May/June 2021

Why I went to law school

By Roger Reinert

I didn’t go to law school to be a lawyer.” I know, it’s almost sacrilege to say. Perhaps all the more so in this publication, and with this audience. But it’s the truth.

I went back as a non-traditional student in my 40s. Initially, the bright idea was that the juris doctorate would be the terminal degree and magic ticket into tenure-track teaching. I had been teaching undergraduate political science, and graduate public policy classes, part-time while also holding elected office—first on the Duluth City Council and later in the Minnesota Legislature. Teaching was a role I genuinely enjoyed (still do!), and could see myself doing full-time. 

But as we all know, the law degree is one of the most—if not the most—diverse and practical doctoral degrees, and by the end of my first semester at Hamline University School of Law I realized that with it, I could do so much more. Yes, practicing law was on that list of potentialities, but it was actually quite low. Near the bottom. Perhaps last.

Throughout law school people would ask, “What kind of lawyer do you want to be?” or “What kind of law do you want to practice?” Each and every time I would respond truthfully, “I’m not going to law school to be a lawyer.” The responses I got ran the gamut from confusion to surprise to shock. We all know law school is no joke. It’s stressful, time-consuming, and expensive. When you’re doing it, it takes everything you have, and if like me you’re a non-traditional student with job, family, and military reserve commitment, the sacrifice law school requires is quite a lot.

So the skeptical responses were fair. But here’s the thing: After that first semester, I knew that the best use of my law degree would be applying it to work I had already done. Training I had already received. Leadership. Work I was already doing, and would continue to do, for the rest of my career. I am mission-driven and throughout my career I’ve been drawn to public service. 

While working my way through law school I was also serving in the Minnesota State Senate. Ther e, the application was obvious. I quickly saw why the Legislature attracted so many members with legal background and experience. From legal construct, to drafting, and application and interpretation, I now had a new skillset that was helpful in my legislative work. I didn’t have to rely solely on others to convert an idea into legislation. I was able to do more of that heavy lifting myself.

A year after leaving the Legislature, I found myself headed to Afghanistan on a one-year combat deployment. Even there, the law degree and legal training found useful application. Twice while deployed, I was tasked by the command LEGAD (Legal Advisor) to conduct 15-6 investigations. My role was to investigate an incident, examine evidence, and interview witnesses. A 15-6 investigation is used to ascertain facts and report them to the appropriate appointing authority. While this was not my primary duty during my deployment, I was the most qualified command member to take on these investigations because of my legal training.

A short year later, after returning from my deployment, I found myself being asked to step into a new leadership role as the interim executive director of the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center. The DECC, like many large venues in Minnesota, was severely impacted by the pandemic and by the executive orders that affected operations. An organization of 500 employees, with a $12 millon budget, it had essentially been on pause for three months when I arrived. I was surprised to find that the executive director leadership role was exactly why I did go to law school. 

I use property, contracts, insurance, employment, and finance on a regular, if not daily, basis. My legal training and background have allowed me to first stabilize the organization and then help lead it forward in historically uncertain times. The legal reasoning and analysis I learned in law school have helped me objectively analyze multiple factors, and in turn communicate them succinctly, both internally and externally.

My role as a licensed attorney has also saved the organization real money. Instead of hiring everything out to a third-party attorney, I am able to do a good deal of pre-work in-house, and then run a fairly finished draft by another attorney with deep public law experience for review and revisions.

I didn’t go to law school to be a lawyer. Truth. I went to law school to learn and earn an entirely new set of skills, and then apply them to my work of building and leading teams that make a public difference. 

ROGER J. REINERT is currently the interim executive director of the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center. He has also served in the Minnesota Senate and the Minnesota House, and on the Duluth City Council. 

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