Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Meet Emily Cooper: ‘I get to help people every day’

Emily K. Cooper (Cooper Law LLC) is a 1996 honors graduate from the University of Minnesota Law School. In her 22 years of practice she has worked with clients and companies at all levels. She has practiced in the area of civil litigation and family law at a major law firm in Ohio and spent five years working as in-house counsel for a multi-billion dollar corporation, focusing on contract negotiations and drafting. As executive director of the Minnesota Volunteer Attorney Program, she worked to recruit attorneys to provide pro bono representation to low-income clients. She also worked for three years as a staff attorney for a legal aid organization.

Why did you decide to go to law school?

I remember a friend looking at me curiously one day when I was in high school and saying, “You should go to law school and be a lawyer.” It’s one of those memories that stands out and shaped my later decisions. Going to medical school was out of the questions since it involves gore, which I cannot handle. Coming from a family with a librarian as a father meant higher education was very important. As a result, law school seemed the best fit for me and that’s what I did.

What resources have helped you build your practice?

I think the best resource has been colleagues, friends, and peers. Having people to talk to about issues in my practice, decisions I have to make, and goals is invaluable. My staff is also a great resource for insight and ideas. On the non-human side, I have used Clio for case management since my firm opened, and I can’t say enough about it when it comes to organization, billing, and data. Another resource that we implemented about a year ago is an answering service, and that has helped the productivity level in the firm tremendously. Some other techy things that we use in the firm are WordPress, Lexicata, Zapier, Google Apps, Microsoft Office, DropBox, and Adobe Products. There are a ton more, but these are the main ones.

Your firm is dedicated to meeting the needs of low and moderate-income clients by offering sliding-scale fee services. What are some of the challenges and benefits to this unique structure?

My firm has two practice areas, family law and social security disability, so managing these distinct areas requires different skills and knowledge. Since my client base usually has little money, we also have to be creative in accessing and utilizing resources to facilitate cases. When your client has to decide between paying rent and paying for a custody evaluation that is needed to protect a child, we have to be innovative. The same for social security disability—my clients don’t have the funds to pay for testing and evaluations that might be needed for a claim, therefore we have to work within the parameters we have to find ways to get the evidence we need to get a positive resolution to the case or claim. On the business side, we have to run the firm in the most efficient and economical manner. The benefits definitely outweigh the challenges. I get to honestly say that I am acting on the idealism that many of us had in law school—that we were going into law to help people—and that many had to abandon to pay student loans or because there were no jobs available. I get to help people every day and I feel good about it.

What advice do you have for attorneys considering alternate fee structures?

Idealism and a desire to help people are not enough. You have to run your business like a business. This is true for all law firms, but for those working with moderate or low-income clients as I do, it is even more important. 

What opportunities and resources do you find valuable as a member of the MSBA?

The MSBA has so many things available that people may not even realize what they are missing. The forums are a great place to get feedback and information—even if you just lurk and don’t post, you can get great information from other attorneys. Fastcase and practicelaw are amazing resources as well. The sections are a great way to meet and mingle with your peers, keep yourself from becoming isolated in your practice, and find ways to take on leadership roles in the legal community.

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