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July 2021


MSBA President 2021-22: Jennifer Thompson

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Playing the right way: Jennifer Thompson, softball, and the law  

By Amy Lindgren   

When it comes to Jennifer Thompson, it seems that everyone has a story to tell. One law partner describes her intense reaction when he failed to score from second on a single in rec league softball, while another partner has seen her gracefully manage sexist assumptions from fellow attorneys. Her sister enjoys telling of a recent trip where Thompson talked the owner of an Arizona mansion into letting their 22 family members stay for a week, and a former law partner remembers her pretend-threat of a copyright infringement action for posting her photo of him asleep at his desk. Whether poignant or admiring or rueful, one thing the stories all seem to have in common: If Thompson is at the center of them, they will make you laugh.

Full of life, Thompson laughs a lot, but don’t let that fool you. She is a serious and strategic lawyer and business owner. In conversation, she balances gravitas and lightness, punctuating intense moments with amusing observations. It’s not far different from the bigger balance she keeps, with her professional world of construction litigation and practice management providing the perfect counterweight to her fully realized family life. Now, as the incoming president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, Thompson will undoubtedly generate more stories, even as she maintains the delicate equilibrium between work, home, and service to the legal profession.

‘Raised well’

In speaking of his law partner’s softball prowess, Jason Tarasek notes judiciously, “The four Lehman girls were raised well, by a father who taught them to play softball the right way.” Thompson (née Lehman) first invited him to play softball soon after they started working together. As he relates, “I’d only played softball with men and I thought, ‘I’m going to have to dial it down in intensity.’” That thought quickly perished after Tarasek found himself on second base when someone hit a single. “I ran to third and stopped and that’s when I heard her screaming, ‘Tarasek—you have to score on that! Let’s GO!!’” It was too late for the startled Tarasek to redeem his gaffe, but not too late to absorb the lesson: Thompson may like to laugh, but she takes her softball seriously. 

Softball, in this case, could be a metaphor for Thompson’s approach to life. Measured and polite in her daily interactions, she can be a potent competitor and advocate for her clients while sometimes surprising with her intensity. As Thompson’s sister Allison Nikolic notes, “When you meet Jennifer, if you underestimate her, you will lose.” Nikolic is one of the four Lehman sisters “raised well” by parents Paul and Peggy Lehman, an Xcel Energy engineer and a nurse, respectively. Nikolic and Thompson are only 16 months apart, but almost half a generation older than siblings Jessica and Alexis, who came along much later. Allison and Jennifer were born during their parents’ “poor” years, when vacations consisted of short car trips and the parents covered child care by alternating work shifts, high-fiving each other as one came in the door and the other left.

Despite their difficult schedules, certain rituals were absolute in the Lehman household. Family dinner every night, even if it meant a 9 p.m. supper; church every weekend; and chores for every family member. Later, as first the older girls and then the younger two grew big enough to swing a bat, summer softball and traveling leagues joined the list of rituals, with one or both parents attending or coaching. Paul Lehman, in particular, threw himself into coaching and organizing leagues, filling the gaps in programs that were not offered for girls at the time. For the athletically inclined Jennifer, the discipline and practice paid dividends when she and her high school slow-pitch team made it into national tournaments. In the years since high school, she has played on teams with her parents, her siblings, her husband, her law partners, and any number of friends and colleagues.

Choosing a profession, starting a practice

Although she had been working as a camp counselor and summer rec leader, Thompson made a different career choice partway through college when she took an office job at the Ramsey County Bar Association. “That was my first exposure to bar associations,” she says. “It was fun and collegial. I knew I would go to law school and I knew I wanted to be part of a bar association.” She enrolled in law school at Hamline University, where, like law students everywhere, she learned everything she needed to know, but not necessarily the things she would find herself doing for a living. In her case, that meant self-employment and construction law. Even if the courses had been offered, it’s not likely Thompson would have imagined hanging out her own shingle, much less representing contractors, homeowner associations, and others involved in the high-stakes building industry. That decision, like the choice to become a lawyer, came through chance exposure. A family friend told her their firm needed a clerk. Ever practical, she took it because, “He asked if I’d be interested in construction law and since it was a job, I was.” 

