Hall of Fame Lawyer Limelight: Kathleen Flynn Peterson

Kathleen Flynn Peterson believes fiercely in a lawyer’s power to be an empathetic advocate for those whose voices would otherwise remain unheard. Never one to stray from what she believes in, Peterson focuses on maintaining that responsibility in her practice as a trial lawyer specializing in medical malpractice cases.

A lifelong resident of Minneapolis, Peterson’s practice centers around engaging with her community and helping to alleviate personal hardship. She started her professional career as a registered nurse, and her passion for advocacy and justice in the healthcare sector motivated her to combine her nursing experience with legal education. She is now a renowned trial lawyer serving as a partner at Ciresi Conlin.

Peterson’s commitment to advocating for those suffering from medical negligence has earned her countless accolades, including entrance to Lawdragon’s Hall of Fame. She is a fellow for venerated organizations such as the American College of Trial Lawyers, the American Board of Trial Attorneys, the International Society of Barristers, the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and the American Bar Foundation.

Peterson’s tireless advocacy and compassion doesn’t stop with her client work – she is also a staunch supporter of building resources for mental wellbeing in the legal profession. She speaks out about her own challenges balancing wellness with the often emotionally-taxing work of representing injured clients, and how a regular practice of mindfulness has helped.

As a woman who started out in the legal profession in the 1970s and ‘80s, when the profession was (even more) overtly macho and things like maternity leave were non-existent, Peterson has also long maintained the importance of diverse voices and equal treatment in the workplace. To young lawyers now, Peterson stands as a shining example of resilience, innovation and compassion in the legal profession.

Lawdragon: I'd love to hear about your transition from a nurse to a medical malpractice lawyer. How did that come about?

Kathleen Flynn Peterson: Actually, while I was studying nursing at St. Catherine's University, a couple events happened that instigated that transition.

First, in your senior year of that program you have a lot of clinical rotations, and I chose to do one in public health and administration. During that time, I got to know a lawyer who was representing the board of nursing. He explained that after his training in law school he had actually gone to nursing school to better understand the legal aspect of the nursing profession. I thought that was fascinating.

Then, at about that same time, I was summoned to jury duty for a pretty big conspiracy to commit murder trial. In the end, we rendered a guilty verdict and the defendant tried to commit suicide the first night in jail. I was shocked. So, I went to talk to the judge about whether we had done the right thing.

He said that the system bends over backwards to try to be fair, and that he felt that the jury verdict was consistent with the truth of the case. But, if he hadn't, he said, he had the power to overturn it or the other side could have appealed. I didn't understand any of that at the time. I was just intrigued with the legal profession and absolutely taken with the lawyers’ art of advocacy.

So, being impulsive, I applied to law school, was accepted, and attended William Mitchell. I had the option of going to school in the evening, which was perfect because I did still want to eat and pay my rent, so I had to work full time. For four years I worked as a nurse during the day, then went to school.

Because of that, I had five years of clinical experience as a nurse before I actually started practicing law, which was invaluable to me. It wasn't that I'd been practicing as a nurse and was dissatisfied with that. It really was a plan to try to combine two disciplines.

I worked in a public health hospital, so we had a lot of patients who needed advocacy within the system to get the care they needed. The nurse's role is to advocate for a patient, because we're the closest to the patient in a large healthcare system. I felt that my legal education gave me a different dimension to advocate for the patients. It's never seemed like I abandoned one discipline, but rather I was fortunate enough to have found two disciplines that I enjoy and was able to combine.

LD: That makes a lot of sense. So, you started practicing law, and you had some big initial litigation wins. Is there one in particular that stands out as really memorable?

KFP: Yes, there is – an early one. When I was still an associate in the firm, maternal child nursing was my area of clinical expertise because of my background as a public health nurse working primarily with mothers and children in the poorest part of our community. At that time, in the late '70s, there was a lot of Laotian and Hmong immigration into our community. I worked a lot with those immigrants, helping them navigate the healthcare system and understand our culture. And so, I started working with cases involving mothers and children a great deal.

The other lawyers did not have expertise in that. So, when we took on a case that involved a child with a catastrophic injury at birth, I tried the case as an associate with a young partner. As the case went on, I had more and more responsibility and ultimately took on expert witnesses and the closing argument.

