Blair Nelson is an MSBA Certified Criminal Law Specialist who has been based in Bemidji since 1996. He is licensed in Minnesota and North Dakota’s State and Federal courts. He is a graduate of the University of North Dakota, and the University of North Dakota School of Law.
How would you describe your practice?
I practice in the areas of criminal defense and gun law throughout northern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota. My caseload primarily consists of major felonies, but I handle everything from traffic violations through homicides. I have a substantial “pre-charging” practice where I represent people under investigation for allegations of physical and sexual abuse or other misconduct with the goal of preventing charges from ever being filed. My gun law practice deals with permit to carry and firearm right restoration cases as well as consultations and outreach on the legal environment surrounding gun ownership. I have recently begun drafting gun trusts in response to the legalization of suppressors in Minnesota.
What led you to choose a small firm practice?
Small firm practice chose me by virtue of geography, as small towns typically feature either solo/small firm or public practice. In the course of my career I have realized that, while it is nearly impossible to turn off the lawyer when you go home to your personal life, effective lawyering is magnified once a person figures out who they are and builds a practice around their personal strengths and interests. The flexibility of small firm practice is an ideal environment for that model to thrive.
What do you value in your practice?
I am constantly humbled by the faith demonstrated by clients who put their freedom and reputation in my firm’s hands. I am heartened and encouraged by the members of the bench and bar that take the time and demonstrate a commitment to problem-solving in each case to find a just result. As criminal allegations arise from every corner of the human condition, I am constantly challenged with interesting cases.
What aspects of your practice are particularly challenging?
Criminal laws seem to be the afterthought of a legislative process that is increasingly focused on collecting and spending money. When criminal justice receives attention, the result is laws enacted to punish and/or prevent recent tragedies or deal with monolithic bogeymen like “drunk drivers,” “drug dealers,” “gang members,” and “predatory sexual offenders.” These increasingly broad definitions homogenize treatment of those within the class without regard for their particular conduct or circumstances. Getting courts, juries, and prosecutors to understand clients as unique people, acting within the world as they know it, is the eternal challenge of a criminal defense practice.
When you face a challenge, what resources are helpful to you?
I rely heavily on my network of colleagues all over the state (and nation) to find new angles in both legal theory and practical presentation. My wife, Jennifer, is the managing public defender in the Bemidji office and her practical brilliance is the perfect sounding board when I am stuck on an issue. One of the biggest challenges of criminal defense practice is incomplete investigations of the underlying facts by law enforcement. Resources are scarce, and the authorities often compile enough facts to arrest and charge without getting the complete picture. I have employed a full-time investigator for over a decade and cannot imagine practicing criminal law without one on staff.
How is being a bar association member worthwhile?
The MSBA Specialist Certification program has given me another tool for my practice to stand out to potential clients. I have also gained immeasurable benefits from the Solo/Small and CrimLaw listserv groups.
What activities do you enjoy away from work?
Work and life merge at times, as criminal and gun law dovetail with shooting sports and the study of ballistic science. I love to take advantage of the hunting and fishing the Northwoods has to offer and happily tell clients that I have never billed a minute with a firearm or fishing rod in hand. I express myself through cooking (especially social barbeque) and may make the best gumbo “north of the Mississippi.”
Where do you see the practice of law heading in the future, particularly for the small firm practitioner?
Technological advances have radically advanced the practice of law in small communities and will continue to do so in the future. Marketing a niche practice is much more viable in the internet age, where clients have endless information about lawyers and the services offered as opposed to when clients found lawyers through the local phone directory and word-of-mouth. While I maintain a “brick and mortar” storefront, the majority of my cases are venued outside my home county. I see many lawyers are successfully going “nomad” and operating out of virtual offices.