Attorney Julia Ketcham Corbett’s community ties and legal expertise are a boon to the Mankato business scene.
I don’t mean to scare you, but if you own or manage a small to medium size business (under 500 employees), a recent study shows you have a one in five chance of getting hit with an employment claim. The study, by business insurer Hiscox, also finds the average cost to defend employment charges is $125,000, which includes expenses such as attorney’s fees and settlement costs. If you are not prepared, these can be alarming statistics.
Indeed, employment lawsuits can be among the most time-consuming and costly losses for businesses. In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimates in total, employers spend upwards of $404 million dollars each year on employment claims.
Businesses often learn the hard way – that the way they’ve been dealing with employees or employee issues are incorrect and need to be changed. Employment law is an area where having good legal advice about your employment practices can ultimately save the business a lot of time, money and headaches.
Enter Mankato employment law master, Julia Ketcham Corbett. Corbett understands the ins and outs of employment law…and just as important, she understands the needs and culture of the southern Minnesota business community.
“I think keeping up with all of the employment laws and regulations, which are numerous and constantly changing, is the biggest challenge for businesses in our region,” says Corbett. “Often businesses are doing what they think is right or they are doing things the way they’ve always done it. They are acting with the best of intentions, but they don’t realize all of the laws that are impacting what they are supposed to be doing or not doing in terms of their employees, and they are unknowingly making mistakes which can be very costly.”
Prevention, then, can be the best defense against lawsuits. Corbett says simple preventative and mitigation measures such as having written hiring procedures, proper training for supervisors, including on discrimination and harassment, as well as keeping an up-to-date employee handbook can go a long way in minimizing risk and protecting your business.
And with more than two decades of experience, Corbett knows what she’s talking about.
In fact, she entered the profession at a time when employment law was just coming front and center. In 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. In 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act was instituted. And, in 1994 on the heels of these legal milestones, Corbett graduated from Hamline Law School.
“Employment law was really emerging as a significant substantive area of practice when I started practicing in 1994,” she reflects. “Certainly with the ADA, FMLA and those kind of significant employment laws being enacted, it really complicated things. It created kind of a specialization area that hadn’t been there before. I saw that and began focusing in that area of law. So I happened to be in the right place at the right time. Fortunately for me, because it is an area I really love.”
While she was graduating at just the right time, the right place for Corbett turned out to be Mankato and the law firm of Blethen, Gage and Krause.
“Blethen had long been a business law firm, that’s been their bread and butter. So it was a natural segue for me to help develop that practice when I joined the firm.”
Although when she moved to Mankato fresh out of law school, she had no intention of staying that long. Now 24 years, three kids, but still just one law firm later she can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Corbett says, “It was my first legal job out of law school and I hope it will be my last. Although my husband and I have had opportunity to move over the years, we weren’t interested. This is where we are raising our kids and I just can’t imagine calling anywhere else home or practicing in any other law firm.”
Truth is, this is by far the longest time Corbett has spent living in any one place.
“I was born in St. Louis, Missouri. My dad worked for Cargill so I am what I considered to be a Cargill brat,” she explains. “They moved their management people very regularly, in fact, every year to every two years. So by the time I was in fourth grade we had moved all over the Midwest; Iowa, South Dakota, Missouri, and eventually Minnesota.
“So often times we would move and know that we were going to be moving again in 12 months. It was difficult as a kid, but a lot of who I am now has to do with that experience. At that age, elementary school, nobody necessarily wanted to befriend the new kid. So I didn’t have a choice but to reach out and make efforts to connect with others every time we moved. I think those early experiences helped me with that, because otherwise I would have just sat at home with no friends and nothing to do. I had to reach out and make those connections.”
And she’s been making connections ever since. Her career choices and her community service work all revolve around opportunities for her to connect with others.
“I’m a connector, I look for ways to help others by seeing what connections I have, that I can in turn connect them with. And I like being able to work with people over and over again. Family law is another area of practice for me and in those cases I hope I don’t work with them over and over again. When a case is closed, they understandably don’t want to see me anymore. But in my employment law practice, I work with human resource professionals and I have relationships with them, many of which go back 20 years. They may even change employers, but I’m still working with them wherever they land. So to have those long relationships and connections is important to me. I love that part of my practice.”
