Specialist on the Prairie
"Your aspirations are your possibilities."
For many small-town lawyers, the term certified specialist evokes wealthy urban firms using their marketing resources to draw business from rural areas into the cities. The prevailing myth seems to be that specialization is a luxury reserved for those practicing in large firms in a major metropolitan area. But for Brian Wojtalewicz, specialization, volunteerism, and certification as a civil trial specialist have been tickets to success in his home town of Appleton, Minnesota, 20 miles east of Big Stone Lake near the South Dakota border.
Growing up on a farm in nearby Dumont, Minnesota, Wojtalewicz inherited a love of reading from his mother, a librarian, and was inspired to consider a career in law by the character of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. That did it for me, he said, the whole story of Atticus Finch and the idea of standing up to the evil in the community.
The idea of becoming a lawyer stuck with him through high school in Appleton and his college years at nearby St. John's, coming to fruition when he graduated from William Mitchell College of Law in 1976 as the first member of his family to be admitted to the bar.
Although he began his legal career as an assistant Ramsey County Public Defender, Wojtalewicz returned home to Appleton in 1980 to open his own law office. Concentrating his practice in the areas of personal injury, wrongful death, and federal false claims, he has obtained substantial recoveries for clients, including several verdicts and settlements in excess of $1 million.
Wojtalewicz has been an active volunteer in the community and in the region, serving as president of his local 12th District Bar Association (2000-01) and as a member of the Minnesota Judicial Selection Commission from 1990-98. As the initiator and host of Legal Line from 1985 to 2001, he and guest lawyers educated thousands of rural Minnesotans on their legal rights in this live, call-in TV program on KWCM, a PBS affiliate in Appleton.
Certification has also contributed to his success. Certified as a civil trial specialist by both the MSBA and the National Board of Trial Advocacy, Wojtalewicz has been part of the MSBA program since 1991.
To be certified as a civil trial specialist, an applicant must have a prescribed body of experience in civil trial work, must pass a written examination, and must demonstrate evidence of fitness, good character, and ethical behavior. Once certified, the attorney must report annually that they continue to meet the requirements for certification. Specialists must recertify every six years. In this way certification encourages high standards of practice within the profession and aids the public in identifying practitioners with expertise in a particular area of law.
As one of only 320 civil trial specialists certified by the MSBA as of June 2002, Brian Wojtalewicz stands out for his success in practice, his certified expertise, and his contributions to the bar and the community.
Brian E. Wojtalewicz
JON DUCKSTAD is president of the Minnesota State Bar Association.
This month he traveled to