Michelle M. Kniess does more than guide families through the complexities of the legal system, she helps families of divorce make something beautiful out of the broken pieces. “Families start out with expectations, and then something happens to shatter them,” Kniess explained. “You have to be able to take those pieces – your kids, your expectations, your hopes – and reassemble them into something new, something that still works and that feels good moving forward.”
Kniess’ uniquely positive outlook is the driving force behind Kniess Law LLC, a boutique family law practice that focuses on sustainable solutions to complex problems. Rather than approaching divorce as a static life event, Kniess helps her clients to think long-term and craft provisions that will adapt with changing circumstances. “Life constantly changes. You want the final agreement or order to be malleable, with the mechanics in place to make adjustments without having to bring a motion every couple of years.”
This approach works best when the parties remain open and cooperative. From the first contact, Kniess strives to understand her clients’ objectives and then steer them to solutions that satisfy their goals while mitigating the potential for future strife. “Sometimes, clients don’t articulate their goals well. They are so focused on the money or custody arrangements, they forget that they really don’t want to be back in court anytime soon. I try to reach their stated goals while also helping them maintain a relationship that will allow them to co-parent without litigating.”
Kniess and her team provide a warm environment where clients feel heard and understood. Law clerk Hannah Mohs and paralegal Amanda Rock work together with Kniess to connect with clients and build rapport. “We sit down as a team at least once a month to review all our cases and make sure we are all up-to-date on any changes. This helps us to be personally in touch with each client’s situation. Whenever we close a case and a client sends a thank you note or an email, it’s never addressed to just me. I think it shows how personal our service really is.”
Licensed to practice in both Wisconsin and Minnesota, Kniess is adept at guiding clients through family law matters on both sides of the border. “Many circumstances arise that cause people to want to transfer a case, or sometimes they come to me and they’re not sure where their action should lie. Another situation that comes up frequently is when there is concurrent jurisdiction. We may litigate that issue before the case gets underway. The advantage is that I can represent, whatever the outcome. If we argue for jurisdiction in Wisconsin, but the judge says the case is going to Minnesota, I can continue to represent.”
While Kniess advocates a low-conflict approach to family law, she is by no means timid in the courtroom. She began her law career as a business litigator, where she acquired the skills and the confidence to take on a tough opponent. “I’m very aware of the discovery tools and motions I have at my disposal to move a case forward. Most oft en, I can use these tools to get a case to settle. I prefer not to take a case to trial if we can avoid it, since anytime you go to court and ask the judge to make a decision, there is a level of animosity that will carry forward.”
When the opposition takes a combative stance, Kniess works to de-escalate the conflict. “I won’t respond to inflammatory letters that won’t accomplish anything and don’t offer a solution, and I’d like to think if a judge sees a motion from me, they know I’m serious. I want to preserve as much as possible for my clients in terms of their money, their relationship and their dignity. Money spent fighting could be used for their kids.”
Kniess’ desire for greater flexibility and the authority to manage her own cases prompted her to open her solo practice several years ago. Now a single parent of two children, she leverages her ability to work remotely to maximize her productivity while being present for her children.
Her change in marital status has also enhanced her skill and empathy as a family law practitioner. “It’s added a whole layer to what I understand with my clients. I’m fortunate that my ex-husband and I get along very well. We’ve preserved that relationship for our children. I can offer my clients a first-hand perspective on what works and what doesn’t.”
As a solo practitioner, Kniess maintains her professional edge by cultivating collaborative relationships with her colleagues and remaining engaged with her professional community. “It goes beyond maintaining CLEs. It includes talking to people in the profession about what’s going on in the business side of things as well as the law. Our family law bar is fairly small and close-knit. Besides providing education and hosting our annual events, the family bar is really good at respecting everyone as people and encouraging self-care.”
Kniess shared her take on the notion of work/life balance. “I think it’s more about learning the balance of being present when I’m working, and allowing my passion for family law to drive what I’m doing, but then learning to shut that off to be present with my family. You’re never going to complete everything every time you walk out and close the office door. I’ve learned to be comfortable with that. To be a good advocate, you have to maintain your stress level so you don’t react emotionally in managing a case.”
Kniess gives back to the profession by donating her time and expertise to the Volunteer Lawyer’s Network and the Hennepin County Un-bundled Legal Services Project. She is also nurturing a limited scope pilot program, the Washington County Unbundled Project.
Kniess regards the practice of family law as both a science and an art. “The science begins with understanding the complexity of the practice, which goes beyond divorce and requires proficiency in many other disciplines, like taxes, real estate and business law. The art of family law is about how you relate to people and the methods for getting a case done. It’s about moving a case forward as efficiently as possible, while having compassion for the people involved. A family may be moving forward in a form that’s different from what it used to be, but it can still move forward to a positive, new reality.”
“Whenever we close a case and a client sends a thank you note or an email, it’s never addressed to just me. I think it shows how personal our service really is.”