Jennifer-Thompson-profileIt didn’t take long for Thompson to fall in love with the field. As she notes, “It’s a practice area that has the whole law about it, but then it has this physical component. You get to see things being built—houses, roads, buildings, ethanol plants, stadiums. I’ll drive by projects now and just be amazed thinking about the attention and craftsmanship that I certainly didn’t appreciate before.”

Thompson stayed with the firm, Hammargren & Meyer, PA, through law school, rising to associate attorney and then partner and shareholder over the course of 12 years. Tim Cook, a former partner with the firm who now practices at Cook Law & ADR, PLLC, recalls Thompson as a good lawyer with a solid compass in matters of justice and fairness, but also a surprising gift for burning him with digs. “Oh, she’s a terrible trash talker,” he reports. “And she always seems so polite. I remember she would threaten to get me on a basketball court to play one-on-one. I never took the bait, but I know I would have won. The beauty is, we’ll never know.” 

Thompson enjoyed the camaraderie of the small firm, but when that firm disbanded, she started her own practice with Patrick Lee-O’Halloran, another of the partners. It’s a decision she still sounds surprised by, six years later.

“We started a business with slightly more than 30 days’ notice,” she recalls. “It was a huge adventure and a ton of work. At the time, I was just coming back from maternity leave and I felt overwhelmed. Normally this would be something I would plan for a year, but we had to make decisions. We had to have malpractice insurance, computers, space…. We just had to decide it.” 

Indeed, the practice came together so quickly, Lee-O’Halloran joked that their tagline should be, “Hoping to be here tomorrow.” They did make it past “tomorrow” and found after the first month that they could afford a legal assistant/office manager. Within a year Jason Tarasek joined them as the third partner. 

Thompson Tarasek Lee-O’Halloran (TTLO) soon grew to five and then seven on staff, and established itself as a solid firm in construction law and litigation. Lee-O’Halloran attributes much of their success to Thompson’s positive attitude and her penchant for planning. “Jennifer is very strategic and growth-oriented,” he says. “Pretty quickly it was, ‘What’s our one-year plan, our two-year plan, our 10-year plan?’ She likes to be strategic and build the framework. She’s also willing to do something different if it fits our business model and makes sense.” 

That willingness to do something different was tested when Tarasek developed a proposal for a second practice area, under the trade name Minnesota Cannabis Law. For Thompson, who had cut her teeth on the relatively conservative field of construction law, the idea was something of a shock. But when Tarasek brought forward the social justice aspect of the issue, she was sold. TTLO could bring experience in construction law and contracts to cannabis growers, while Tarasek could focus his growing expertise in cannabis law on policy issues to ease the unequal burden on minorities under current law.

Tarasek says he isn’t surprised that Thompson was swayed by the social justice aspect of the practice area. “Equity is part of her life. She has an African American son. She volunteers to represent kids in the court system. She’s been part of the [Minneapolis] Civil Rights Commission. And we’ve talked about it at work. It’s really a core issue for her.” To illustrate his point, Tarasek relates a casual conversation he had with Thompson in which he described wearing a jacket with a Black Lives Matter patch to a big-box home store. “I was telling her that I know for sure I got subpar service from the fellow serving me because of the BLM patch. And she said, ‘Well, at least you get to go home and take off the jacket.’ And if you think I don’t think about that when I go to that store now… She’s right, of course.”

Not backing down whatsoever

Despite Thompson’s concern for equity issues, she’s not quick to accept the label for her own experiences. As a woman in both law and construction, Thompson regularly encounters people who are not quite ready for the new world, so to speak. Tara Smith, now a partner in Maxim Smith Family Law, saw Thompson take this in stride when she worked as an office manager in TTLO’s early years. Having worked previously as a manufacturer’s representative in the construction industry, Smith was familiar with what she saw her boss encounter. “It was really refreshing,” Smith says. “Here is this woman who is working in construction law—in this area which is so hard, so dominated by men—and not backing down whatsoever. Not only that, but she would rattle cages. It made me very proud. Of all the areas of law that she could have landed in, to stick with it, that just says something about her.”