She also loves Mankato, which is evident in the numerous community and service organizations she is a part of. From Greater Mankato Growth, to the Sports Commission to her longest running volunteer post as a board member for Living Links (recently merged with Harry Meyering Center), Corbett is invested in this community. In this interview she discusses career, community and her top priority in life, her family.
As I mentioned, your family moved around a lot while you were growing up, but you consider New Richland, Minnesota your hometown?
When I was in fourth grade my dad got moved to New Richland. We had been living in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota but the whole time we were there we knew they were building a plant in New Richland and we would be moving there. It was a smaller town of course than we had been used to, but my mom and dad decided it was time to stop moving us. So while my dad continued to get moved by Cargill, he didn’t move us anymore. He actually got his pilot’s license so he could easily fly down to the other places he was managing around the Midwest. When he wasn’t working in New Richland, he came home on weekends. I appreciate that he did that for us, so thankful we didn’t have to move anymore. So New Richland-Hartland is where I finished the rest of elementary and high school.
I graduated in a class of 37 people. So I decided for college I wanted something maybe a little bit bigger. I went to college at Winona State for four years, got my bachelors degree and then moved up to the Twin Cities and went to law school at Hamline. I lived there for three years and then coming out of Hamline Law School got my job offer here in Mankato and have been here ever since. It will be 24 years this August. All with Blethen. My first job out of law school. That’s sort of rare these days.
Why did you pick law?
It kind of picked me. I thought I wanted to be a teacher actually. My mom is a teacher, my aunts are teachers, my grandma was a school librarian. I had worked and volunteered in a classroom for kids with learning disabilities and behavioral issues. So I thought that’s what I wanted to do. But I got to my first teaching class and I just hated it. I remember calling my mom and saying ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do but it isn’t this!’ And she said, well you better figure it out because we are paying for college and you ARE going to class. [laughter]
So I didn’t know what to do. I finished out those classes through spring semester of my sophomore year and was going into my junior year still not knowing what I was going to do. I thought, well, I will figure it out over the summer. And I did! That summer I worked as a temp secretary and got placed at a law firm in Albert Lea, Minnesota. It was a sole practitioner whose legal assistant was on maternity leave so I was there for several weeks. He embraced me as though I was his regular legal assistant. He let me read files and talked to me about cases. I got to see him meeting with clients and it just kind of piqued an interest in me I didn’t know I had. I don’t have lawyers in my family and wasn’t really ever exposed to them. I mean, my parents had someone that did their wills, but that was it. Even so, I sought his advice and his suggestion was to get a degree in something you can use if law school doesn’t work out. So, I thought, well I am good at English so I got an English degree thinking if law school doesn’t work out or that’s not the path I end up taking there’s lots I can do with that degree.
So I went to law school kind of not knowing for sure if it was the right path. But when I got there and got into my classes it just all started to click and I knew that was where I was supposed to be and where I was supposed to be going. It kind of was accidental. I’d like to say I had this grand plan from day one…but no…that’s not the case.
Well, you’ve been at it for 24 years so it must have been the right path.
I love what I do. Every day is different. I love that it challenges my brain. I love that I get to work with people and help people. It was definitely the right path.
Figuring out law was the right path is one thing, but once you make that decision…then you have more choices to make. Like, what specific kind of law to practice.
That was a good thing about Blethen, I got to kind of do everything at first. It is a smaller firm. In Mankato it’s a bigger firm but compared to firms in the Twin Cities, we would be considered a small to mid-sized firm. So you kind of have to do everything. One philosophy of our firm is that our new attorneys are exposed to lots of different types of law. One reason for that is because law school doesn’t really prepare you for a particular area of law. It prepares you for how to think, it prepares you to be an analytical thinker and how to process things cognitively. But it doesn’t give experience in the day to day types of things that you are going to do as a practicing lawyer. So, the learning continues when you go to a firm and start specializing.
