Inspired by the 1950s television show Perry Mason – especially knowing that it was derived from a series of books based on Earl Rogers, a remarkable trial lawyer – Don aspired to a similar career. After 40 years, it's safe to say he's attained that goal.
After studying at St. Olaf and then Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville, Don joined downtown law firm Meagher & Geer, known for its trial work. "I was exposed to great mentors and had the opportunity to learn how to do it the right way and how to be an effective advocate in the courtroom," says Don who started in 1973 as lawyer number 17 and all 16 before him were trial lawyers. He never imagined leaving, so his biggest career surprise was leaving in 1999 to establish the Eden Prairie-based firm of Fafinski Mark & Johnson. "It was literally the three of us and an assistant," says Don, remembering the start of what's now a firm of 28 lawyers and more than 20 staff members. "To build something from nothing and enjoy the kind of success we have is nothing short of miraculous and I didn't foresee it."
In his career to date, he's tried more than 130 cases, 99 were jury trials in nine different states, and made scores of speaking appearances in 39 states. One case to note represented Air Wisconsin Airline Corp. which began with a three-week trial in Denver, went to the appellate court to the Colorado Supreme Court and was ultimately heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. This case is significant considering that the U.S. Supreme Court takes only about one percent of all cases filed and because it received a unanimous vote supporting the federal law that grants immunity for anyone reporting suspicious activity to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
In addition to corporate law, Don finds significant gratification representing individuals who have been treated badly or discriminated against. A timely example is his representation of Katie Brenny, a state golf champion who was hired as the University of Minnesota women's golf coach, but soon was discriminated against on a number of levels for her sexual orientation. "When I met Katie, she was distraught, lacking confidence and didn't understand why she had been treated the way she was being treated," says Don. "It was a very good feeling when we received the verdict. I was so happy for this young woman who has so much potential and was vindicated."
Today, with no retirement in the foreseeable future, Don continues his trial work but has also spearheaded a subgroup in his firm's aviation group focused on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), better known as drones. "It's exciting not only to be on the cutting edge of this technology, but on the cutting edge of the law," says Don who has done quite a bit of speaking on the subject and recently testified before a joint subcommittee of the Minnesota State Legislature. This new group is focused on protecting free speech and privacy issues and will represent people who operate drones and be involved in establishing the laws that manage drone usage.
Threads of his success trace back to MHS, especially his term as senior class president and the public speaking it required. Realizing his comfort with public speaking, opened doors and established a foundation of skills that have served him well. For this, Don thanks his speech teacher John Raymond who taught him to be disciplined and organized. Saying he was coordinated but undersized, Don's heart for athletics was never repressed. He enthusiastically participated in high school and later has represented numerous athletes and coached youth soccer teams for nearly 20 years. Don hopes that he's passing forward the positive lifestyle example set by the coaches he experienced growing up in Minnetonka.
"We had a terrific class, a lot of terrific people," says Don. "We had a lot of success, both academically and athletically, our senior year. Thinking of my classmates and all that they've accomplished and all we went through together, I'm kind of overwhelmed by this recognition."