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

Meet Dan Adkins: ‘Defending that which appears indefensible’

DAN ADKINS, a 1994 graduate of the George Mason University School of Law, worked as a litigator with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, among other stops, before opening his own firm in 2008. That firm has evolved into North Star Criminal Defense, where Dan presently represents folks charged with crimes (dozens of jury trials in state and various federal courts, and more than one hundred appeals), in various family court proceedings, and the odd business litigation. He is also active in the MSBA, having chaired the Criminal Law Section and staffed a number of rules groups and other committees. 

Why did you go to law school?

As a kid, my mom and I watched every episode of Hill Street Blues as it aired, and I fell hopelessly in love with Veronica Hamel, who played a public defender in the show. Notwithstanding that she was dating a police captain, which simply upset me (she needed to meet me, I surmised), she went deep into police headquarters to advocate for her clients, regardless of the fact they had no resources with which to retain her. When I learned she was based on real Chicago PDs and actual cases, I gave up on all other career choices and decided to become an underpaid F. Lee Bailey.

What drew you to a criminal law practice?

You mean, other than hoping to impress Ms. Hamel? The concept of defending that which, at least upon arrest and charging, appears indefensible always appealed to me; while I am the furthest thing from heroic, the idea of standing in front of someone facing the awesome power and limitless resources of the state and the government attracted me, and fed my countercultural instincts. After several years as an urban PD, I discovered that private criminal defense, done well, permitted a fellow to eat better than ramen, and even to raise a family. I keep trying to broaden out my practice, but rates of recidivism and my continuing enjoyment of the judges, prosecutors, probation agents—and particularly the court staff and sheriff’s deputies, who have become close friends—keep me deeply tied to criminal defense work. Sigh….

What are the greatest challenges you face in your practice, and how do you manage them?

I am so intimately familiar with tragedy in this practice, some faced by my clients, in one instance by everyone in my life—when my law clerk was senselessly murdered in our office—that to call such events ‘challenges’ is to damn them with faint distinction. Meeting defendants in my office or in custody, I learn heart-rending details of poor decisions, lives derailed by substance abuse, violence arising from wells heretofore peaceable and calm, and—more often than most would expect—wrongful charging decisions and actual innocence. 

Growing up the son of a social worker helps immensely, for thereby I learned how to convey honest concern, to withhold judgment as facts are revealed, and to create global resolution for problems far greater than simply the charges in the complaint. That all said, like every lawyer who practices as I do, one labors not to become too jaded, or too cavalier, or too damned drunk. It is a profession for strong people, I have found, and the strongest are the best at getting the assistance they need, regularly and from all corners.

You have been deeply involved in the MSBA Criminal Law Section for many years, and you were an officer of the section for five years. What have you gotten out of your years of work with the section?

You mean, after Brad Johnson and Bill Bernard actually shanghaied me into the group? It has been one of the greatest mechanisms to growing my practice, for mentoring, and to connecting with the stakeholders in our justice system, from our chief justice to deputies at every county courthouse I visit (60 of our 87, so far). It is far too easy to claim a lack of time for giving back, in this—and I suspect every—practice area, and the section and the bar have immeasurably broadened my perspective.

When you aren’t working, how do you like to spend your time?

I split my time between raising two incredible boys, the oldest a sophomore in high school and the youngest too fast-moving to identify, and the avocation of umpiring baseball games. My wife is in line for sainthood, supporting both my practice and calling games at the college level; I neither deserve nor should be allowed to stay with Athena, but she is thus far unaware of the iniquity, and she suffers me with incredible grace. I would encourage young lawyers to find a calling, something wildly divergent from the law, to keep sane and to stay grounded—and sports officiating is certainly the closest I’ll ever come to a judicial role, so there’s that.

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