I think when I was hired I was supposed to be the next Jim Turk of our office in anticipation of his eventual retirement. Jim did 100% insurance defense work and litigation, representing people sued in accidents, those types of things. As time went on I got interested in employment law and started developing that practice. I also worked a lot with Bailey Blethen who was a great mentor to me in family law. So I got busy in those two areas of practice and by the time Jim was ready to retire from representing clients and moving to mediating cases, and I was supposed to become him. I was so busy I couldn’t become him! And that worked out because I really don’t think that would have been a good fit for me for a number of reasons. So we hired Ben McAninch and he’s become Jim Turk and I’ve continued to develop my employment law practice and that keeps me busy about three quarters of the time. I still do a little bit of family law but I am more choosy about which cases I take. I also mediate family law cases and try to help people who are going through divorce, resolve their issues. So family law representation and mediation is about 25% of what I do and employment law is 75%.
I would imagine employment law is hard to keep up with?
It is and it is very different from family law in that respect. Family law doesn’t change a lot but employment law changes constantly. So keeping on top of everything is important and takes some work. I only work on the employer side. I don’t represent employees. We do represent some employees in our office, but we are heavily employer side representatives, even within our office. I would say 90% of our employment law cases are representing the employer. I help employers with all kinds of things such as hiring, discipline, termination, documentation, drafting handbooks and noncompetition agreements and employee and supervisor training. I help them as they are trying to make day-to-day decisions about employment issues, like dealing with a request for accommodations or leave or dealing with a disciplinary situation; the employer is trying to decide what can they do, what do they need to do to keep people working, etc. My goal is to make sure my clients are complying with the law and being as productive as they can be in their businesses. So it’s helping every day with something new. It’s a phone call about something new every day.
When should a business pick up the phone and make that call?
That’s a good question and it varies. The best time is before there is a problem. But often times a business calls at a point of crisis. Often a new client comes to us because they’ve done something and they are worried they haven’t done it right or they have received some sort of notice that there is a claim against them and they are trying to figure out what to do with it. That’s not always true though. Sometimes we have a small business that as it develops and grows, figures out it needs help managing employee issues. If you have two or three employees you can often handle things, but when you start to get to 10, 12, 15 employees suddenly there are just a lot of requirements in the law and documentation and expectations of the employers and they find they need help in that area.
I’d imagine, some only reach out when they really need to.
A lot of them come when already in crisis mode. We get them through it and then they come on with us long term to prevent more instances. One of my longest clients came to me originally when they had a claim made against them by an employee who had left. We helped them through that claim and two more claims that happened right after the first one. But they’ve been with us now for 23 years out of that crisis and since then we’ve never had another claim (knock on wood.)
Moral of the story…come to you before crisis mode.
Yes! I think employers sometimes fear the cost of employment law advice, but frankly I spend about 15-20 minutes on the phone with a client and we can hopefully avoid a very expensive claim. It just takes a few minutes in many cases to make sure they are doing things in the right way, documenting correctly, and that they are making the decision they need to make appropriately.
Our practice is designed to increase awareness and decrease the exposure employers have with regard to employment–related claims. We regularly present seminars to and provide in-house training for our employment clients regarding employment-related issues and the changes in the law which impact them.
Our services, when engaged in a preventative manner, are an investment that will pay dividends by increasing awareness and decreasing the costs resulting from employee turnover and litigation. Our lawyers advise employers about statutory compliance, such as ADA and FMLA compliance, hiring, documentation and discipline and termination, as well as non-competition and non-solicitation rights.
Is there a certain geographic area you serve?
A large majority of our clients are located in the Greater Mankato MSA, but we represent clients all over Minnesota and into Iowa. In fact we have an attorney licensed in Iowa. Our insurance defense lawyers regularly represent clients all over the state. I’ve had cases as far north as Duluth, I regularly represent clients in the Twin Cities, and I have clients all over Southern Minnesota. I also represent a couple of franchise business owners that have locations all over the state.
