RED WING -- There was a time when Goodhue County District Court Judge Lawrence Clark didn't think he was smart enough to be an attorney.
After graduating with a degree in political science from the University of Minnesota, Clark said he was trying to figure out his next move. Would he go to graduate school for political science and become a teacher? Maybe make a living writing for a newspaper -- a brief stint he had after graduating? Or would he think about what his best friend was saying about going to law school?
The answer led to Clark spending decades in the courtroom as a lawyer and judge.
He took the admission test for law school, enrolled at William Mitchell College of Law in the Twin Cities and began working in Ellsworth. He moved to Dakota County, where made an impact dealing with abuse cases.
Clark was elected a First Judicial District judge in 2012 and will retire on Jan. 24.
The Republican Eagle spoke with Clark about his career, what he enjoyed most and advice for aspiring lawyers.
The conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
RE: What made you interested in a career in law?
Clark: My best friend was in law school and got talking to him and decided I’d take the LSAT and got accepted at several schools and decided to go to William Mitchell, where I could go nights. ... To be frank about it, I never thought I was smart enough to be a lawyer. My best friend became a lawyer, (I) thought he was always smarter than me.
As I began my last year of law school, I answered an advertisement for an associate attorney for a small firm in Ellsworth. Went out there to interview and they offered me the job. ... Small town practice, three lawyers, took anything that walked through the door. Had farmers come in with their shoe box full of receipts and invoices. Did their taxes for them, did criminal defense, family law, probate, everything. We also represented several municipalities — Ellsworth, Maiden Rock — just really a general practice.
Speaking about his time in the Dakota County Attorney's Office:
I did adult felony prosecution. Specialized in child abuse cases. Did a lot of child abuse trials. It was very rewarding work. As much as I enjoy my current job, my most rewarding work was prosecuting child abuse cases. When you can take a 4, 5, 10, 11-year-old child through a legal process where they've been physically or sexually abused and you can help them find the voice to tell people — "This is what happened to me" — it’s just really empowering. Kids are amazing.
RE: It has to be difficult to help this person talk and cope with these actions that have happened to them.
Clark: A lawyer is not a social worker. A judge is not a social worker. So you do have to — to some extent — remove that emotional part of it. Certainly during a trial you can’t let the emotions play a part in any decision, as a judge. As a prosecutor, I happen to be lucky, I had a very good victim witness program where we had staff who were sensitive to dealing with children in these situations. …
But you do have to be careful. The last thing you want to do as prosecutor, even as a defense attorney or judge, is to see a child be traumatized. And if the court process is to the point where you might be re-victimizing a child, then you have to pull the plug. It’s just not worth it.
RE: It's still hard to separate the emotional aspects though.
Clark: Let’s say there’s a sexual assault or child abuse of some sort, and you’re at the point where the person has been found guilty by a plea or a trial and it’s time for sentencing. To some extent, the judge is the voice of the community. You can recognize the community outrage for this type of behavior. You can’t take that to an extreme and be vindictive but you have to take into consideration what will satisfy the community — to some extent — and then also what’s going to be appropriate for this person.
Because this person will continue on living, so what can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again and what can we do to make this person a better person.
RE: There are repeat offenders, but no one involved wants that to happen.
Clark: I think a lot of people see it as black and white. This person committed these crimes, maybe he or she has done it more than once, this is a bad person and we ought to treat them as a bad person. Particularly with drug offenses, which is by far the biggest type of case we see now-a-days.
The last thing that’s going to help this person is extended incarceration. It might help them stay sober for a period of time, but it’s not going to deal with the issues that led to the drug abuse or led to whatever the criminal behavior is.
What can we do to help correct that situation? Even as a prosecutor, I was a zealous advocate, I sent a lot of people to prison. I never took a lot of satisfaction out of that. I don’t see what society gains by sending someone to prison. ... As a society, we need to be thinking about what can we be doing so that it doesn’t get derailed in the first place.
Because here in the justice system, we’re on the tail end of that whole thing. They’ve already gone through their education and upbringing and now they’re committing crimes. It's too late to correct it for most people, so we have to try and control somehow.
RE: How do you talk people through their first day in court? It's a pretty intimidating place to be.
Clark: It’s meant to be a little intimidating. This is a place where important things are dealt with. We’re not fooling around. This is a place where we take things seriously. That’s why you have all the formality of people standing up when a judge comes in.
I’m just a regular guy like everybody else, but when I put the robe on, I represent something that’s more than just me. ... On the other hand, when we’re sitting there as a judge, we don’t want to scare people. We want people to relax a little bit and be able to communicate with us so we can help them through the process.
RE: There’s a lot of communication going on to double check that people know what’s going on.
Clark: That communication is really important. If you have people coming in here, and it’s just a negative experience for them, they’re not going to get very much out of it. And they’re not listening as well. ... We’re dealing with people that are quite often dysfunctional, might have mental health issues, may have cognitive issues, and we might be throwing a list of things that we’re throwing at them, after the second item, they have lost it and aren’t listening anymore because they can’t take it anymore.
So yeah, we have to be aware of the audience we’re dealing with.
- 2012 STORY: 'A gentleman of the highest order'
RE: Was becoming a judge ever on your radar?
Clark: No, I didn't even think I should be an attorney. ...
As an attorney, I held judges in the highest esteem. That was pretty incredible. I was extremely honored when I was elected. I was like, "Wow, this is incredible." I try to keep that in mind.
You know, people joke about black robe disease when judges become too enamored with the authority they have. And I try to be mindful of that. I think I have.
RE: So many cases that pop up for you on a daily basis. How do you keep it all straight?
Cleark: You know a little bit about everything. If you know a case is coming up, you do some preparation work before that case comes before you. So you know what the issues are, you have a general understanding of what the law is. That’s actually kind of fun when you can go out there and the attorneys are making their arguments and you can throw questions at them like, ‘What about this, counsel? Or what about that?’ And get that give and take — that’s pretty fun.
RE: Speak to me like I’m a young law student. I need some motivation and advice from you.
Clark: I think as a young lawyer, you have to be prepared emotionally to be overwhelmed. I can remember sitting as a young lawyer at my desk in Ellsworth and just thinking, "Oh, my gosh. How am I going to do all of this?" It can be overwhelming and emotionally daunting.
You find an attorney that you can talk to. An experienced attorney that can help you understand these things, how to deal with it, can give you a head start on things. If you try to do all of this on your own, you’re going to have difficulty.