After working with the United States Department of the Interior, Office of the Solicitor, for nearly a decade, attorney John Jacobson hung out his shingle as a solo practitioner. Most of the work he had done for the government was for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, relating to Indian treaty rights and land claims throughout the Midwest. “My education in Indian law came through that experience,” Jacobson said. “In law school, I don’t think the University of Chicago even had an Indian law class.”
For six years, Jacobson toiled solo to help tribes answer some profoundly important legal questions.
“In 1983, at least in Minnesota, the tribes that had in-house counsel were few and far between,” he said. “In the years before the advent of the Indian Gaming [Regulatory] Act, especially the small tribes in Minnesota and the Midwest had little in the way of resources to devote to a substantial number of legal matters that were significant but had not come to any lawyer because tribes could not afford the legal fees. It was a function not of lack of need, but lack of resources.”
Nearly 40 years later, the firm Jacobson began has grown into a nationally recognized leader in Indian law, with a contingent of highly trained experts who represent the needs of each tribe with thoughtful consideration of its unique history, culture and challenges. Today, Jacobson, Magnuson, Anderson & Halloran, P.C., the Jacobson Law Group, delivers comprehensive legal services from alternative dispute resolution to courtroom advocacy in complex matters spanning business transactions, tribal governance and just about everything in between.
About half of Jacobson Law Group’s shareholders are members of federally recognized Indian tribes. You will also find many other diversities among their ranks, resulting in representation that is highly sensitive to the traditional values of each tribe and respectful of differing customs.
Shawn Frank joined Jacobson Law Group almost 20 years ago and is the firm’s managing shareholder. He has devoted his career exclusively to the practice of Indian law. He is an enrolled member of the Seneca Nation of Indians from the Allegany Territory and served as its assistant attorney general. His practice focuses primarily on business and tribal governance issues.
“This is a diverse and dynamic practice area that is alive and continues to grow,” Frank said. “It’s that evolution that makes it exciting. And I feel I’m doing something that has an impact for people who so often haven’t had a voice. It has been great to see our attorneys develop so many subspecialties over the years. It’s one of the strengths our firm has. It is John’s principle that we help tribes maximize the resources they have and provide benefits in Indian country. We’re all here because we want to help.”
Susan Allen has been practicing Indian law for more than 25 years. Her practice centers on tribal and corporate governance, business transactions, employment matters and tax issues. She is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and has the distinction of being the first American Indian woman elected to the Minnesota legislature. Allen earned her law degree and certificate of Indian law from the University of New Mexico School of Law, one of the only schools in the country to offer training in this practice area at the time.
“You have tribes operating with their own governmental systems and their own cultural practices, from the way they bury their dead to how they deal with sacred places,” Allen said. “So when we represent a tribe, it takes a lot of time to build a relationship and get to where they believe we are listening to them. We use our skills to translate those customs into actual practices that meet the needs of their members, whether it’s incorporating alternative healing traditions in health services, bringing back the language in schools or incorporating traditional dispute resolution methods. A lot of us are Indian, and we want to practice law in a way that aligns with our values as Indian people.”
“Listening is so incredibly important in what we do,” Frank added. “There are times when dealing with a tribal community when we don’t know what the missteps could be. We need to listen and figure out what is important to the tribe without being overly intrusive. It’s really about learning to read the room.”
The Jacobson Law Group also seeks opportunities to foster native attorneys. Frank said, “For me, it’s important for people who work in the Indian community to be connected or feel connected. It doesn’t mean you have to be a tribal member. But a great value of the firm is promoting and helping to develop Indian attorneys.”
Allen’s experience as a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives underscores the importance of opening more opportunities for Indian people in leadership. She recalled her own swearing in ceremony as a legislator. “It was televised, and the chamber was full of Indian people. They brought in a drum group that was all children, and it was watched on TV by tribal communities in Minnesota. My being elected was a way to bring all of them into that place where they had been excluded. It was a powerful experience, and I am very honored to have done it.”
According to Allen, the state legislature was 98 percent white when she left. Today, minorities occupy 15 percent of Minnesota’s legislative seats, a far more accurate reflection of the state’s citizens.
As sovereign nations, tribes enjoy unique political status. Much of the Jacobson Law Group’s efforts are spent toward helping tribal people retain and exert their sovereign rights. But the practice of Indian law is a moving target, with new questions constantly being raised and tested. Attorneys must pivot quickly to address the many challenges of representing tribal governments, including their internal structures, their relationships with their own citizens and with other governments.
Jacobson has dedicated his career to advancing the rights of tribal peoples. He is humble about his contributions, but his work has forever changed the landscape of Indian law and greatly improved life for many communities. For example, Jacobson fought to help the Forest County Potawatomi build a gaming facility in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“The law was straightforward, but this case is alone in the U.S. in terms of a tribe building a gaming facility in a city many miles from the reservation,” Jacobson said. “But it changed life on that tiny Wisconsin reservation forever. The efforts that many people put into that case made an enormous difference.”
A contract dispute took Jacobson to the Wisconsin Supreme Court on behalf of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. Ultimately, the court ruled that Wisconsin should defer to the decision of the tribal court. “This is emerging stuff. These are the kinds of questions we are seeing all the time. It is not an area of settled law; it is changing all the time.”
Jacobson also recently retired as the Chief Justice of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Tribal Court, where he served since 1992.
An important milestone in the advancement of Indian law in Minnesota came when the William Mitchell College of Law began its Indian law program. The program continued when the college merged to become Mitchell Hamline. Jacobson was formerly an adjunct professor there.
“The Indian law program was begun by my good friend Bernard Becker,” Jacobson said. “He argued an enormously significant case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. The program has affected Indian law in Minnesota and elsewhere. Graduating students who are working full time or part time in Indian law are doing important work in so many places.”
Attorney Michael Murphy was a student of the program, and he joined the firm in 2014. As a skilled advocate and neutral, Murphy advises tribal councils, departments and enterprises on their governance and economic initiatives. He has also served as an associate adjunct professor at Mitchell Hamline.
“In just about every field we studied in the program, we learned about something that John and his colleagues had worked on to shape the contours of the field, from child welfare to gaming,” Murphy said. “So much great work has been done by this firm over the years, operating within a framework established by John. What I’ve learned here is that our clients define the goal, and we respond with practical ways of accomplishing that goal. Everyone here is very good at problem solving, despite the uncertainty that goes with this field.”
The important work in Indian country continues — overcoming prejudices toward Indian peoples, defending sovereign rights that have long been disparaged and building up communities and cultures that are an important part of our national heritage.
“In the time I’ve been privileged to watch this firm and also the world of Indian law evolve, I can’t imagine any other practice area that has seen such rapid changes in terms of what the law is, be it statutory or regulatory,” Jacobson concluded. “We continue to find ways to do things or try things that were not possible a decade, or five decades or a century ago. This is an extremely dynamic field, and it keeps moving forward.”