"Know Your Rights" has been the motto under which Harry Sieben has led a Minneapolis personal-injury law firm for a quarter century.

For his part, Sieben knew it was right earlier this year to have longtime partner Jim Carey succeed him as managing partner of Sieben, Grose, Von Holtum & Carey.

Among local attorneys, Sieben was a pioneer in using advertising and marketing to reach consumers and build a practice. The venerable "Know Your Rights" slogan dates to the early 1980s, just a few years after the U.S. Supreme Court had made attorney advertising legal.

"Advertising caused the firm to expand, and we just kept growing after that," said Sieben, 65, a former speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives and retired major general in the Minnesota National Guard. "The firm went from being small and rural to one of the bigger personal-injury law firms in the state."

Indeed, the firm today represents about 2,000 people at a time, up from 400 or so at a time when Sieben became managing partner in 1983. Under Sieben, the firm, with its headquarters in downtown Minneapolis, opened offices in Lakeville and Duluth and merged with a Fairfax firm. The firm's 70 employees include 18 attorneys.

The management transition gives Sieben more time to focus on his specialty and the firm's -- representing people injured in construction accidents, car crashes and instances of medical malpractice.

"This law firm's been around for 56 years, and we'd like to have it be around for another 56 years," Sieben said. "It was time for somebody else to take over management of the firm."

Deliberate process

Thomas Lyons, president of Faelon Partners Ltd., a Golden Valley mergers and acquisitions firm and former administrator of what was then Sieben, Grose & Von Holtum, addresses selling a professional practice and managing partner succession in his book, "Exit Strategy: Maximizing the Value of Your Business."

A deliberate process is best for the firm and its clients when a professional practice goes through a sale or managing partner succession, Lyons said. Such changes usually take place internally, which is different from most businesses.

"It's a difficult thing to do, a difficult transition," Lyons said. "You have to find the right managing partner with the right talents to deal with other attorneys in the firm and move it to the next generation. You want to show continuity to clients, show them the firm is continuing to grow. It's a slow process if it's done right."

In Carey, who joined the firm in 1986, the firm gets just its third managing partner since founding partners John Von Holtum and Clint Grose launched the practice in 1952 in Worthington.

"Harry Sieben took a small, successful law firm and took it to the next level, if not beyond," Carey said. "It doesn't surprise me one bit that he's modest and almost stoic about it. But that growth and name recognition and reputation in the community is, in large part, due to Harry Sieben. I think my partners would agree with that."

Advertising pioneer

At first, some firms looked down their noses at attorney advertising and early-adopter Sieben, Carey said, though that attitude clearly has changed.

"It didn't even take 20 years, but maybe 10 years, and everybody's doing it," Carey said. "They can claim they're not maybe doing it on TV, but marketing by law firms is significantly different now than it used to be.''

Sieben recalls the controversy, and restates his case for reaching out to consumers.

"We weren't the first firm to do any advertising in Minnesota but we were the first firm to do any significant advertising," Sieben said. "The people we represent have claims -- against insurance companies, mostly -- and the insurance companies don't need advertising to tell them who the good lawyers are. Consumers typically only need a lawyer like us once in their lifetime. So marketing is one way to inform potential customers of our services."

The managing partner succession comes at a good time for the firm. Personal-injury law firms generally are immune to economic downturns, unlike most businesses and many other professional practices.

"We decided to do this when things were going well with our firm," Sieben said. "It's nice to make business decisions when times are good. We have cycles that are really unexplained, they're not the normal economic cycles that many other businesses go through. They might affect our retirement but not our business."

Carey said Sieben discussed the succession plan with him over the course of a couple of years.

"I was honored to be asked to handle the management issues that arise," Carey said. "From a business standpoint we're optimistic. If anything, I think there's as much or more energy as we're moving forward as there's ever been."

Sieben, who got his law degree at the University of Minnesota, joined the firm in 1970 after he got out of the Army. The Hastings native spent 14 years in the state House of Representatives, leaving after the 1984 session and after three years as speaker.

He also served 36 years in the military, seven in the Army and Army Reserve and 29 with the Minnesota National Guard. Sieben has been appointed a civilian aide to the secretary of the Army, acting as a spokesman for and an adviser to the secretary. He also is on the board of directors of the Civilian Marksmanship Program, which raises money for shooting sports programs.

Sieben has received both state and national recognition as a lawyer. At one time, he held the record for largest personal injury verdict in the state and was the second attorney, after Grose, to win a verdict of more than $1 million.

"When I go home from work I don't have to talk about how much money I saved somebody that owns a skyscraper in New York but how much help we can be to somebody who really needs the help,'' Sieben said.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.