The Humbling Biography of a MN Law Legend

Attorney Roberta Walburn gives a detailed look at the late Miles Lord in her debut biography, the tale of a proudly Minnesotan man who stood up for the underdog.

Judge Miles Lord: A man who spent his weeks doling out justice to corporate America and his weekends serving up poison-ivy sandwiches to his children, “to build immunity.” He worked his way from a threadbare kid delivering papers on northern Minnesota’s Iron Range to U.S. District Judge with one goal in mind: to be his best self in order to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves.

Through a clerkship with Lord, Minneapolis attorney Roberta Walburn got firsthand experience with the judge’s whirlwind, expressive mind. She shares it all in her upcoming biography Miles Lord, a tale of his life chronicled in chapters that alternate with the unfolding of litigation Lord presided over during her clerkship. “He sounded like a preacher as often as he sounded like a judge,” Walburn says. “He very much believed he was his brothers’ and his sisters’ keeper.”

Miles Lord will be available from the University of Minnesota Press in October, with an official launch party on October 11. Walburn spent five years compiling information and stories about Miles, and following his death this past December, she’s sharing the wisdom he had to offer. The book lets readers into the legal world without most of the jargon typically associated, though I still needed an occasional Google explanation for some terms and processes. Despite the generally serious subject matter—presidential campaigns, pretrial discoveries, justice against corporations—the book stays lighthearted, painting a picture of Lord in his day-to-day, and courtroom twists will hold readers’ attention.

The book also culminates a long partnership between Lord and the press. Seeking justice for the underdog was the Minnesota judge’s god-given duty, as he saw it. But the attention he received for it was a nice perk. Lord (“‘Miles!’ people called him—first name only, exclamation point—no further explanation needed,” the book describes) loved getting featured in the news. In fact, that’s what brought Lord and Walburn together. As a young reporter for the Star Tribune, Walburn knew his reputation. After covering one of his decisions, she promptly received a call at home early the next morning with shouts that her journalism career was over. But it wasn’t actually over: Lord just wanted to get her attention so he could offer her a position as his law clerk, a position she had not applied for. She accepted.

The clerkship, she thought, would be a temporary stint in the legal world. Walburn had originally enrolled in law school to further her career as a reporter, attending school during the day and working as a cop reporter at night. “When I got the clerkship offer, my plan was to spend a year doing that, then go back to journalism,” Walburn describes, “but that’s not the way things turned out.” Now she is Of Counsel at Ciresi Conlin LLP. She was named one of the most influential members of the legal profession in state history, with roles in the Minnesota tobacco litigation and the Bhopal gas leak disaster, among others, and Lord played a big part in this.

“Miles amplified the message I already had in my head about fact-driven law…really developing the facts of the case. And the other thing about Miles is he really taught you to use your common sense and your instincts in law, and not leave that at the door just because you have a law degree. Just to look at it as a person without a law degree. What’s fair, what’s right, what’s just.”

In the book, we see Lord sending Walburn and other clerks off on goose chases for facts, discoveries, and hidden documents. During the Dalkon Shield litigation, which involved the malpractice of A.H. Robins in the sales of a intrauterine device that caused injuries to thousands of women, Miles and Walburn flew to Richmond to oversee depositions—which is uncommon for a judge—and took part in a pretrial discovery, one of Walburn’s favorite memories from her clerkship. The gang was often up before sunrise, searching for hidden information that proved A.H. Robbins was simply taking advantage of their buyers.

As Lord gained national attention, he insisted on holding on to his Minnesota roots. He went on weekend fishing trips with former vice president Hubert Humphrey in the northwoods. “Like pheasants in a cornfield,” he analogizes once in the book. In true Minnesota fashion, he’s “sure to be the best of buddies with the waiters and waitresses by the time he leaves” a restaurant.

Following Lord’s death in late 2016, this biography memorializes a legacy of defending rights regardless of the rule book. His ideology rings true, now especially, as a reminder to Americans to look out for the voices of all people.

Readers can look forward to an hour-long special on Miles featured on Twin Cities Public Television in November. Miles Lord will be available for purchase in early October.