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

Meet Karin Ciano: ‘I stepped out of “traditional”—and never regretted it.’

KARIN CIANO is the owner of Karin Ciano Law PLLC, of counsel at probate litigation boutique Mason & Helmers, and executive director of the Collaborative Community Law Initiative, Minnesota’s only legal incubator. To refer cases to CCLI please call (651) 321-9255 (English) or (651) 383-1450 (Espanol). To donate please visit: www.givemn.org/organization/Cclimn

Why did you go to law school?

I was a smart-ass kid in South Jersey. Grown-ups kept saying I should be a lawyer, so to meet some actual lawyers I joined the high school mock trial team. The lawyers taught me magic words, like: “The prejudicial effect outweighs the probative value.” After looking up probative and prejudicial—my first exposure to legalese—I became Ms. Unstoppable High School Lawyer, raining Rule 403 down on my opponents.

Mock trial taught me that lawyers have both a license to make trouble and the power to set things right. I wanted to get some of that.

You’re a longtime advocate for exploring non-traditional legal careers and alternative business models for lawyers. What prompted you to move in that direction?

Life. The traditional path led me straight from college to law school to a great firm in New York. I planned to serve that firm forever. But then I learned that on the traditional path, a couple of lawyers become partners and the rest go home. While I loved the job, my people didn’t swim in the pond where the firm fished. I didn’t know where to look for clients. Meanwhile, family and friends called and I couldn’t help them—which, after three years of school and six figures of debt, seemed silly. 

So I hit pause, left the firm, and took a teaching job. At that moment I stepped out of “traditional”—and I’ve never regretted it. Many others do the same because they’re second- or third-career lawyers, or have lives and families and businesses, or just found what fits. 

What drew you to the mission of the Collaborative Community Law Initiative, and how’s the program going?

I was drawn to CCLI’s mission because I lived it. The first three years of solo practice are not for the faint of heart; solos need all the support we can get. CCLI creates an environment where new lawyers who have started solo practices can learn from each other and from experienced mentors, while having the opportunity to represent justice-gap clients referred by other nonprofits and the private bar. Our advocates take at least 30 percent of their caseload representing clients who are at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines ($36,420 for a single person, $75,300 for a household of four). Our short-term goal is to help our advocates create sustainable practices in 18 months, about half the time it took me. Longer term, I’d love to see CCLI send small firms to every part of Minnesota that could use more legal help. The only lawyers regularly serving the middle 60 percent of the income spectrum in Minnesota practice in firms of one to seven lawyers—so if the justice gap is going to close, solos and small firms are going to get it done.

Things are going well with CCLI. The basic concept has been proved. We’re getting around 100 calls a month, so
people definitely want accessible legal services. Eight new lawyers are in the program now and more are on deck. Our alumni are out serving their communities. We’ve grown a lively community of advocates, alumni, and volunteer mentors.
The program appears to be helpful to the courts and to the bar, because the clients who find our lawyers would otherwise be representing themselves with no guidance.

Our challenge for 2019 will be sustainable growth. The more advocates we admit, the more mentors and referrals we’ll need to ensure everyone has work and support right away. And to support advocates outside the Twin Cities, we’ll need to think about investing in technology, space, and people.

What have you found most valuable about your involvement in the bar association?

The bar association has connected me with my favorite thing: small groups of terrific people who work together to solve problems. For example, the Solo and Small Firm Section thought it would be great if small-firm lawyers working in rural Minnesota had loan-repayment opportunities like those available to other professions, such as veterinarians. We wrote a short piece of legislation proposing a program, and I just learned MSBA will be supporting it. I’m also grateful to the MSBA Foundation for their support of access-to-justice initiatives, including CCLI.

New lawyers sometimes ask where to meet other lawyers, find mentors, and connect with potential referral sources. If only such a place existed… well, it does, but you have to put down your devices and leave your office to get there.

How do you like to spend your time when you’re not working?

I’ll let you know. 

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