When attorney Dick Pemberton looked for a place to begin his legal career, he settled on Fergus Falls, Minnesota. A half century later, he’s achieved statewide and national success while remaining rooted in the same small town.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article by Nancy Straw is taken from a series of profiles of folks who have chosen to live in rural Minnesota. For more in the series, visit the blog of the West Central Initiative, a Minnesota community foundation. Straw is president of WCI.
When you enter Dick Pemberton’s office, you see mementoes and awards that come from a successful career. Success like this does not happen to everyone, but hearing Dick’s story, you learn that not only can success happen in a small town; it may even help to be in a small town.
Dick Pemberton, of the law firm Pemberton, Sorlie, Rufer & Kershner in Fergus Falls has been recognized by his peers as a “Super Lawyer,” led the Minnesota Bar Association as President, been named one of the “Best Lawyers in America” year after year, and received numerous awards. He has achieved all of this working from his law office in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, for fifty years.
So what attracted Dick to Fergus Falls? “I was looking for a law firm where I could try jury cases and this law firm had a reputation of doing just that,” he says. When he found it, the firm happened to be in a town of 14,000 people. He was open to the idea of living in a small town as long as he could accomplish his professional goals and was drawn to the area with its farmland, rolling hills and lakes. He and his wife, Betty Joan, found a home where their children could walk to and from school. They later added a rustic lake cabin to pursue a wide range of outdoor activities.
Besides maintaining their lake cabin, Dick has done things many lawyers often do not get to do: welding, carpentry, gardening, putting up firewood, mechanical work, and taking care of a large garden. With its rich farmland to the west and pine tree forests to the north, the Fergus Falls area has given him the opportunity to enjoy hunting and teaching his children to hunt and fish.
Dick also believes that meeting and dealing with people who were very different from those he knew growing up helps him deal with the range of people he meets through his law practice. He met a lot of people from all walks of life through his experiences in the military, college and law school, working on his grandparent’s farm and holding jobs in canning factories and parking lots.
The decision to stay in Fergus Falls was made over and over again, almost on an annual basis. Even when offered the chance to become the solicitor general of the state, Dick refused. “I might have had a nice office on the 30th floor of some skyscraper and I believe I would have been miserable,” he explains.
Dick believes that practicing law in Fergus Falls has been helpful in his career, even while some may think success cannot come without being in a large urban setting. He credits law partners who are very good at what they do and who have been reasonable and fair with him. Dick says, “…it’s certainly been a help because I’ve ended up trying more jury cases than almost anybody who’s still around.” He saw the opportunity to do what he wanted to do and took it.
Much of Dick’s work these days is in mediation and arbitration, and he is in high demand, indicating that people have come to know and respect him. His membership in some of the most prestigious, invitation-only peer organizations of trial lawyers (American College of Trial Lawyers and American Board of Trial Advocates) is further evidence of his accomplishments. Dick says he was invited into these organizations, “in spite of the fact that I don’t play golf.”