The Lawyers For Minnesota Contractors
Minnesota Construction Law Services understands the ‘hard hats’ life
Ask Bill Gschwind and Courtney Ernston to share the strength of their law firm, Minnesota Construction Law Services (MNCLS), and they will provide the same answer: “Before we became attorneys, we noticed the transactional method large law firms followed to simply get paid without providing real value to their clients. So when we became lawyers, our goal was to provide legal consultation to clients through relationships that would build their businesses, not our bank account.”
That unorthodox view of their profession has helped the boutique law firm create a growing business serving owner-operated contractors throughout Minnesota. That’s because they’ve been there and done that.
“We know what it means to own and operate construction businesses and why many contractors dislike traditional lawyers and their ‘better than thou’ approach,” says Bill, Principal Attorney, who founded the firm in 2012.
Law Firm Built on Construction Experience
To understand their novel approach to being attorneys, one must consider how they arrived at this point. Bill owned his own equipment rental business and Courtney grew up in her family’s construction company.
After attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Bill got his first introduction to construction working with Bob Vila and Charlie Wing on the This Old House television program. It was the early 1980s during the energy crisis, and Bill worked at the Cornerstone School, an owner-builder school co-founded by Charlie that taught people how to build energy-efficient homes. Often their projects would be featured on the popular home improvement show.
Later, as a certified energy auditor, Bill worked in sales and consulting selling home improvements and passive solar heating systems. Shortly after receiving an MBA from the University of St. Thomas, Bill opened and ran a general equipment rental store for 12 years before buying an equipment rental franchise, which specialized in rentals for commercial contractors, landscapers and homebuilders. When the franchise business collapsed after three years, taking its franchisees down with it, Bill found himself starting over at age 48—and subsequently dealing with attorneys as he rebuilt his career.
“After enduring the frustrating experience of working with lawyers and the challenges of them not understanding what it’s like to be a business owner—especially one losing his business—I decided that I would go to law school,” he recalls.
After earning a law degree from William Mitchell College of Law (now known as Mitchell Hamline School of Law) in 2010, Bill went to work for a sole practitioner, providing legal services to the construction industry. However, unlike most attorneys, he wanted to focus on helping business owners be successful rather than litigate, so he founded Minnesota Construction Law Services a year and a half later.
“My focus was first and foremost to help owner-operators run their businesses using my knowledge and experience, both the good and bad. Most people purposefully enter the construction business as contractors and tradesmen to avoid a career in a corner office pushing papers all day. While they may be experts in construction, building a business requires a completely different skill set. MNCLS is different because we provide real-world construction and business experience to the practice of law,” Bill says.
And so, Bill set out to redefine the preconception of “lawyer” into someone who treats his clients as partners and who doesn’t look for the legal solution first. “We are not a construction law firm. We are a law firm for contractors. That means, besides legal services, we provide business services, estate planning and immigration services,” he says.
The firm’s two most important responsibilities, Bill summarizes, are to help clients sell more project work and get paid in full for their work. “All of our business and legal advice, contract drafting and review, litigation, and collections work is designed around those goals,” he notes.
Bill focuses on the business side by drafting contracts, setting up businesses and helping structure relationships among employees, trade partners, suppliers and customers. “I’ve been a business owner and know how expensive, time-consuming and frustrating litigation can be. If I can help resolve a problem before it goes to formal litigation, I will try to make it happen,” he says.
A Fierce Advocate
But if a situation can’t be resolved, then Courtney steps in. After receiving her law degree from The University of Oklahoma College of Law, Courtney ran a solo legal practice for a year and a half, where she often managed litigation work for Bill on a contract basis. She officially joined MNCLS in January 2018 and was promoted to partner and head of litigation this year.
“I started working in my family’s construction business when I was 12 years old, answering phones and filing, then worked my way through the various departments. I’ve worked every aspect of a business, including managing lawyers, from the contractor’s point of view,” she says. “Typical lawyers just don’t understand the industry and how things work, so you end up doing their job for them and then they bill you for it.”
Courtney is a fierce advocate for contractors, using her former background and experience to win judgments in a client’s favor. A typical caseload can include representing contractors who have a dispute with a current or former employee or defending a contractor against claims for workmanship or a project not completed on time or budget, as well as handling collections and mechanic’s liens. “If there’s a disagreement, Bill starts the case and tries to work through a resolution with the parties. Once it becomes clear one or both parties are unwilling to resolve their dispute, it gets handed over to me, and I take the case from there,” she says.
