by Mark Baumgarten
Meet three personal injury lawyers who make the best out of the worst of situations.
Think racing on a Yamaha V Max motorcycle down Mexico’s back roads with no legal speed limit is risky? That’s kids’ stuff. At least according to Jim Schwebel. The real risks, the Minneapolis lawyer says, don’t come while he’s enjoying his favorite pastime south of the border. They come while practicing personal injury law.
“You give your all to try and work on behalf of some case that you’ve got at least as high a probability of losing than winning,” says the founder of Schwebel Goetz & Sieben. “That’s real risk taking.”
And even though he claims to be a boring person, Schwebel does know something of risk and adventure.
While growing up in St. Paul a 15-year-old Schwebel stuck out his thumb and hitchhiked around the Midwest for a month. At 17, he was sworn into the Navy Air Reserves. He enrolled at the University of Minnesota, but after two and a half years of “dismal grades,” he enlisted in the Navy, spending a year on the USS Enterprise. By this time his youthful wanderlust had subsided. He came back, got married, finished the last three years of college on the dean’s list, and met the man who would lead him down the path to becoming a personal injury lawyer.
Bill Deparcq, the legendary Minnesota lawyer who made a name for himself representing injured railroad workers all over the country, hired a young graduate, first as a full-time investigator during Schwebel’s years at the University of Minnesota Law School and then as an attorney.
“I was very luck to have that mentoring relationship,” Schwebel says, “Bill Deparcq really understood his clients, and he could relate to their losses, and that’s what personal injury law is about. It’s about being able to empathize with your clients; that really gives you the inspiration to go out and be a damn good salesman for them.”
As founder of what is now Minnesota’s largest practice specializing in personal injury law, Schwebel has had an opportunity to practice what Deparcq preached. He has represented victims of the Williams Pipeline explosion in Roseville and the MGM Hotel fire in Las Vegas and, more recently, has represented the victims in the Holidazzle parade case against Federal Signal and the city of Minneapolis.
Since staring his firm in 1974 with only a law clerk and a secretary, Schwebel has watched it grow too as large as 26 lawyers (there are currently 19), thanks, in part, to a work ethic that he admits is a little abnormal.
“I have, I suppose, a major compulsive disorder that most successful people have, where you just like to focus 100 percent of your energy on what you’re trying to accomplish,” he says. “But, as I built this law firm, I was able to surround myself with some people that were bright and talented lawyers that allowed me to be a little less compulsive.”