MOORHEAD — Bruce Ringstrom Sr. and Bruce Ringstrom Jr. share more than a name.
Father and son are both defense attorneys, and both bring to their work a zealousness well known around the Clay County Courthouse in Moorhead, where it's not unusual to find one, or sometimes both of them, taking a case to trial.
“Trying cases is the scariest thing that we do, because you don’t know what the outcome is going to be,” Bruce Jr. said.
“To go to trial is a terrifying thing,” he added. “It comes back to duty and why working ceaselessly to the point of exhaustion in a case — even when you know you might lose — is the right thing to do.”
A sense of duty is a recurring theme when talking to the Ringstroms about their lives and careers. Both are veterans of the U.S. Navy.
Bruce Sr. enlisted during the Vietnam War.
“I didn’t get drafted, I joined. I did what I thought I was supposed to do,” Bruce Sr. said, adding that the war and the political and cultural chaos it riled up stirred in him a hunger for something stable.
He found a focus for his quest for stability after watching a TV interview featuring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who at the time was retiring from the court. Black’s description of the law as a bastion of standards during a time when so much was in flux inspired him to go to college and from there on to law school, Bruce Sr. said.
He said he always knew Bruce Jr. would make a good lawyer, but he was careful not to push too hard in that direction out of worry his headstrong son might take it as a reason to go his own way. The day his son informed him that he, too, wanted to pursue a career in law was a happy one, though he played it cool and didn’t make a big deal of it.
“I knew that’s where he needed to go, but I had some wisdom there,” Bruce Sr. said, recalling his silent joy at hearing his son’s plans.
The father said he knew his son had the makings of a fine lawyer, including dogged determination and a nearly photographic memory. The latter, Bruce Sr. said, is something that comes in handy when looking for inconsistencies in witness testimony.
While his own approach to practicing law can be a bit boisterous, Bruce Sr. said his son’s courtroom demeanor is more buttoned down. "A judge once told me, 'He’s fantastic, he’s great, but he needs to smile a little bit more,'" Bruce Sr. said.
That characterization brought no objection from Bruce Jr. "I try to be obsessively professional in court, while Bruce Sr. sees it more as a theatrical environment," he said.
Michelle Lawson, a Clay County District Judge who counted the Ringstroms among her colleagues when she was a practicing attorney, said she has respect for both as lawyers.
Lawson, who sometimes refers to the duo as "Ringstrom squared," said mentoring is a crucial aspect of the legal profession, and she said the team of Ringstrom and Ringstrom represents a unique example of that dynamic.
"To get to watch it in action in any instance is amazing, but to be able to watch it between a father and son is special," Lawson said.
Public defender work
Bruce Sr.’s career in criminal law began in the early 1980s, when an attorney in Moorhead let him know about an opening in the local public defender office. He took the job and did public defender work in Moorhead until the late 1990s, when he moved his practice to Detroit Lakes, Minn.
He returned to doing steady criminal defense work in Moorhead about four years ago, when he realized his son, who had become a public defender, was in danger of burning out from a caseload that was overwhelming.
The two ended up forming a loose association, with Bruce Jr. stepping away from steady public defender work in order to take on other clients.
The decision was a difficult one, but necessary, Bruce Jr. said.
“That’s the heartbreaking reason,” Bruce Jr. said, adding that he realized a more manageable caseload was needed if he was to achieve a healthy work-life balance and still have the energy to do justice for every one of his clients.
“My public defender clients merit the same energy as anyone who hires me,” he said.
Today, the younger Ringstrom operates Ringstrom Law in Moorhead. His father, who still resides in Detroit Lakes, helps with cases while doing occasional public defender contract work.
They sometimes tackle cases together, and earlier this year, they took a case to trial and won an acquittal working as a team.
Father and son can disagree on how to approach a case, but they say they’ve always been able to reach consensus without one or the other having to surrender completely their own point of view.
Putting in the time
Bruce Sr. estimated he works 20-40 hours a week, while his son puts in 40-60 hours, or more.
"I do work pretty much all the time,” Bruce Jr. confessed, adding that he decompresses by exercising, or indulging his favorite avocation — the study of philosophy.
Both Ringstroms enjoy hunting, and over many years, they have worked to establish a hunting cabin and hunting trails in a special spot in northern Minnesota. "That's my release," Bruce Sr. said.
Father and son both say their work, challenging as it is, also brings rewards.
Bruce Sr. shared a story about a case early in his career when a Moorhead police officer stopped him outside a courtroom after a hearing.
“He (the officer) said: ‘Ringstrom, I don’t like you much, but when I’m out there on the street and thinking about arresting someone, I’m thinking about what you’re going to do,’’’ Bruce Sr. recalled.
That same police officer later became a scoutmaster to Bruce Jr., who eventually gained his Eagle Scout status under the officer’s mentoring.
Bruce Jr. said one of the most important cases of his career is one from about three years ago. It involved a defendant with a significant criminal history who was charged with attempted murder.
He said the accused told him he didn’t do it and his story was consistent with everything he knew about the case, so they decided to roll the dice and go to trial.
“He was on the cusp of accepting a plea agreement for something like 120 months, because that would allow him to get out and still see his children,” Bruce Jr. said.
“If we lost, he was facing upwards of 800 months in prison, which for a 36-year-old man was a life sentence. I worked on that case as hard as I could while working on all of my other cases. We were able to get an acquittal on all six counts,” Bruce Jr. said.
Testing the system
The case matters so much to him, he said, because the defendant, Lenard Wells, now works with the F5 Project, a Fargo-based nonprofit group that helps former inmates avoid re-offending.
“To save someone who is so virtuous in that way, who was so worthy of redemption — if I didn’t do this work ever again, I feel I have justified my existence with that case,” Bruce Jr. said.
Bruce Sr. recalled a case that ended with a guilty verdict, but the defendant thanked him anyway because of the effort he put into the trial. He said the man admitted to him in the end that he actually was guilty of the crime.
Regardless of whether clients are guilty or innocent, Bruce Sr. said working hard on every case keeps the system operating the way it should. “You’re not just doing a job. Someone is coming to you with their future in their hands,” he said.
“Cops do a better job if they know they’re going to be tested. When they do a better job, they have better evidence against guilty people and fewer innocent people are charged,” he added.