Profiles in Practice: Allyson Petersen

Allyson-Petersen-400What do mid-distance sprinting and an interest in sociology have in common? If you ask Allyson Petersen, a labor and employment litigation attorney at Nilan Johnson Lewis in Minneapolis, both help a person prepare for a career in law. Petersen says her experience as a collegiate athlete and her interest in connecting with people led her to where she is today. 

Petersen grew up in a bicultural household in Mound. She has always been naturally drawn to learning about different cultures and perspectives. Upon graduating from high school, Petersen joined her older sister at DePaul University in Chicago. There, she immersed herself in the Windy City, broadening her exposure to different cultures and communities. “I met so many fantastic people while living in Chicago. I loved that I could visit one neighborhood and feel totally immersed in that community and go to another neighborhood and have a totally different experience,” she recalled. While at DePaul, she studied sociology and business administration—two very different disciplines. She had the opportunity to take legal courses within those areas, which piqued her curiosity in the law, without pigeonholing her into a lock-step progression to law school. 

During this time, Petersen developed excellent time management skills—not to mention mental and physical endurance—competing in the 400-meter dash and 800-meter dash for DePaul’s track team. “College track was basically a full-time job in addition to my course work. My experience as a collegiate athlete prepared me for law school and the bar exam,” she said. “There is a certain level of drive that comes with pushing through to the finish line when you don’t think you can go anymore. The skills I learned as a collegiate athlete no doubt helped me in my legal career.”

After college, Petersen began working as an assistant at a boutique plaintiffs’ law firm in downtown Chicago. “I was thinking about law school, but I wasn’t 100 percent sure if that was the right path for me. I wanted to get experience in a law firm to see what it was like,” she explains. “Working in a small law firm helped me to understand the business of being a lawyer and the impact that legal services has on both individuals and businesses.” After spending two years observing court proceedings, drafting pleadings, and working closely with litigators, Petersen went on to law school at William Mitchell College of Law.

During law school, Petersen pursued various public interest clinics and internships. When asked why she chose this track, she stated, “I have always been passionate about working with underserved communities, and I enjoyed using my legal skills to help individuals that could not afford legal representation and are often most vulnerable when defending their rights.” Petersen also spent time as a participant and coach on Mitchell’s Jessup Moot Court and as the vice president of Mitchell’s Black Law Student Association (BLSA). “Jessup Moot Court was so different than anything else I did during law school. It challenged me to be a better advocate and think outside the box to craft legal arguments using only international resources.” When discussing BLSA, Petersen recounted, “BLSA gave me an opportunity to connect with likeminded people, who later became some of my closest friends at law school, and to participate in community service projects throughout the Minneapolis area.” 

Following law school, Petersen considered becoming a public defender, but after clerking for Judge James A. Cunningham in Anoka County for two years, she decided to pursue a career in the civil sector, although she is committed to representing underprivileged individuals in pro bono matters. “My clerkship was invaluable in allowing me to gain additional perspective from behind the bench and a deeper appreciation for the weight of the law. It was a great experience that helped me figure out what I wanted to do for my career. The calendar rotated every week among family, criminal, civil, probate, and juvenile law, which kept it exciting and helped me narrow down what I wanted to do,” she recalls. “I was able to observe all sorts of attorneys—good and bad—and learn from them while continuing to develop my research and writing skills.” 

After her clerkship, Petersen joined Nilan Johnson Lewis. She focuses her practice in labor and employment litigation, and has experience representing companies in products liability and business litigation matters. “I’ve only worked at one law firm, and I don’t see myself working at any other firm,” said Petersen. “This is a firm that truly invests in their attorneys and I feel lucky to have had the opportunities provided to me at NJL thus far. I am constantly challenged and have learned so much as a litigator.”

During her free time, Petersen still enjoys running and being active, though with slightly less intensity than when she competed in college. She and her husband enjoy traveling, especially to Jamaica, where they both have family. “Travel brings me back to my love of sociology. I get so excited exploring new countries. I like to stay where the locals live and immerse myself in the culture and figure out what makes a city or specific neighborhood unique.” Petersen and her husband also welcomed their first child in September.  

Petersen is eager to continue to expand her understanding of different people and places, but she remains rooted. “Minnesota is a funny place. When I left for college, I didn’t think I would come back, but now I am here, settled into my legal career, married, with a little one. This is home!”

By Alice Sherren

Ms. Sherren was a litigator in Minneapolis for a decade before joining Minnesota Lawyers Mutual in 2009, where she directs the defense of legal malpractice claims. She is a frequent contributor to legal publications nationwide, and she creates and presents continuing legal education seminars on legal ethics and risk management.