Minneapolis / St. Paul Business Journal – November 17, 2006
By Sam Black
Staff Writer

Herbert Igbanugo said he and Jerry Blackwell dissolved their firm after disagreeing over its direction.

Blackwell Igbanugo, one of the largest black-owned law firms in the state, has been dissolved and the two lead partners are starting their own firms.

Jerry Blackwell and Herbert Igbanugo, who helped form the Edina-based firm six years ago, ended their partnership Oct. 31.

The partners each have their own take on what caused the split, with Blackwell saying their practices were growing in different directions and Igbanugo citing internal management disputes.

Blackwell Igbanugo worked for several big-name clients, including 3M Co., General Mills Inc., Graco Inc., Medtronic Inc. and Best Buy Co. Inc. The firm had grown to about 40 lawyers and 70 total staff members. It’s unclear how the law firm will split up its clients.

Both men have set up shop in different downtown Minneapolis buildings. Their new firms will have distinctly different areas of practice.

  • Blackwell has formed Blackwell Burke, a 34-employee firm, with fellow attorney Martin Burke. It will move into 33 South Sixth in December and will sublease about 12,000 square feet on the 46th floor from law firm Rider Bennett.

The firm will focus on corporate litigation, mergers and acquisitions, product liability litigation and class-action defense. It also will maintain an office in Washington, D.C. Other partners in the firm are Tamika Nordstrom, Corey Gordon, Leander Gray and Jarvis Jones.

  • Igbanugo founded Igbanugo Partners International Law Firm and will move into about 8,500 square feet on the 10th floor of Marquette Plaza, the former Minneapolis Federal Reserve building. His practice will have five lawyers plus staff and focus on immigration and international-trade law related to sub-Saharan Africa.

In an e-mail interview, Igbanugo said the split makes sense for his practice, but problems between the partners contributed to the breakup. “If I were to pinpoint key or significant issues, it would be diverging interests, internal disagreements on management philosophy and direction,” he said, adding that the firm’s expansion into Michigan and Washington also played a role.

Ronald Hunter, an attorney at Minnetonka-based Cargill Inc. who knows Blackwell and Igbanugo through their work together at the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers (MABL), said he thinks both men will succeed.

“This split, as I understand it, makes sense,” he said. “Jerry is doing litigation for major corporations throughout the country, but also focused here. Herbert has always been an immigration specialist and just got better at it over time, and his practice has started to focus even more on that.”

Model of diversity

There have been numerous focus groups and news stories highlighting the lack of diversity in Minnesota law firms over the past few years, and Blackwell Igbanugo has been held up as an example of one of the most diverse.

Blackwell is the past-president of MABL, which he co-founded, and a strong advocate for improving the position of minorities in the legal profession in the Twin Cities and around the country.

In an e-mail interview, Blackwell said Blackwell Burke would still be the largest law firm in the country with a majority of African-American shareholders.

“The fact that a firm our size would bear that distinction is a testament to the progress that still needs to be made in creating meaningful opportunities for minority-owned law firms in general to represent major corporations,” he said.

Igbanugo’s new firm will no longer carry that status, which he said is a concern, but one he believes the company can move past.

“We did lose that claim to fame, but I know we both plan to rebuild,” Igbanugo said.

Blackwell said he and Igbanugo are proud of the number of students they may have inspired to consider law as a profession, particularly students of color.

“We believe we proved for many that diversity and excellence are not tradeoffs,” he said.

Firm’s origins

Blackwell is a former partner at Minneapolis-based Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi. The University of North Carolina Law School graduate has extensive experience defending Fortune 500 clients in product-liability and commercial cases.

Igbanugo, a native of Nigeria, moved to Minnesota in 1980. He graduated from law school at Hamline University in St. Paul. He’s spent two decades in the Twin Cities specializing in immigration law and has had more than 1,000 clients, including some high-profile ones like the musician Prince and Francisco Javier Serrano, the 21-year-old Mexican man who was arrested in 2004 for living in Apple Valley High School, where he was once a student.

In 2000, Blackwell and Igbanugo formed their firm along with David Engen and Kenneth Saffold.

By 2002, they had grown to 16 attorneys and 31 total staff members. That same year the firm was mentioned in Forbes as a “Pat Summerall Success Story.” In 2004 the company opened an office in Troy, Mich. That branch closed several months ago, Blackwell said.