Chris was profiled by Minnesota Women Lawyers (MWL) as part of their 50 Years, 50 Voices series. You can see the original post here.
Christine B. Courtney, is the principal attorney at the Courtney Law Office, where she practices in estate planning, probate, and elder law. Prior to starting the Courtney Law Office, Chris practiced at small firms in Twin Cities metro area and worked with victims of elder abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation at the Minnesota Elder Justice Center. She obtained her law degree from William Mitchell College of Law, where she was an Elder Law Scholar and worked as a research assistant to the Vulnerable Adult Justice Project and the Warren E. Burger Library.
As a child or young adult, what career did you envision for yourself?
As a child, I always wanted to be a pastor. I was raised a church-going child, and I thought that would be a great job. As a pastor, I would have run a small organization, helped congregants with problems, had the opportunity to fundraise for meaningful causes, and do research and public speaking on a regular basis. In many ways, it is not dissimilar from my current work as the owner of a small law firm!
Describe your career path. When did you begin your legal career? What positions have you held, leading to and including your current job?
In law school, I found myself immediately drawn to estate planning and probate work as a practice area. I worked at a small firm that specialized in planning for families with a child with disabilities, and I loved the work. The practice area was deep, complex, and interesting. Even more, I knew that we were making a real difference in our clients’ lives, and they were always wonderful and grateful clients.
After spending some time in private practice at small firms, I started to wonder about working at nonprofits. I had a great deal of organizing experience prior to law school, and I missed using that part of my brain and skill set. It was difficult to take the leap out of private practice for a nonprofit job. I did not know if it would be a good fit for me post-JD. Eventually, I made the decision to try something new, and I went to a nonprofit where I worked with victims of elder abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation. It was wonderful work that left me fulfilled, and sometimes exhausted.
When it was time to find a new professional challenge, I had a new problem. Did I want to find a way to move up in the structure of nonprofits? This would take me away from actually working with clients, but there were other advantages to that work. While I wrestled with this idea, a friend asked me what I loved the most about my current job. I told her how proud I was of starting a legal services program from scratch—document systems, representation agreements, advertising the work, and representing clients. She looked right at me and said, gently, “So you’re saying that you already know how to start a law firm from nothing, and you love that work?” Suddenly, I knew exactly what I wanted to do!
Looking back on your career, what has brought you the most professional satisfaction? What has kept you coming back to the legal profession day after day?
I love connecting with my clients, hearing their stories, and solving their real-life problems. Our human lives are messy! I come to work so I can find solutions to the complex issues that arise with all of our human mess.
I know an attorney who says that we practice “people law” because we represent people, in their capacity as individuals. My marketing tends to be less fun (presentations rather than sporting events), but I appreciate that my clients are trusting me with their home and retirement assets. This work might have smaller monetary value than many business transactions, but it’s not small to my clients. For most people, this is their life’s work. I try to honor their trust by listening and respecting their needs and goals.
Even on days when I struggle to find a solution in the law to resolve a thorny issue, I keep coming back because I love working with my clients. My connection to the people I serve drives me, and above all else, I enjoy forming those relationships.
Tell us about one person who has inspired and influenced you, either in or outside the legal profession.
When I was in law school, I was lucky to be paired with Professor Iris Freeman on several projects and semester assignments with the Vulnerable Adult Justice Project. Iris has years of experience doing policy work and community organizing on a variety of issues related to older adults—and she changed how I thought about how attorneys interact with the law. Iris demonstrated how to do effective coalition building, locally and nationally, to change both practice and policy that impacts people’s lives in small and large ways. She showed me how dedicated volunteers and professionals can thoughtfully work together to make change through education, coalition-building, and compromise.
In your current position, what three skills are critical for success?
Communication. I’m in a practice area where I am interacting with new clients regularly. My clients typically have no knowledge or understanding of this area of law, although it deeply impacts their lives. Without the ability to listen, respond, and teach, I could not do my work.
Self-knowledge. As a solo attorney and business owner, I need to have a keen sense of my current abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. The ability to understand oneself is a skill that is learned over a lifetime. Without this knowledge, I cannot appropriately and realistically set expectations for myself and my clients, who rely on me.
Perseverance. I believe that many would argue that perseverance is an innate trait, but I strongly believe that the ability to pick yourself up and continue on is an acquired skill. This is the practice of law; we all must know how to persevere and find solace in the difficult hours.
What impact has MWL had on you, personally and/or professionally?
In 2013, I met another woman attorney for coffee. She suggested that I join a book club, one she said was filled with women attorneys. What could be more perfect in a book club than a set of attorneys? After all, this would be a group of women who were trained to read, analyze, and debate. Nervous but eager, I reached out and attended a gathering of the MWL Book Club. There, I found what I did not know I needed: a community of women attorneys. Over the next several years, as I made a few different career changes, this community of women showed me different ways to be an attorney (solo, small firm, big firm, government, non-profit). They reminded me of who I was, even when I felt lost. As I have told many, many women over the years, MWL’s Book Club kept me in the practice of law.
On The Lighter Side….
What’s one thing about you that surprises people? People are always surprised to find that I have gone skydiving, shark diving, and bungee jumping (from the 4th highest jump in the world).
Who has had the greatest impact on your life? Definitely my mother, Karen Bjorkman. As I’ve grown from a child to and adult, my relationship with my mother that has changed, but she has always been my number one champion and mentor. My mom is amazing.
If you could instantly become an expert at something (non-legal), what would it be? This question is tricky, because part of the joy of new hobbies is striving to learn a new skill. However, I think I would pick electrician work—that would be very useful to me, living in an old home.
Favorite ice cream flavor? I like to try lots of different kinds of ice cream, but the best ice cream I ever had was a black raspberry ice cream with dark chocolate shavings. Someday, I will perfect the recipe myself!
What was something you did or experienced in the last year that provided extreme joy? A few weeks ago, I rolled out of bed and immediately hopped into a kayak in the early morning on a peaceful lake. The calm waves, the cool air, the feeling of moving the paddle through the water–that was a morning that brought me extreme, although quiet, joy.
Favorite non-work-related podcast? There are so many great ones I could recommend, but two consistently excellent podcasts that I love are “Noble Blood” and “Family Secrets”.
What qualities do you most value in the people with whom you spend time? I love spending time with people who love to really engage in conversation. I love a good debate, a fierce opinion, and a long story told by someone who enjoys telling stories!