By Oscar Wolfe
I had always known Alana Bassin as the mom of my friend, Solly. I was faintly conscious that she was a lawyer and active in politics, but I had never really thought about it. The more I looked into it, the more I wanted to interview her. She is the managing partner of the Minneapolis office of Bowman and Brooke. She defends huge corporations. I think that Alana is great because she is smart, has a spectacular memory, and is an amazing debater. Her job combines two of my favorite things: science and law. (You’ll see why science is involved later in the interview.) I learned about things in this interview that I didn’t even know were there to learn about in the first place.
Will you just explain what you do?
I’m a lawyer. Do you want to know what I do as a lawyer?
I focus on product liability, which means I defend manufacturers that get sued for alleged defect. So, for example, our firm defends car companies, such as Toyota, like when they got sued for allegations of unwanted acceleration.
So the big companies?
Big companies—energy companies, medical device companies. We defend them on the grounds that there’s nothing wrong with the product. People didn’t get hurt because the product was defective, usually it’s improper use or things like that.
What happens if you disagree with a client? Has that ever happened?
Our job is to advise the client and educate them if there’s something wrong. Figure out why an accident happens. Typically the client is going to rely on our opinion—that’s why they hire us, to tell them whether their case is defensible.
I’m from Canada. And in Canada, we don’t sue people. So I’m naturally prone to defending people as opposed to suing people—that’s how I’m wired. Make the argument to help someone defend the allegation.
What is the best part of what you do?
The best part is working with the people. Behind the company are engineers and employees who typically tried hard to do a good job and make a safe product, and they really care about their product. It is very gratifying to work with and support them. There are also really fun moments of being in trial and cross examining a witness, or giving opening statement, or a great closing statement —that’s the best part: after you’ve tried a case you have to wrap up all the evidence. You have maybe one hour to summarize for the jury what could have been a three week trial—remember when you heard this? Most of the time you can’t argue in front of the jury, but in closing statement, you summarize the whole case. You can argue, make fun of things, play videos, highlight exhibits—hit your themes. That’s the most fun. But that doesn’t happen very often. You try a case once a year, once every two years. Also, it’s super cool to work with scientific experts that are super smart. They teach me how to be smart enough to cross examine witnesses on things like subdural hematomas and fire ants.
Yes, I had a case where a woman was eaten by fire ants.
Whoa. What’s the worst part of your job?
Collecting bills. You have to call your clients and make them pay you. That’s pretty lousy. Most attorneys bill by the hour. Like right now, I’m going to charge you for this.
Kidding. But as an attorney, you have to record your time at the end of the day. It’s awful. That’s the worst.
How close is a real trial to what we see on TV?
On TV, they get a client and the next day they’re in court. In the real world, it takes six months to get in court just to do motion arguments. You’re in trial two years later. It takes forever to get to that spot. It’s much more condensed on TV, and much more dramatic. And also, there’s more arguing on TV. The judges don’t let you scream at each other. There aren’t a lot of gotcha moments.
How long does it take you for the average case?
They last a year or two at least. Hundreds of hours. Thousands maybe. There’s a phase called discovery and then the trial. You have to serve a complaint, and then you exchange documents and take depositions, you do lots of those, and then you go to the judge and argue things – like sometimes you argue that an expert should be kicked out. And then, if the case doesn’t settle, you go to trial. The actual trial can take another two weeks to many months. When you’re in trial, you’re working 20 hours a day.
“Love what you do and work hard at it.”
Are you doing multiple cases at once?
Typically a lawyer has multiple cases. I probably have 30 or more going right now.
Did you always know you wanted to be a lawyer?
Kind of. I think if I had known about other jobs that suited me, I might have considered them, but the only job I knew about that suited me was law. Now, I love politics. I would have considered being in politics.
That’s what I want to do! I want to connect the two. Like, start out in law, become a lawyer, then go into politics.
You can do that. A lot of politicians come from being a lawyer. It’s a great stepping stone if you want to be a politician. I would have even considered running a campaign. Or media, public relations consulting.
I know you are in politics in some ways. How do you connect law and politics?
Here’s an example: the president is going to select the next federal judges or the next U.S. attorney. I was a big supporter for Hillary Clinton. If she had been elected, I potentially would have been able to help select judges. Politics can also lead you to be selected to be a judge.
Do you want to be a judge?
Maybe when I’m like 60. If I don’t want to have clients. Right now I love what I do and, to be honest, I have more flexibility as a lawyer. Maybe one day I’ll go work for Planned Parenthood and defend women’s rights to reproduction around the country. That’s just not going to happen right now because I’ve got four kids to put through college and a mortgage. My giveback is trying to get good candidates elected. Any good candidate, but I really try to help women—I write and speak about women succeeding in the workforce. There are 100 partners in my firm and maybe only a third are women. I’m all about paving the way for other women to succeed. There’s a saying: when you get to the top, send the elevator back down.
What are the most important things for how to debate? You argue really well.
People always tell me, speak slowly. You want to be yourself. That’s really important. You have to have your own personality. And then you have to have themes. Figure out what your themes are in an argument. It should be limited to two or three things. Continue to hit those things to be persuasive. And don’t be afraid of metaphors. Metaphors can make a great statement.
What is your advice for anyone who wants to be in law or politics or just do something great?
Get good grades. Take an LSAT course before you take the LSAT. The first year of law school matters most—I’ll just tell you that right now. The first year gets you the summer clerkship for after your second year. And if you do a great job, you might get an offer after. So work super hard and get straight A’s. But overall, love what you do and work hard at it. Figure out if there’s a way you can make a difference.