10 Questions with Geri Sjoquist

Attorney Geri Sjoquist, a staff attorney at Central Minnesota Legal Services, answered ten questions from Hennepin Lawyer about her transition from solo practice to legal aid, the reforms she envisions for family law, and her favorite Minnesota activity.

What’s something you never get tired of talking about?

Chocolate. The dark variety. With a good Malbec from Argentina. Okay, and maybe a few apple slices and crackers—but not too many!!!

You’ve moved from solo practice to legal aid. What has stood out to you during this transition?

Where have I been? What was I thinking? I so wish I had started out my career as an attorney working for legal aid. It is so much fun working with other attorneys who are just as passionate about issues of social justice as you are! It’s like being at a nerd convention for legal professionals every day! I am just blown over by the high caliber of professionalism, knowledge, and integrity among the attorneys and support staff at CMLS. These are my people.

What was your inspiration for practicing family law?

I believe family law is THE MOST important area of law because what could be more important than our families and our children? All that remains at the end of the day are our relationships with the people we love. The trajectory of a child’s life can be forever drastically altered by what we, legal professionals, do. I take that very seriously.

How do you address the unique needs and concerns of individual families within the legal framework of family law?What are some of the biggest changes to family law that you foresee?

If I had my druthers (whatever the heck those are!) I would create a specialty court inside our system of family courts that deals with what judges often refer to as "high conflict" families. Only legal professionals who have a serious interest in family law would be allowed to work in that court and only legal professionals who really get the dynamics of power and control, which are elements that tend to be very prevalent in those cases. Those of us who care about this area of the law and are interested in it spend time on an ongoing basis learning about it. Caselaw catches our eye and we keep up with trends, data, reports on a local and national level. Those who are not interested too often approach this area of law with an attitude of "nothing to know, nothing to learn." There are many urban rumors floating around in our communities that we have to address often. It is offensive when legal professionals also approach family law cases based on urban rumors. I have been practicing law in this area for a while now and I am constantly asking questions.

What role do you believe empathy plays in the practice of family law, especially when dealing with sensitive issues like domestic abuse and parental rights?

We all have biases. And you cannot really approach family law well without being curious about other people and their unique family circumstances. Cultural competency is not a one and done sort of thing. There are significant differences between those who live in the city versus rural areas, regardless of ethnicity or religion, for example. In other words, a little more than a superficial understanding and a desire to have more than just a superficial understanding is required in these cases. Along those lines, as a former corrections officer, I know how very difficult and dangerous these cases can be. Still, I wonder if our frontline professionals would be willing to more routinely take reports from alleged victims, regardless of whether they believed there was enough evidence to prosecute, if they understood that taking the time to do so is homicide prevention. Or, instead of presuming a victim of domestic violence is not really afraid of their abuser because they contacted them, understanding that sometimes such behavior is the most reasonable thing they could do because if someone is hunting you, wanting to harm you, don’t you want to know where they are?

What is fulfilling and challenging about advocating for the rights of vulnerable individuals within the legal system?

Vicarious trauma is a very real thing. Sometimes it feels like I am just failing forward. I find that I sometimes need to go for a walk and have a good cry before moving on to my next case. But I am committed to living my values even though it may be taxing and difficult. Like anyone else, I prefer comfort and safety, but there can really be a difference between making a living and making a life. I am just not interested in training myself to be checked out. Ignoring problems or casting them into a pretty flowery light does not inoculate you from them. And, turns out, living with a sense of purpose does not require the monumental changes most people think it does. It just requires a willingness to honestly face whatever it is that is standing before you and accept it and address it as it is, warts and all.

Can you share a personal achievement or milestone in your career that you are particularly proud of?

Oh my goodness. I can’t really say I’m proud of this, but I met Mother Teresa in Calcutta. She was very kind and I wish I could say I feel proud recalling that memory, but it is one of the most ridiculously awkward moments of my life because I could not think of a single word to say to her! My mind was completely blank, I tell ya! I was just so overcome because in the moment it struck me: what the heck did someone like me have to say to someone like Mother Teresa who had given up everything in her life to devote herself to helping the poor? What does one say upon meeting someone like that?

What advice do you have for someone considering a career change/shift?

It’s important to have a long view of justice and just keep chipping away at the underbrush to clear a path. In my own life, this has required me to be extremely selfish and strive to take excellent care of myself. Everyone knows it is important to exercise our bodies on a regular ongoing basis; I have found that it is also important to continually expand my mind. And so, the advice I would give is no matter what area of law you choose, keep learning, keep asking questions. 

I was born in Duluth but grew up in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, so I am just a farm girl with a huge vocabulary. As I recall, I just couldn’t wait to leave my little hometown because I was so excited to go out into the world and explore: so many books to read, places to go, things to learn, people to meet! I regularly challenge myself to do things I’m not good at. I play the guitar and sing. Badly. I’m (trying) to learn a couple languages. I’m also trying to learn how to play chess (trying of course being the operative word). I think trying new things is important because if we only do the things we already know we’re good at, how can we expect to grow? I do not judge myself by how clever I think I am or by the awards I've been given. Other people may measure my value by those things but I don't. I judge myself by how the living of my life makes me feel about myself.

The way I stay hopeful is by looking up from my own private daily struggles and finding little ways to contribute what I have to contribute because issues of injustice are not disconnected from us no matter how hard we try to ignore them. Personally, the people I am most afraid of are the people who have decided they have it all figured out and have stopped being curious.

For example, when I stop at a stoplight, I often feel compelled to not look at the people who are begging at the intersection. I tell myself I don’t have a lot of money so I have nothing to give them. But if I am honest, I have to ask myself if that is true. Is it true that I have nothing to give? One answer I’ve come up with is I buy little brown paper lunch bags and hand out sandwiches. Do I think that matters? Do I really think I’m making even a small dent in the problem of poverty? Of course not. Those sandwiches I give I give to myself. Because by doing that I also give myself permission to look at those people, to feel my connection to them, so that my brain doesn’t just automatically categorize them as ‘those’ people. In other words, those goofy sandwiches I give, allow me to feel hopeful for that brief moment. And guess what? That fleeting moment of hope can carry me through a whole day of addressing hopeless situations at work.

Likewise, I believe all of the issues of injustice belong to each of us individually. For example, my orientation towards the death penalty is not "does that person deserve to die?" but "do I/we deserve to kill them?" What does my disconnected willingness to look the other way and allow the killing of another human being do to me? I can pretend it has nothing to do with me, personally or individually, but is that true?

Favorite movie?

My favorite movies are Snow Falling on Cedars and Reign on Me.

Favorite Minnesota activity?

Yodeling while dogsledding in the Winter in the Quetico.

Managing Editor
Elsa Cournoyer

Executive Editor

Joseph Satter