By Shira Baratz • October 15, 2015
From a tiny office in rural Alaska to a skyscraper in Manhattan, from The Sunshine State to The Prairie State, Ms. JD seeks to capture snapshots of successful women attorneys practicing law from sea to shining sea. Ms. JD had a few questions for Paula Kruchowski who practices law out of Minneapolis, Minnesota:
Where do you practice law?
I’ve practiced law in Minneapolis, Minnesota for 18 years.
Describe your legal market. What is the size of the market? How would you describe the culture?
Our legal market is mid-sized. Since I’ve only practiced criminal law, I’d say that our criminal bar is collegial, especially since we see much of each other in the courtroom.
What are the industries that produce work for lawyers in your area?
The industries are the same as those everywhere else: family law, criminal law, IP, business and commercial litigation. I also have friends that are in-house for companies here such as Josten’s, Best Buy, 3M and Target.
Describe your practice area.
I’ve worked almost primarily in the area of criminal law since 1997, and have been a criminal prosecutor for 17 years. I’m currently assigned to the Minneapolis Police Department’s Domestic Assault Unit, so I’m partially funded by a federal VAWA grant, yet I have assisted every investigative unit in the criminal investigations division, including homicide, assault, robbery, sex crimes, child abuse and VCAT (Violent Crime Apprehension Team). So, I’d describe my current job as the MPD’s “Law and Order” lawyer, since investigators consult me during their investigations. Before I was assigned to the DAU, I was a trial attorney and had also been assigned to a police precinct as their precinct lawyer for four years. For the first 12 years of my career, I had been the liaison to the Minneapolis Park Police Department where I worked cases with the officers and had trained their Park Agents every spring. My experience as a criminal lawyer has been relatively unique, because I’ve done everything from trying a petty misdemeanor traffic case to putting on a bulletproof vest and accompanying the SWAT team during its execution of a search warrant. When the Republic National Convention was here in 2008, I was the attorney assigned to the MPD, which meant I was physically located in the command center and brought out on the street to consult the incident commanders when disturbances occurred. I’ve also been instructor at the Minneapolis Police Academy where I’ve taught criminal court process, legal issues, and report writing. Two of my colleagues and I also teach the rookies how to testify by conducting mock trials based on scenarios they conduct in the Academy. We even bring in a criminal defense attorney to give them practice undergoing cross-examination. Cops hate testifying, so we’ve tried to make it less painful by working out the kinks in the Academy before they have to “go live” on the witness stand.
How did you get started in this practice area?
I always wanted to be a criminal lawyer, but I never thought I’d be assigned to a police department in any capacity. I never knew positions like mine existed when I was researching job prospects after I graduated from law school in the later 90s. As soon as I was hired in my office, I was assigned as the Minneapolis Park Police Department’s liaison. I liked working with law enforcement and the cops apparently liked working with me. I’ve been told that I have the type of personality necessary to work with law enforcement well. I tell it like it is, I don’t mince words, and I have a thick skin. Cops may not like what I have to say and sometimes they fight with me about an issue but, at the end of the day, they know they can always come to me and I’ll give them a straight answer, not a “lawyer” answer, which they tend to believe is an answer at all. When one of the precinct attorney positions opened up in 2006, I indicated I was interested and, three days later, I was moving into the MPD’s Third Precinct, which was not only the largest precinct in the city, it had and still has, the highest call load. I came back to the office after my stint at the precinct and was assigned to our Special Prosecutions Team, where I transferred from when I went to the precinct, and, along with two of my colleagues, we prosecuted the city’s top 200 chronic offenders and handled all of the city’s weapons cases. When my current position came open, my boss asked me if I’d be willing to take the assignment and I reluctantly agreed. I loved my assignment as a chronic offender prosecutor, I loved my teammates, and I loved the work so I didn’t immediately jump at the chance. I am so glad I agreed to the transfer though since I now think I have the best job in my office. I’m in my element in a metropolitan police department.
Do you think your practice is different because of where you live? If so, in what way(s)?
I think it’s common to have an attorney assigned to a police department to handle civil matters, but I don’t think it’s common to have an attorney assigned to a police department to consult on criminal matters. This position was created over 10 years ago through a VAWA grant and it worked out so well, the city fully funded it. I’ve been told that it’s so much easier to walk down the hall to find me rather than calling my office trying to find someone to answer a legal question. That doesn’t work out all that well when prosecutors spend much of the day in court.
What are good resources for women attorneys in your area?
Other women attorneys in the area. We want to see each other succeed. Seeking out an established mentor is probably the best thing a female attorney can do.
What has been your hardest day on the job?
