Anne M. Lockner & Denise S. Rahne: Redefining What is Possible

By H.K. Wilson

When national trial law firm Robins Kaplan LLP recently expanded its wealth planning, administration and disputes practice group to become the wealth planning, administration and fiduciary disputes practice group, the move reflected the firm’s support of attorney growth and responsiveness to client needs. Robins Kaplan has endured for more than 80 years because it never stands still. Like the law, it continues to evolve and redefine what is possible.

Denise S. Rahne is a partner and co-chair of wealth planning, administration and fiduciary disputes. She is a seasoned trial lawyer who represents corporate and individual clients in matters involving estates, trusts, fiduciaries, shareholders and closely held corporations. Rahne is also skilled at resolving conflicts using alternative dispute methods. A leader outside the firm, she is co-chair of the Tri-Bar probate and trust section litigation and dispute resolution committee.

In a firm culture she describes as “entrepreneurial,” Rahne was instrumental in broadening the frame of her practice group. She took her ideas to Anne M. Lockner, a partner in the firm’s business litigation group and member of the executive board.

“We are empowered at Robins Kaplan, even as senior associates, to claim a piece of real estate and build something on it,” Rahne says. “The way we ended up focusing on this fiduciary practice is that I took a piece of land and said, ‘I’m going to build a fiduciary wealth disputes group.’ The firm had a lot of people who were doing more traditional fiduciary work, and I was focusing on family disputes, but it wasn’t as organized as it could have been. After discussing it with Anne, she saw the same potential I did. I had backing and support for marketing and anything I asked for, and I was able to get it going.”

Anne Lockner
Anne Lockner

At the end of the day, what any successful trial attorney does is tell a good story. Behind every legal case is a story about people.

“Our firm has always handled fiduciary disputes, but they were usually in the closely held corporation context,” Lockner says. “In recent years, Denise had created a very cohesive wealth disputes practice that focused primarily on fiduciary claims in the trust-and-estates context. Be-cause she had created such a strong infrastructure for that practice that included a quarterly newsletter, an annual CLE, and cross-functional communications internally that allowed attorneys to have better visibility to what others were doing, she thought it made sense to broaden that group’s work to include the other fiduciary disputes that we were already handling. As someone who handles fiduciary disputes along with a variety of other complex business disputes, I jumped at the chance to work more closely with Denise and help build out this practice more fully. First, she’s a phenomenal attorney who is as steady as a rock and just gets stuff done. Second, she’s one of my dearest friends, and I always appreciate getting the chance to work more closely with her.”

The expansion of Robins Kaplan’s wealth planning, administration and fiduciary disputes practice group highlights both the firm’s collaborative nature and the depth of its re-sources.

“We have a number of different practices at the firm that connect because they involve a fiduciary duty in some context,” Rahne says. “Organizing allows us to work together when a fiduciary is under fire. For example, Steve Orloff is the co-chair of our practice group. He is an estate planner who does no litigation, while I am a litigator who does no estate planning. When he has an estate with conflicts, he knocks on my door, and I help him navigate the conflict. Similarly, when I have a question about a tax issue or planning instrument I’m not familiar with, I consult him for his expertise. There is also the opportunity to work with bigger teams across the firm on cases with similar dynamics. I had my modest-sized practice before, but I love working with my colleagues in the group.”

The practice group is rounded out by a cadre of distinguished attorneys who reflect the firm’s diversity in subject matter expertise and geography.

Timothy Billion is a partner licensed to practice in Minnesota and South Dakota. He represents clients in trust and fiduciary litigation, contract and fraud claims, earn-out disputes, class action lawsuits, personal injury claims, constitutional litigation, internal investigations and criminal proceedings. He also advises Tribes across the country.

Timothy Q. Purdon is a partner and co-chair of both the American Indian law and policy group and government and internal investigations group. He is a former U.S. attorney for the District of North Dakota who has made his career leading complex criminal investigations and high-stakes civil plaintiff and defense litigation. He is also a passionate champion for Tribes and Tribal members. Purdon is licensed to practice in Minnesota, Montana and North Dakota.

Brendan V. Johnson is a partner, co-chair of the American Indian law and policy group, co-chair of the government and internal investigations group and a member of the executive board. Licensed to practice in Minnesota and South Dakota, he is a former U.S. attorney for the District of South Dakota. He is an aggressive courtroom, political and public advocate.

Thomas F. Berndt is a partner in Robins Kaplan’s Minneapolis office. He represents both plaintiffs and defendants in high-stakes disputes involving alleged fraud, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, shareholder oppression, antitrust violations and unfair trade practices.

