As a student, SBHS Class of 1994 graduate Emily (Voorhees) Sovell was known in the community for her musical talents. She was in choir, was a four-year member of All-State Band, and was drum major for the marching band. "I think that music for me created focus, dedication and determination," said Emily about how music has benefited her. "It was helpful in school, and it is helpful now."
Indeed, it was focus and determination that landed her in law school. "My father has a law degree, and I have many other extended relatives who studied the law. When I was leaning toward attending law school, my brother Pat was enrolled at Hamline University School of Law. He told me that law school was really hard, and that he didn’t think I could hack it," said Emily. Accepting the challenge, Emily started concentrating her studies in order to attend law school.
Earning her undergraduate degree at South Dakota State University in Mass Communications and Political Science, Emily says she spent time her senior year studying for the LSATs, the entrance exam for law school. "I was accepted to law schools out of state, but chose to go to the University of South Dakota. I felt that my long term goal would be to remain in South Dakota, and that I would likely move back home. That being the case, I thought starting to weave the web of in-state connections with lawyers, professors and contacts would be important. South Dakota is a small state with a small, closely connected bar, and I’m very glad I studied in state."
Emily earned her Juris Doctor degree from USD in 2001, and clerked for the South Dakota Supreme Court. Her early days as a lawyer were fraught with the uncertainty of starting out and wondering how to pay back her student debt. "The first days of practice are pretty darn scary when you do not have a guaranteed paycheck and the student loan statements come in. I remember looking at my newly assembled desk and phone, and wondering what I had done," said Emily.
"I did a tremendous amount of court-appointed attorney work in Mellette County, Jones County, Jackson County, Walworth County," said Emily. "I developed experience, connections and friendships during those years that I’ll hold dear to my heart forever. Oddly enough, going to the courtroom in White River still feels a bit like going home due to the hours spent there."
Her work as a court appointed attorney brought Emily into contact with a number of abused and neglected child cases and criminal work. One case in particular has stuck with her. "I had a habeas case for a young girl. The facts of the case were very gruesome, and what I learned about human nature and those with abused backgrounds as a young lawyer never left me," said Emily. "She was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole when she was 16-years-old. I thought about going into prison and never walking out again, and then pretended I was 16-years-old. That changed me forever." Emily says that on behalf of her client, she argued it was unconstitutional for a juvenile to receive a life sentence. "The law changed afterward."
All during her court appointed attorney work, Emily was working to build her civil practice at home in Onida. "After I learned that I would be having twins four years ago, I stopped traveling and focused on the local practice. Now in my practice, I focus primarily on estate planning, business and real estate." Emily became Sully County State’s Attorney in 2006. "I have the part-time Sully County State’s Attorney position, and a satellite office in Highmore. I’m very fortunate to have Kelli Stephens as a legal assistant in Onida, and Nora Schlegel as a legal assistant at the Highmore Office. With the crazy schedules I maintain, they have amazing organizational skills, and have become important people in the offices and outside of work."
One thing people don’t always understand about the law, according to Emily, is that it isn’t always black and white. "Cases and law are made from gray areas. Most people want a black and white answer, and sometimes I can’t give that to them." The more creative, musical aspects of her personality help Emily craft arguments that help the facts fit with the law.
Emily says that one of the biggest challenges of being a lawyer is stress and responsibility. "Fifty per cent of the parties involved in a case are unhappy with the outcome. It is hard to take home that you’re not always going to be loved."
In addition to her law practice, Emily sells real estate. She and her husband Joe manage several commercial properties together. They have twin four-year old daughters, Josie and Justice.