, all you have to do is watch him in a large group of people. He connects with people in the group one by one by first listening to them and then responding, rather than just talking at them. His style makes him an excellent lawyer and a great leader. We know that at Fredrikson & Byron, and now the whole Minnesota State Bar Association will find out.”
Kyle, for his part, is ready to continue on the next leg of an endurance event that began for him three years ago when he stepped onto the MSBA leadership track as secretary. “It’s a very exciting time to be part of the Bar,” he says. “We have huge challenges ahead of us, but those are the fun times. There will be real opportunities for lawyers to step up. It’s a time for experimenting and trying new things, because now we have to. I’m looking forward to it.”
Is today Tuesday? Thursday? If it’s early (6:30 a.m.), then you know where you can find MSBA President Richard Kyle: On his bike at The Fix Studio in Minneapolis. But don’t count on talking to him there, at least until the workout is over. With the exception of short comments shared with neighboring cyclists, the riders in this intense session are eerily silent, their eyes fixed on the computer screens providing individualized readouts of every measurable output: wattage, heart rate, calories burned, and miles pedaled.
Indeed, the entire studio is quiet, except for the constant whir of rotating tires and the trainer’s calm voice directing the intervals as she moves behind eight early-morning riders. With its meditative music and dark-hued walls, this minimalist studio seems more like a church than a gym. In place of pews there are a dozen stations designed to hold bikes in place as riders spin their legs in ever faster bursts of power. Each row of bikes faces a brick wall, its surface temporarily illuminated with the sequence of intervals for the workout. Taking in the experience as a visitor, it’s difficult not to think of those worship services where the hymns are projected on a screen behind the pulpit. That spell is broken, however, by the stately but curious Mavis, the studio’s standard poodle, who can’t resist nosing up to the new person.
It’s difficult to discern at first, but it eventually becomes clear that this workout has rhythms. Discovering later that the riders have been competing with themselves to match earlier defined personal thresholds of endurance brings the session into focus. Kyle, for example, later prints a readout of his effort that tells him the details: He has spent this first hour of the morning riding at an average pace of 20 mph, but as fast as 33 mph; he has “traveled” more than 20 miles in less than an hour and pushed his heart rate all the way to 187 beats per minute. He has charts to tell him the power he has been putting out in terms of watts per kilogram, and even a breakdown of output for each minute he has pedaled. For a person whose work and Bar leadership defy measurement (3 meetings x 10 people = what outcome?) the crisp readouts must be a welcome reassurance that effort does provide results.
When the session ends, Kyle and the others—including his wife Elizabeth Wittenberg and his good friend Steve Wells—unhook their bikes and scatter around the studio to stretch out or savor a cup of coffee before starting their work days. Taken on a larger scale, this workout could be counted as an interval in the day; the day is an interval in the week, and the week adds to 51 others to make a year. If you look at things from Kyle’s perspective, the rhythms of a year in leadership are built on just such intervals. And, yes, like the workout, the year will benefit from Kyle’s intensity—but even more from his endurance and balance.
Eating for Endurance
How do you plan meals for a daylong bike ride—when you don’t intend to get off the bike? According to Elizabeth Wittenberg, her husband Richard Kyle has been known to prepare cases of what she calls “rice cake pucks” to ship ahead to bike races.
If you should be planning a long meeting or other endurance event, you might want to try this recipe from The Feed Zone Cookbook by Biju Thomas and Allen Lim (Velo Press, 2011, reprinted from USATriathalon.org).
Rice cake pucks
- Combine 2 cups uncooked calrose or other medium-grain sticky rice with 3 cups water in a rice cooker.
- While rice is cooking, chop up and fry 8 ounces of bacon, draining off the fat.
- 3. Beat 4 eggs in a small bowl and then scramble on high heat.
- In a large bowl, or in the rice cooker, combine the cooked rice, bacon and scrambled eggs.
- Add 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce or liquid amino acids; add brown sugar to taste
- Press mixture into an 8- or 9-inch square baking pan to about 1½ inch thickness.
- Top with more brown sugar, salt, and grated parmesan cheese, to taste.
- Cut up and wrap individual cakes. Makes about 10.