GERALD WALLACE, a native of Duluth, focuses his practice in the areas of Criminal Defense, Family, Estate, Probate, and Real Estate. He received his undergraduate degree from Hamline University and his J.D. from the University of Dayton (Ohio). He is married with two children.
What led you to open a solo practice right after getting your attorney’s license in 2014?
I didn’t want to work for anyone. I wanted to set my own hours so I would be home for dinner, be able to coach my kids in little league and just generally be able to go to the things that make families families. In law school, I clerked at a few firms and found that I hated what being an associate would mean. Also, being a part-time public defender made life a lot easier starting out. I had insurance, I had an income, and I had some immediate connections and resources to draw on. Both of my parents are attorneys (my father retired and left the practice; I still work with my mother), so I knew going to law school the hours required to solo-practice and I knew that in the end, it would be the right opportunity to practice law the way I felt I should practice.
Why did you choose to practice in Duluth?
I grew up here. I wanted to raise my kids in the same place I grew up. Duluth is known as the largest small town—or the smallest city. It’s a great place to raise your family. It has a small legal community. That type of environment makes it a great place to work and solve problems, not just litigate cases. You know the attorney on the other side of the case. Sometimes your kids go to school together, or play on the same teams. It makes it easier to pick up the phone and have a conversation with someone. This can really help get cases done.
How do you combine your work as a solo practitioner and assistant public defender?
The overlap lies in the combination of skills. As a public defender I spend a lot of time in a courtroom, which inevitably carries over into my work in family law litigation. But at the same time I spent a lot of time advising a lot of clients. I have had a lot of time working with clients from every background and point of view. This is important, because we are in the business of helping people solve problems. So no matter who is getting advised on what, the skills are the same. How you deliver the information is the same. I think the combination of the subject areas is not really a concern.
You are active in the Volunteer Attorney Program and received the Pro Bono Commitment to Community Award for your representation of the disadvantaged. What motivates you to provide pro bono services?
Upbringing and ethics. I’ve always thought that everyone deserves an equal opportunity. In some ways, there is nothing worse than being poor in America, because everything you could ever want is just out of reach. There’s also the obvious advantages of gaining experience and developing the ever-important connections with colleagues. But the bottom line is that as long as there are courts, people will need lawyers, and people without money or means need lawyers too.
When I was kid growing up there was a guy at my synagogue here in Duluth named Bob Karon, a lawyer we all called Uncle Bob. At his funeral, a story was told about him. A client of his was a Russian immigrant woman who was a violin virtuoso. Bob had her teach him to play the violin, not because he really wanted to learn to play the violin but because he knew there was dignity in treating people not as charity cases but as equals. My faith teaches me that there is dignity in allowing people to provide their service to you rather than feel the indignity of accepting charity. That’s the highest level of giving a person can do.
Do you have any advice for law students or young attorneys thinking of starting their own firms?
The best advice I can give to a young lawyer going out on their own is to find a couple of boomer lawyers who have an extra desk and some time to answer your questions. You won’t always know which questions to ask, but the more time you spend with people who know something, the better off you are. I would also recommend cultivating a lot of different resources for advice. What works for one person doesn’t work for someone else.
If you are coming out of law school, figure out what it is you want to do with the degree and start hanging out in places where you can get noticed. Find a mentor in law school who can help you get a job or get cases. This market is tough, and you need to be prepared to really work at the solo practice for about five years before you can expect any kind of financial stability in terms of operating expenses and income.