Some lawyers, once they have experience, go out on their own. Has that ever crossed your mind?
I don’t have any interest in being on my own. Growing up I’ve always worked best in a team environment. We have that at Blethen. We joke that a lot of us are ex-jocks and we tend to work as teammates and bounce things off one another. I just can’t imagine trying to handle everything on my own and not have others to help.
Just recently I got a call from someone who had probate questions and I just put them on hold for a second so I could walk down the hall and find the person I knew would have the answers. I am thankful to have that expertise around me. Otherwise the temptation is to help everybody and I think I could get myself into trouble!
I like being a lawyer. I don’t like the administration side of things. I am one of the managing partners, so I do deal a bit with the administration side. But if I could just practice law all day long and not have the administration side that would make me happy. But the administrative role is a role that needs to be filled and I don’t mind filling it. But I think if you are on your own, you have to spend a lot of time being an administrator and doing it all yourself. I can’t imagine doing the marketing and hiring and all of the things that I have a team around me to do now. I can’t imagine doing all of that and not having the resources around me that I have in Blethen.
How long have you been in the role of managing partner?
I don’t remember exactly when I became a part of the management team or a managing partner. We use that term a little differently than a lot of larger law firms. In bigger firms, the managing partner often doesn’t practice law or has a very reduced practice – they are an administrator. For us, that’s not how it works. Silas Danielson and I are the management team/managing partners. We both have a very busy, full-time law practice, but we also handle administrative duties for the firm. Blethen Gage & Krause has eight partners. We used to have a number of small committees within the partnership. It’s too hard to have eight people involved in every decision. Probably about five or six years ago, we decided to go to a system where we would eliminate the numerous committees and there would be a managing partner or two to oversee firm administration. We have an office manager who handles the day-to-day administration, but Silas and I are the go-to’s for higher level decision making. We review and handle firm finances and review issues to decide if they are minor enough that we or the office manager can take care of them, or if they are more major, we take them to the whole partnership for a decision. Silas and I are a good team – we’ve been together since the first day of law school and started at Blethen on the same day. We complement each other. He’s a CPA, so is excellent with numbers. He often takes the lead on financial issues and I take the lead on process and procedure, personnel and marketing issues.
You realize, it’s not just in your firm. In all the many roles you fill, you are considered a leader by the community!
It’s something I’ve grown in to. As my career has matured, so have I. And I have learned a valuable lesson. I have learned to be a leader by listening.
When I first started practicing law, it wasn’t unusual for me to be the only female in the room. And I think it took me a while to find my voice and be confident enough to speak up. Now, I do but I make sure I’m ready. I listen and my lawyer training kicks in and I analyze, but once I know what my position is I’m not afraid to speak up no matter who is in the room. And that’s how I’ve grown into what I want to tackle next. Now I want to mentor other women who may find themselves in a similar situation. I want to encourage them and I want to help them find their voice.
Along with your career, I know you are very involved in many community endeavors. Is that also something you’ve grown in to?
It is just something in me that is innate. I just have it in me. I grew up in a small community and went to a small school where you had to be involved or it just didn’t happen. And my parents were great role models in that. They both worked full time but also took time to be involved in their communities. My dad was always a part of the Lions and my mom was a teacher but always taking on other community roles as well. They never talked about it, they just did it. And I saw them doing that and it just became part of who I am. It set the course for what I grew into in life as far as community service.
You’ve mentioned your employer is supportive of life outside the office.
When I came to Blethen the firm had, and still has, such a focus on giving back to the community. Which is remarkable when you consider how a law firm works. In a law firm, each attorney is required to achieve so many billable hours. Well, at Blethen time spent in community service is considered in that billable hour requirement. Even though the firm is not getting paid for that time, it still counts. They just encourage all of us to find ways to give back. So it was modeled for me early in life through my parents and then reinforced when I started my career and has certainly grown as my career has matured.