As a criminal prosecutor and now as a police department advisor, every day is hard because I deal with human suffering. It’s around us every minute of every day. The more I think about it, the more I have realized that I probably have some PTSD. Just two weeks ago, I had a mini meltdown simply because it’s so hard to see and hear some of the things I see and hear on a daily basis. There is one day that sticks out in my mind though. I had been a prosecutor for a couple of years when I became pregnant with my first son. At the time, I was prosecuting domestic violence cases and had been doing so since I had started in the office. I had a case scheduled for trial and I met with my victim first thing in the morning. My victim and her boyfriend were staying with a friend of his because they were homeless and she had recently given birth to their baby. Her boyfriend became angry with her, started beating her while she was holding their baby, and he was subsequently arrested. He was kept in custody and we scheduled the trial a mere 10 days later. When my victim appeared, she showed up with her newborn baby and a big black garbage bag full of her belongings. After her boyfriend was arrested, his friend kicked her out of his house and she was living on the street. Her boyfriend had beat her up the day she got out of the hospital after giving birth to her baby, so the baby was only about 12 days old at the time of trial. My victim hadn’t had a shower for several days, although she was able to clean up pretty well for court. I couldn’t resolve the case that morning, so I asked her to come back in the afternoon, so we could continue to try to resolve it and, if not, start picking a jury. She agreed and we went our separate ways over the lunch hour. The first thing I did was call my husband and ask him if I could bring her and the baby home with me, so they could get cleaned up and have a safe place to sleep for the night. I returned after lunch ready to offer her a place to stay for the night, but she didn’t come back. I couldn’t reach her and I had no idea where she went. I felt just awful. I was still able to squeeze a plea of guilty out of her boyfriend that afternoon, even though she didn’t come back to court. I still remember how I felt when I returned to my office and thought about how she was going to be on the street that night with a newborn baby. Since that time, I haven’t allowed myself to internalize as much as I had when I was a baby lawyer.
What has been your best day on the job?
My best day really wasn’t only one day. It was a best experience that was cultivated over a period of months. In 2007, here in Minneapolis, I was part of a group that created GIFT, which stands for Gaining Independence for Females in Transition and is a problem-solving court which focuses on female prostitution offenders. These weren’t the women that were first timers or those that had long-standing criminal records for prostitution; the court was for those women who had a few convictions for prostitution, but weren’t so ingrained in the life that they felt they couldn’t escape. These women also typically experienced some mental health issues, chemical dependency, periodic homelessness, and interactions with child protection. At the time, the court had the same judge, same probation officer, same advocates, and same prosecutor, which was me. While I was involved, I encountered a women who I had prosecuted at least 15 times for various crimes. I had been asked to come and see her at her home after she was released from jail. At that time, she had sole custody of only one of her children and had become engaged to her fiancé. Over the period of many months, I visited her, along with another women from a faith-based agency, and we could see that she was getting her life together. She had been involved in some extraordinarily difficult relationships with men that used her for money, sex, drugs, etc., so she had certainly had a tough life. She had a long-time crack cocaine addiction, but she had recently gotten sober, along with her fiancé, who she met in treatment. She secured a solid place to live, she started going to school and she was planning to marry her fiancé. She also was able to get custody of all of her children, which included three other children. One day she called me and invited me to her wedding, which was going to be held during a service at her church. And, of course I went. I went to the service, sat with her family, and held her baby while she and her fiancé got married before the entire congregation. It was a fantastic experience. I was so proud of her, especially considering the kind of shape she was in when I first started prosecuting her ten years before. She was sober, married, happy, and had custody of all of her children. I would never take credit for her success, but I truly believe that had it not been for her participation in GIFT and her interaction with me on a very regular basis, she would have had a more difficult time handling all of the aspects of her life. I spent quite a bit of time giving her pep talks and a lot of tough love, but it was all worth it.
What advice do you have for women attorneys following in your footsteps?
You have to have a thick skin to be a criminal lawyer, whether it’s as a prosecutor or a criminal defense attorney, especially since you see the worst of the worst just about every day. And, realize that you can’t fix everything and everybody. Also, take every single opportunity you are offered and always seek to try new things. If SWAT calls your office asking for an attorney to ride along during a protest, volunteer and go. If your office asks for volunteers to do appellate work, do it, even if you are out of your element. Finally, create a great support system for yourself, whether it’s with your co-workers, outside work friends or family. It’s nice to find someone to have a glass of wine with after you lose a trial or celebrate with when something good happens.
Paula is a proud 1989 graduate of Chisholm Senior High School, which is located on Northeastern Minnesota’s Iron Range. She attended the University of Minnesota – Duluth, where she graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in criminology. She earned her J.D., magna cum laude, from the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. Paula has both trial and appellate experience and has appeared before Minnesota appellate courts over 20 times, including twice before the Minnesota Supreme Court. She has been a precinct attorney and law enforcement liaison for most of her career. During her tenure as a precinct attorney, Paula received a Commitment to Community Service Award from Family and Children’s Services, the Central Weed and Seed Award of Appreciation and was awarded the Minneapolis Police Department’s Chief’s Award of Merit, which is awarded to a department member for performance resulting in improved operations, outstanding community service or substantial savings in organization costs. Paula is an instructor at the Minneapolis and Metro Transit Police Academies and has been a guest lecturer at the University of Minnesota Law School, the University of St. Thomas Law School, Rasmussen College and Metropolitan State University. She lives with her fiancé in Minneapolis and they have six children together. Paula is an avid reader, gourmet cook and rabid Green Bay Packer football fan.