Although Karen Handorf grew up on a dairy farm near Barron, her eventual career path took her far from the fields of Wisconsin. Now partner and head of the Employee Benefits practice group at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll in Washington, D.C., Handorf has spent her career advocating for fair health and retirement benefits. She’s never forgotten her roots though, both from the farm and her time as a Falcon, and those roots have not only guided her work over the years, but inspired her to give back to UW-River Falls.
Handorf fell in love with UWRF while attending summer school on campus during high school. Affordability was key as she enrolled with an eye on the debate program – knowing her future plans included law school – and she quickly found her niche.
“I was very fortunate to be heavily involved in intercollegiate forensics and debate competition while at UWRF,” she recalled. “The debate program taught me how to analyze and see both sides of complicated issues, to think on my feet and to articulate an argument in an organized and persuasive fashion – skills that have served me well as a litigator. Plus, we had so much fun going to debate tournaments!”
The skills she picked up on the Falcon debate team have stuck with her. After earning her B.S. in history and speech communications at UWRF in 1972, Handorf added a J.D. from UW-Madison three years later. She spent 25 years as a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Labor, starting as a trial attorney but eventually rising to the position of deputy associate solicitor, the second highest ranking career official in charge of ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) litigation and enforcement throughout the U.S. She retired from that role in 2007 and moved on to her current firm where she’s continued to fight for employee protections, including having two cases reach the Supreme Court.
“I’m most proud of the fact that I have helped shape the law in ways that help large numbers of individuals obtain the retirement and health benefits that they have earned,” she explained. “I have been able to help level the playing field.”
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