A new kind of lawyer

Portrait of Jane Rydholm
Focused on fighting human trafficking and building a juvenile restorative justice program, Jane Prine Rydholm ’95 is not your garden variety attorney.

Jane Prine Rydholm ’95 was in her mid-twenties, happily working in health care communications, when her world turned upside down. A close friend, a South Minneapolis teacher, was murdered during a home robbery attempt gone wrong.

Suddenly, writing about health care deductibles and wellness initiatives didn’t seem very important any more. Rydholm was also struck by the impact her friend’s death had on the school community where he’d worked. “I saw what a contribution he had made to society as a teacher. My job was fun, but I wanted to do more for the greater good. His death sent me in a new direction.”

Determined to become a prosecutor, Rydholm attended William Mitchell College of Law by night while continuing her communications job by day. Handling that kind of busy schedule was second nature to her, she says, having juggled three jobs on the Hill — at the St. Olaf Wellness Center, as a waitress at the Rube, and as an ad salesperson for the college radio station —  while double majoring in French and economics. “I learned a lot about time management in college,” she says, in a small miracle of understatement.

While at William Mitchell, Rydholm also worked as a student attorney in the criminal appeals division of the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office. After graduation, she served as an assistant attorney general, a criminal justice instructor for the University of Phoenix, and an associate at a midsize law firm.

As her perspectives on the justice system evolved, so did her career choices. So, with the blessing of her law firm boss, in 2005 she hung out her own shingle, specializing in helping individuals with immigration problems, aiding nonprofits, and assisting with public defender appellate cases. She also took on a new challenge: acting as attorney and program manager for the nonprofit Civil Society, where, among other responsibilities, she was charged with running their anti-human trafficking program.

Rydholm’s concern with that topic — which includes sex trafficking, forced labor, and domestic servitude — was first sparked during a visit to Bangkok, Thailand, during her extensive world travels (she says by now she’s at “over 40 countries and counting”). That city, long an international center of sex tourism, “showed me the plight of sex trafficking victims,” says Rydholm.

Her commitment to combatting human trafficking has continued in full force with her current job at the International Academy of Trial Lawyers (IATL), an invitation-only association limited to 500 members. She is director of programs for the academy, which has as one of its chief initiatives the Coalition Against Human Trafficking, and serves as executive director of the academy’s foundation.

Rydholm and IATL staff helped to launch the anti-trafficking initiative at the academy’s annual meetings by training the organization’s lawyers about the breathtaking extent of the problem. Millions of people worldwide, many of them female, become victims of human trafficking every year. When it comes to sex trafficking, many victims are effectively hidden in plain sight in hotel rooms around the world.

Once educated as to the scope and nature of the problem, the academy and its attorneys began fighting trafficking from a variety of angles. Some have litigated against Backpage and other publications that advertise women for sale; others have worked to educate schools and the hotel industry about the issue. For example, at the IATL’s recent conference in Montreal, members met with housekeeping, reception, and food and beverage staff at the hotel hosting the conference, teaching them how to spot trafficking victims. “Sometimes it’s blatant, and sometimes a situation provides more of a question mark,” says Rydholm.

“I never thought my life would unfold in the way it has. But I was always open to exploring unanticipated paths. And although I was scared to take each unconventional leap, I’ve always been glad I did.”

Next up? Partnering with the National Judicial College to develop an online course to train judges about human trafficking. “It’s exciting to see how our program is getting out there,” says Rydholm.

The next big issue IATL is tackling is juvenile restorative justice, which has shown great promise in Canada and other countries. It allows young people to make amends for their crimes and requires them to take part in peer-to-peer counseling and other programming, while also pairing them with mentors to support them with school and home issues.

“In the U.S., the juvenile justice system sends kids down a path that often doesn’t lead to success in later life,” says Rydholm. “They have a higher chance of success if they can stay out of our justice system. Our youth deserve better.”

In the Twin Cities, IATL will launch a pilot program informed by the model of Peacebuilders in Canada, whose young offenders have what Rydholm describes as “a really small rate of recidivism.” Once that pilot program is up and running, IATL fellows can share the Minnesota model in other cities, she says, adding that the fledgling program is already enjoying great support among academy members, who know better than most the failings of this country’s justice system. “They have a collective interest in advancing just legal systems,” says Rydholm.

In general, she says, trial lawyers don’t deserve their sometimes bad reputation. “Collectively, I have found this group to be some of the most generous, well-rounded, engaging people I’ve ever met,” says Rydholm. “They have great integrity and are exceptional advocates. It’s an impressive group of people.”

Despite Rydholm’s inarguably busy schedule, she is not all about work. She and her husband, Joe, a magazine editor, have two daughters: Jia, 12, and Willa, 9, adopted from China and Taiwan, respectively. Adopting children internationally had been part of Rydholm’s plan since childhood, she says. “When my sister from South Korea joined our family, I decided I wanted to build my family that way too.”

Last year, the Rydholms visited the girls’ birth homes, which “changed our relationships with both those countries,” says Rydholm. “And the girls learned so much more about themselves.”

Her interest in internationalism has other sources as well. Rydholm’s father served in Vietnam and later worked for a Norwegian company, which had her parents traveling frequently. “We even had culture nights at home where we learned about other countries.” St. Olaf’s longtime focus on globalism is part of what drew her to the college in the early 1990s. Rydholm’s volunteer work through the years — with Families with Children from Asia, Children’s Culture Connection, and China AIDS Orphan Fund — has also been international in scope.

Her own interest in globalism dovetails nicely with that of IATL’s, including the organization’s numerous international programs. IATL has trained attorneys in Mongolia, a country that has only recently instituted jury trials, and will soon be partnering with the African Center for Legal Excellence in Uganda. Its members have also spent many years training Chinese and Irish lawyers about the U.S. justice system and its rule of law.

Rydholm still marvels at the ways in which her current job manages to embrace so many of her passions. “I wasn’t looking for a full-time job when I happened across this job posting,” she says. “But it was as if all my experience and values came together in one position.

“I never thought my life would unfold in the way it did,” she continues. “But I was always open to exploring unanticipated paths. And although I was scared to take each unconventional leap, I’ve always been glad I did.”