That case resulted in a $5M verdict, the largest verdict there had been in Minnesota at that time – and that record held for a long while. That win gave a real jump to my reputation and I became a partner shortly thereafter.

That success also allowed us to get more and more people to come to us with those types of cases, which was exactly what I had gone to law school for. It was fantastic. I have handled many, many cases like that since. Helping those families is my favorite kind of work to do.

LD: That is incredible work. How would you describe your style as a trial lawyer on that case, or in general? How do you think people perceive you?

KFP: You know, I think part of my style comes from the fact that I didn't have any trial lawyer mentors who were women. So I had to create that myself. Mostly, I think my style focuses on being genuine, true to who I am, and gracious to others.

Often, even now, the lawyers I work with still have a macho, "Ah, that's the way we're going to do it” attitude. And I just don't think that we have to do it that way. What we do is so hard that we don't have to fight with each other. The system and the clients we serve, it's hard work. And it takes a real toll on you. That's the gracious part of it.

But I also think you have to be fearless. That's hard. I never go into a trial, even now, without being absolutely sick to my stomach the first morning.

LD: Really?

KFP: Really. And I hope I never lose that feeling. You just have to face that fear and go forward. When you hold the fate of another human being in your hands, that is incredible responsibility. I've lost cases involving children with injuries, and I know that those families' lives would be very different if we had won.

But you know, every one of those cases, those are the people who stay in touch with me. They always say, "Nobody else stood up for us. You stood up for us. You believed in our story and you fought for us. That's all we can ask."

LD: That's amazing. And so interesting that you were able to eschew that macho style in the courtroom, even though you didn't have any female mentors early on. You never tried to act like a man, so to speak. Would you say that things have changed as more women have gotten into the profession?

KFP: Oh, I think it's certainly different. When I first practiced law, we dressed like men. My god, those little ties and the Brooks Brothers suits. And we were told, "Don't keep pictures of your family if you have children. Don't let anybody know, because they'll think you're less than dedicated." I was the first associate in this large firm to become pregnant in 1982, and I was scared to death. No one had maternity policies then.

My due date wasn’t until April 7th, but my son was born over the weekend, on April 4th. I wasn't there that Monday for work because I had just had a baby. I was supposed to have a baby on April 7th, I should have been there on April 6th. Files were literally sent to the hospital to have me work on some things that needed finishing up.

I was only in the hospital for about 24 hours. Then, I worked from home and two weeks later I was back in the office.

LD: Wow.

KFP: I just acted like nothing happened. Then, that fall the associate evaluations came back and I was told I was doing great, but I was going to be held back by a year because of my maternity leave. It wouldn't be fair, they claimed, to the men.

LD: Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me…

KFP: I was so angry, but I composed myself and I walked back into my office. I thought about this one associate who was at my level and was a firm favorite, but had just been on a long honeymoon. And then in that moment I had – I don't know if it was a stroke of brilliance or fear.

I went back to them and I said, "That probably means you're holding John back for two years, because remember he had that month-long honeymoon in Paris? And I was only gone for two weeks. I'm sure that's what you came up with once you decided to hold John back for two years. It would only be fair to hold me back for one year. I get it." Then I left. That afternoon they came back and said that they wouldn’t be holding me back after all.

LD: HA! Good for you!

KFP: After that, I worked to develop maternity policies at that firm. I became a partner, and I was the first woman elected to the executive board. I served countless terms until I realized that they had decided one girl was enough and there'd never be a second. So, I stepped off to prove the point and got another woman elected. Now you've got more and more women as managing partners. There's still a lot of work to be done for equity, but it certainly is changing in the right direction.

When I started practicing, there was a rule of court decorum where women had to wear skirts. Once, I wore a pantsuit during a trial, and thought I was going to be sanctioned by the court. Nothing happened. Slowly, we women realized we had some power. If three of us decided we were going to wear pantsuits, then the judge wasn't going to throw us out.

LD: Strength in numbers. And pantsuits.  

KFP: Exactly. So we would do that sort of thing. That's why I embrace a style of dress that says, “I’m a woman.” I'm not a girly-girl at all, but I'm not a tomboy either. I would wear dresses, and I'd wear color. I wanted to wear what would make me feel comfortable and good about myself. And I think that resonated with jurors, too, because they were always rooting for the person who was different, and that was usually me.

LD: I really marvel at your strength there. I think women talk to each other a lot more about the ins and outs of those things now. But, the two-week maternity leave, that's insane. What kept you going?

