JOHANNA CLYBORNE is a partner and shareholder at Brekke, Clyborne & Ribich, LLC, where she practices in family, criminal, and military family law. She regularly advises on military benefits and Military Pension Division issues. When not practicing law, Johanna actively serves in the Minnesota Army National Guard as a brigade commander, holding the rank colonel.
How would you describe your practice?
I focus on family law, criminal defense, and legal issues particular to the United States Armed Forces. I do a lot of military family law. I also handle military pension division cases either as a neutral for attorneys and their clients or as an expert for one side.
Lawyers are more than legal technicians. My partners and I view ourselves as advocates and counselors, not just in law but in life. We help obtain justice through honesty, commitment, and genuine compassion.
What led you to choose a small firm practice?
I met my law partners, Rebecca Ribich and Barbara Brekke, on my first day of law school at the University of
St. Thomas. We were a little older than most of our classmates. We each had families and previously successful careers, as well as similar values.
After my first year of law school, I clerked for the 10th Judicial District Public Defender office. Later, I interviewed with a large law firm where an associate excitedly told me that she was finally getting to work with a client and would be helping prepare for an upcoming deposition. Naïvely, I asked how long she had been with the firm. “Five years.” I had just spent the summer appearing in court and interacting with clients, and I was enrolled in the law school’s family law clinic, where I handled cases. I did not want to wait years before doing those things again.
By this time, my law partners and I were sitting together in all of our classes and folks were referring to us as “the firm.” In our third year we thought, why not? It took a lot of risk and brazenness, and the learning curve was steep. But for the last 10 years it has been the ideal fit.
What do you value in your practice?
Flexibility. The ability to leave at 3:00, work from home and choose projects and clients means a lot to me. I value the ability to get business done as I schedule it.
What aspects of your practice are particularly challenging?
I have two professions, one on the legal side and one on the military side. Being in the military has served my practice well, but it can be hard to balance the two. Currently I am serving as a brigade commander, and it takes a lot of time. Deploying or leaving for extended military duty and handing off files can be challenging.
Additionally, our firm doesn’t have support staff. I set my appointments, call clients, receive last-minute motions, and handle administrative support functions. Each partner also has her own firm-related responsibilities. My assignment is technology, which includes software, hardware, and server issues. One of my partners has billing, the other office management. We do a lot behind the scenes that does not necessarily involve practicing law.
When you face a challenge, what resources are helpful to you?
My law partners are my first stop. They are my best friends and confidants. I also have a couple of mentors I turn to. The worst thing solo or small firm practitioners can do is isolate themselves from the community, legal or civic. Being able to bounce issues off someone else helps me keep within ethical boundaries and strive for a higher standard in my work.
How is being a bar association member worthwhile?
I believe there is an obligation as part of a profession to support those organizations that support you. The bar association does that for me. The MSBA listservs are an incredible resource. I am a member of four: solo/small, family law, criminal law, and the military and veterans section. I learn a lot by scanning the messages and, when needed, I can post a question or concern. The support and guidance is overwhelming.
What activities do you enjoy away from work?
I don’t have a lot of down time right now. When I do have time and the weather is nice, I love to run. I enjoy reading but seem to have forgotten what it is like to read a non-professional book. My husband and daughter are Disney World addicts. Okay—I might be, too. When we are at Disney, we all can be kids again.
Where do you see the practice of law heading in the future, particularly for the small firm practitioner?
I see movement toward virtual offices and the increased use of technology in order to compete with increased demand for cost-effective legal services and to create more work/life balance for attorneys. I also think there will be more need for unbundled legal services.