Because of their previous backgrounds, Bill and Courtney approach things differently than typical attorneys. “We’ve walked in the shoes of our clients,” Bill says. “One of our main taglines is: ‘If you’re facing it, we’ve lived it.’ Most attorneys do not have enough experience in what our clients are doing to think through the problems from their perspectives in order to find the practical solutions. So, we do that here.”
Relationships First, Results Second
It’s obvious this isn’t your typical law firm from the moment a client walks into the MNCLS office in Vadnais Heights, a suburb of the Twin Cities area. Instead of setting eyes on a receptionist upon entering, clients are struck by the beauty of a 250-gallon saltwater aquarium. A sign at the front displays a picture and name of your greeter of the day: one of the firm’s six employees’ dogs that come in on a rotating basis. “Each day we have a different mascot in the office,” Bill says.
According to Bill, most lawyers graduate from law school and immediately begin practicing law without any practical experience in the world in which they are delivering legal services. “They are historically horrible business managers. With larger firms, the legal culture takes over in the way attorneys interact with their clients. Our clients hate that. They don’t like suits. They don’t like driving their pickup truck with a ladder rack into downtown Minneapolis. We are in a suburban office that doesn’t charge for parking. We don’t have a library of legal books or mahogany-lined walls,” Bill describes.
“MNCLS is different because we provide real-world construction and business experience to the practice of law.” Bill Gschwind, Principal Attorney, Minnesota Construction Law Services
The firm’s view toward typical lawyers impacts how they hire staff members, how they interact with and relate to clients, and how they act and relate with opposing counsel. The two principal attorneys focus on building relationships first, then getting results.
“I’d just as soon invite a client over to chat about their world,” Bill states. “Getting to know our clients, what’s uniquely important to them and how they work, is critical to MNCLS. I can’t craft a solution to a client’s problem or dream if I don’t understand them or their goals. We don’t bill or track time the way ordinary lawyers do. We find ways to approach the situation that are different than the traditional method.”
When the firm hires new staff, culture is its most important hiring criteria. “We want somebody who fits in with us,” Bill says. “We look for people with different backgrounds who can collaborate and provide different viewpoints.”
“Our work environment is very casual,” he says. (On this particular day, everyone but Bill is wearing shorts.) “But when it comes to doing the work, we’re very serious about what we do. We have a highly qualified and very proud team doing great work for our clients to help them grow and protect their businesses.”
Because of their laid-back approach, Courtney says one of the biggest challenges is getting people to understand that “just because MNCLS is not a downtown, high-rise law firm that’s been around since 1904 with 400 people on staff, it doesn’t mean we are in any way less capable. We’re a perfectly sized firm handling large and demanding cases while building strong relationships with our clients.”
Advancing the Industry
Both attorneys are active in trade and industry organizations to help improve the construction industry. Bill focuses his efforts on the public policy side to help create a better regulatory environment for contractors. He’s been a member of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) since 2010. He also chairs the regulatory affairs committee of Housing First Minnesota and serves on a subcommittee that is currently rewriting building codes. Additionally, he is a member of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) serving on its public policy committee, working to promote the merit-shop philosophy.
Courtney is also active in NARI, serving on the membership committee and staying active in social and development events. She volunteers with Hearts & Hammers, a local nonprofit that assists low-income homeowners with exterior home repairs, serves on the young professionals committee of Housing First Minnesota, and is a member of The Warren E. Burger American Inn of Court, which works to improve the skills, professionalism and ethics of those in the legal profession. She was recently selected as a Rising Star by Super Lawyers, a nationwide rating service of outstanding lawyers from more than 70 practice areas, and as a 2020 Up & Coming Attorney by Minnesota Lawyer, a legal news publication.
Bill says the firm’s most rewarding projects are those where clients come to MNCLS out of desperation yet end up receiving inspiration. “They don’t know how to get out of a situation, and we help them solidify their business and create systems and processes that let them enjoy working again and puts them back in control of their business. We’ve had a few clients that didn’t think they could survive, and we were able to keep them in business,” he says.
The firm is growing, having just opened its first remote office in Park Rapids, Minnesota, and is always looking for new clients. “MNCLS is strictly focused on providing business and legal advisory services for owner-operated contractors because we know their industry and their business,” Bill says.
“My goal is to be seen as the law firm that clients want to work with not because they have to, but because they want to,” he adds. “I want for prospective clients and those who refer clients to us to say, ‘If you want to work with lawyers who are not like the lawyers you don’t like, go talk to MNCLS.’ ”