KFP: Throughout my life, I’ve had an incredible support system of family and friends, from my parents to my husband/partner of 40-plus years. And, though my work is hard, I never had to worry about some of the cultural and financial hardships that some of my clients do.

I never thought my work was hard in those ways, where I didn't know if I was going to feed my family, or if my sons were safe if they went to the grocery store. I listened to an interview with a Black woman recently who said as soon as her son was old enough to drive, she had to teach him not only to drive, but how to be safe if he got stopped. I just thought, I never thought my kids would be killed. Maybe by a car accident, but not a police officer. Those are the kinds of things that are happening in my community right now and all over the world, and it puts things in perspective.

LD: It’s so true. You have two sons, correct? What are they doing for work?

KFP: One of my sons, my youngest, went to law school and is now a partner of mine at the law firm.

LD: Oh that’s wonderful!

KFP: It really is. Colin Peterson. I changed firms after 40 years two years ago and he came with me. My old firm [Robbins Kaplan] was excellent – I had wonderful opportunities there. But I really wanted my legacy to be mentoring new trial lawyers in everything that I had been able to learn.

Some of my partners had already left this big firm and started a smaller one a few years before. They are absolutely incredible, so we joined them, and I was honored that my whole team went with me. Our firm’s mission and philosophy centers around protecting the future. I'm proud to say we're staying true to that vision.

LD: It’s great to hear that the firm's philosophy is your own as well. Related to that, you're an advocate for mental wellbeing among lawyers. I would love to hear about your own self-care practices, or advice that you have for others in that area.

KFP: Sure. Well, I think that for a while I had truly lost the joy of practicing law. It was stressful mentally and physically. When I was first practicing, lawyers didn’t sleep well. They didn’t eat well. Then there’s the fact it’s not healthy to have as much alcohol as we do in our profession, which wasn’t a problem for me, but was for so many others.

It was actually that thought process that led me to leave my old firm. It was really difficult to take the risk of investing in a new practice at my age, knowing I might not have the same security. But it was the right decision, and now I’m so energized.

So, if you’re trying to make a decision and you’re on the edge of that cliff, I think that the hardest part is jumping. I learned a lot about the resilience involved in taking risks to do what you know in your heart is the right choice, at any age.

LD: That's great. Do you have any advice for law firm leadership on how they can make sure that their lawyers have access to resources that would help them take care of their own wellbeing?

KFP: Well, I tried really hard in my other firm to be a disciple of mental and physical wellbeing in the workplace. I shared the resources that I learned about. I talked about workplace wellness constantly. But I was told that while they believed everything I was saying, it would be an economic problem for the firm if people took their foot off the pedal.

What wasn’t clicking was that those people who had their foot on the pedal were going to burn out and we might lose them. That said, I don't fault them for their position, because there's some reality to that mindset. At that time, it was a hard time economically for a big practice.

At my firm now, we’re in a good position to make wellness a core tenet of how we practice, and we do.

LD: Hopefully the whole industry embraces it; we need it. Speaking of which, you’re very active in your community. You were a board member of Minneapolis Children's Theater Company, for one example. What do you find meaningful about your community engagement?

KFP: I've lived in Minneapolis my whole life. I think it's important that you put some muscle into the things that you believe in, and I believe in the renewal of this city. It’s so important to me to be a part of this community and try to make it the best version of what it can be.

I also think that's just the responsibility of professionals like myself. We are very fortunate to have the resources and influence we have, and because of that, I think we owe it to give back to our community not for self-gratification, but to make the world a better place. That's what lawyers are supposed to do.

LD: I love that. You’ve also talked before about lawyers as frontline workers for justice. Do you think we're in decent shape or do we have work to do in terms of every American getting equal justice under the law?

KFP: The rule of law takes constant vigilance. Going forward, we need to focus on upholding justice in our own country, rather than focusing on problems elsewhere. That really came into focus, I think, both with the last election and with what's happening across the country with respect to racial inequality.

During the last administration it was so hard for me to realize that I really lived in a country where I didn't understand how diverse people’s views were. The divide became so much more visible, at least to me.

So, I do think we have a lot of work to do. But that's what justice is. Justice requires constant work. We need a vibrant justice system, dedicated lawyers, and a society that puts value on that and understands that we are each simultaneously part of the problem and of the solution. That’s the way forward.