Funny story, when I first started at Blethen one of the partners came in and said, ‘Hey I’m on the board for this local youth basketball association. We’d love to have you join the board. There are lots of great people on the board it would be a great way for you to make connections. And it may be a way for you to get involved and get acclimated in the community.’ So he left my office and I was considering it. And then seriously, and maybe I’m exaggerating here…but it seemed like just a couple of hours later…he comes back in my office and said, ‘say, didn’t your husband Brian play basketball in college? Would he want to coach in this youth league?’
[She smiles] And I thought to myself…right, you wanted him all along! You were using me to get to him! So they got us both, me on the board and him coaching. And my husband has actually been coaching in that league ever since, other than a short break after we first started our family. He just retired from youth basketball coaching last month, at least that’s what he’s saying.
Let’s talk about your family.
That’s my number one priority. I always make it a point to say I am a mom who works, not a working mom. I am a wife who works. Those always come first.
I met my husband Brian in college, we were engaged when I took the job in Mankato and got married soon after moving down here. We have three sons. Brennan is 20 and attends University of Wisconsin Madison, Griffin will graduate from Mankato West in June and is still looking at all of his options…he has some great ones so it’s a big decision. And my youngest, Aidan, is in 8th grade.
We’ve had opportunities to leave certainly over the years, but we just love it here. In fact, I think my original plan was to take the job in Mankato to get experience and then move on. Maybe go back to the Twin Cities, or Brian’s job could take us somewhere else..Kansas City, Omaha, then I would get licensed wherever that would be. But Brian and I just fell in love with it here. It’s been a wonderful place to raise our family. We’ve never really considered going anywhere else. This is home. I love Mankato.
I know I’ve heard you say that you couldn’t do all you do without the tremendous support and partnership of your family.
Definitely. I was just reading an article on why many women leave the practice of law before becoming a partner, much less a managing partner. One of the points in the article was that they often don’t have a true partnership at home, so they are trying to have a career and be a full-time mom, wife, housekeeper, cook, taxi-driver, volunteer etc. They have 100% of the responsibilities of the home, plus trying to succeed in their career. It’s just too stressful to try to do all of that, so many female lawyers drop out before they get to upper levels of partnership and management. I think that’s true for all women who want a career outside the home. You really need a good partner at home to be successful at work and find time to volunteer and lead. I can’t imagine trying to do everything I do without help, and luckily I’ve got a great partner in Brian, and my boys are supportive and mostly [laughter] helpful. I couldn’t have taken on the leadership roles I’ve taken on at work and in the community without that support and without them taking on some of the other responsibilities so that I can thrive in the chaos of trying to have my career while being a mom, wife, and volunteer, all at the same time. They are all key to whatever success I’ve had in keeping all of the plates in the air.
- Minnesota Bar (1994)
- U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota (1998)
- U.S. Court of Appeals, 8th Circuit (1998)
- 6th District Bar
- Minnesota State Bar Association
- Minnesota Women Lawyers
Outside the practice of law, Julia enjoys a very busy life. A long-time athlete, she continues to play volleyball and golf and enjoys pilates and high-intensity interval training. She is the mother of three very active sons and enjoys watching them play soccer, football, basketball and baseball. When she has free time, she enjoys traveling with her husband or friends, reading, cooking and volunteering her time to a number of community organizations.
Awards & Honors
- Named “Super Lawyer” by Minnesota Law & Politics, 2014 – 2017
- Appointed Administrative Hearing Office, City of Mankato, 2016
- Minnesota Business and Professional Women’s Young Careerist, Who’s Who in Family Law, Named in Law & Politics “Top Recoveries of the Year”, 2004.
- Named a “Rising Star” in the Legal Profession by Minnesota Law & Politics
- Honored as a “Woman of Distinction” award recipient by the Mankato YWCA
- Greater Mankato Growth, Distinguished Service Award
- Greater Mankato Growth, Executive Committee, Board, and Past Board Chair
- Greater Mankato Growth, Talent Steering Committee
- Mankato Sports Commission, Facilities Steering Committee
- LivingLinks, Inc. (now Harry Meyering Center), Board of Directors
Blethen, Gage & Krause
Phone: (507) 345-1166
Address: 100 Warren Street #400, Mankato, Minnesota