Teamwork and resource sharing contribute to the outstanding legal results the firm is known for. “Anytime you can more effectively harness and leverage the work of your partners, like we now do much more effectively with this group, we can provide our clients with added value,” Lockner says. “When a client hires one of us to handle a fiduciary matter, they are not just getting the knowledge and experience of one person. Rather, we can draw on the collective wisdom and experience of our close-knit group of attorneys who all work in the fiduciary space, including our colleagues in New York, Boston, California and the Dakotas, in addition to those of us in Minnesota. We also have experience in a wide variety of industries and various types of corporate structures — all of which have fiduciary duties that can give rise to disputes.”

In her practice, where matters are often resolved by a relatively small legal team, Rahne says junior attorneys can enjoy an immersive practice experience. “It translates to early, significant experience and opportunities to take depositions or appear in court. Associates can also get up close with what clients’ problems and worries are, which orients them toward thinking about how to make a person’s life better. The complexities and dynamics tend to be more interpersonal and historical, and the application of law can be complicated. It all comes down to whether or not somebody breached a duty. And what’s more visceral than proving somebody did wrong by somebody else?”

Across the firm at large, Lockner affirms the “opportunities at Robins Kaplan are meaty, meaningful and available for any associate willing to step up and take them. We have always been known to staff our cases leanly and efficiently. Not only does this ensure that the clients are obtaining high-quality and cost-effective legal work, but it also allows associates to have exciting opportunities at an early stage.”

Denise Rahne
Denise Rahne

We are empowered at Robins Kaplan, even as senior associates, to claim a piece of real estate and build something on it.

Timothy Billion, Denise S. Rahne, Anne M. Lockner, Brendan V. Johnson and Timothy Q. Purdon

For Lockner, developing the firm’s associates is one of her most important and fulfilling roles. “Our people — and particularly our associates — are what make us who we are. Without their ability to provide top-quality work, we would not be able to serve our clients the way we have done for the past 80-plus years. … I am currently handling a matter with a very talented young associate who I happened to first meet through TCDIP Connect (a program through Twin Cities Diversity in Practice that brings together attorneys of varying experience levels with local law students of color in a small group mentoring model). She had already been hired by Robins Kaplan as a summer associate when I met her, and it has been wonderful to have the chance to work with her directly now. I have handed her a lot of responsibility in communicating directly with the client, responding to discovery, and overseeing our document-review-attorney team on the document review and production. I anticipate her getting opportunities to second-chair key depositions and potentially take some herself, as well as arguing potential motions that will likely arise.”

At Robins Kaplan, attorneys are rewarded for having an enterprising spirit and encouraged to play to their strengths and passions in the law. “The firm doesn’t just label its attorneys,” Rahne says. “It wants you to develop an energized practice around your skillsets and see where it takes you.”

A high school English teacher for 10 years before her law career, effective storytelling was among Rahne’s natural gifts. It is no surprise that she became a trial attorney. As a law student, she had an on-campus interview with two partners from Robins Kaplan, and they asked how she managed to engage adolescents in literature. “I didn’t realize at the time that it was the same skill required to be a good litigator. If you can find the heart of a matter and understand its most human element, people can’t run away from it, and their attention span increases dramatically. It was true when I taught, and it’s the same when putting a case narrative together. I answer that question early, What is it really about? In the law, it’s followed by, What am I going to do about it?”

Brendan V. Johnson, Denise S. Rahne, Timothy Billion, Timothy Q. Purdon and Anne M. Lockner

“At the end of the day, what any successful trial attorney does is tell a good story,” Lockner says. “Behind every legal case is a story about people. There may be complex legal issues or complicated technology underlying a dispute, but there is always a story about people that can serve as the vehicle to explain the more complicated parts of a case. Depending on the case and the issue, experts can also serve a key role in explaining complex concepts to a jury.”

Robins Kaplan is already reputed for its wins in the fiduciary arena. But this firm is not one to rest on its laurels. It is continually refining not only its capacity to manage and preserve wealth for its clients, but also its ability to litigate, mediate and arbitrate client disputes.

“Robins Kaplan has a well-deserved reputation as a top-notch plaintiff’s firm,” says Lockner. “But some are surprised to learn how strong our bench of commercial litigators is. In addition to the fiduciary disputes we handle, we also handle all sorts of other complex commercial matters — representing both plaintiffs and defendants, privately held and publicly traded companies, startups, and Fortune 50 companies in all kinds of industries. While we are known for our trial acumen, we use that reputation and those skills to avoid trial whenever we can by obtaining a successful settlement or business solution for our clients.”

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