Some of the stories are easier to understand than others. Lee-O’Halloran remembers Thompson relating an example of old-school thinking when she was first on track as an MSBA officer. “She showed up to one of the events with her badge that said ‘MSBA Secretary’ and somebody said, ‘Thank God you’re here. Can you help me print my slides for the presentation?’ he relates with a laugh. “She pretty much shrugged that off.” 

Her husband, Tony Thompson, on the other hand, received a call one day from an attorney she had angered who “asked me to help get her in line.” He had resorted to making the call when he couldn’t intimidate Thompson by yelling at her in the hall outside a courtroom after she persuaded a judge to rule in her favor in awarding fees. Tony took a light touch in this case, telling the caller simply, “Good luck with that.” As he relates, the attorney and Thompson still encounter each other and “she doesn’t seem to let it get in her way.” 

A construction law attorney himself, Tony had run his own practice for several years before taking his current position as a senior investigator for the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. As he observes, “We worked on the same kind of cases, so I can say that I know I always skated because I was a guy. People didn’t push me, didn’t make me jump through a bunch of hoops. Even though she’s a much better lawyer, they would push her more.”

If there’s an answer for why Thompson would seek justice for others but not herself, it may lie in her experience with sports. “She plays to win but she’s very even-keeled,” Tony says. “She won’t argue with the umpire. She just won’t do it. I’m more tempted to argue but she always says, ‘You’ve just got to get past that and kick their butts the next inning.’”

Indeed, it was Jennifer’s baseball knowledge and competitive spirit that first attracted Tony Thompson to her. They met in law school, where, as Tony recalls, “We sat in the same row. I always sat off to the side trying to stay out of view of the professor, and she always sat dead center, hand raised high.” What might have looked like an unlikely pairing blossomed into true romance when Tony took her to a Twins game. “We got a program and she was filling out the scorecard and I was like, ‘How does she know to do that?’ But then she said, ‘There are two players in scoring position’ and I thought, ‘Oh, I should probably marry her. She knows about baseball.’”

Thompson-Family


Jennifer and Tony Thompson at home with (l-r) Charlotte (8), Sebastian (9), and Fox (6).

They married not long after graduating from law school, and adopted their son Sebastian a few years later. Baby Charlotte was born to them a year after Sebastian arrived, and son Fox was born two years after that. Family life has been busy, chaotic, and joyful, with both parents indulging a love of parties and elaborate family get-togethers. Faced with the realities of two busy careers and the costs of day care, they extended their family once again after Fox was born by including an au pair in the household. Now, six years later, they have had five au pairs from three different countries. As Jennifer admits, “I was always the one who resisted, but I have to say that having au pairs has been a top experience for us. I can’t even put into words how fantastic it’s been to get to know these women.”

Ready for MSBA leadership year

Partners ready? Check. Husband and kids ready? Check. Au pair in place? Check. It must be time to assume leadership of the state bar association, and Thompson has laid her plans with care. By virtue of her own priorities, she intends to work hard, but not to lose the balance she has so carefully nurtured between her professional and personal lives. If something has to go this year, it may be one or two of the extended family events (you’ll have to ask her sister about that mansion in Arizona last year), but she won’t sacrifice family dinners or the quality of the work she does. Thompson says her plans for the year will fall along these lines: Build from the strategic planning cycle the MSBA is currently in, with an eye toward membership, the leadership pipeline, and equity as key issues.

In some ways, membership is the topic that informs the others, Thompson says: “We have to think about what our members really want and how we’re providing that to them.” One part of that goal will be to mind the intersection between equity and the leadership pipeline. “People want to be members of an organization where they can envision being part of the leadership, or where they can support the leadership. In terms of diversity, I don’t think we’re being reflective of the legal industry when we don’t show people who are more diverse in the leadership roles. The MSBA is called upon to be a voice for a lot of different people and we have a lot of work to do there.”

Additional topics Thompson wants to explore this year include access to justice, recovery from the pandemic, and, one that may surprise some people, a look at whether the bar exam is still serving its purpose. “Whether that’s an appropriate tool for entrance into the profession is an issue that is bubbling up around the country,” Thompson says. “Does it protect the public, or does it keep people out? I don’t know exactly where it’s going to go but it’s something that will be looked at.”

One thing is certain: When this year is finished there will be more stories, and more softball games will have been played. And no matter who is on second when the next hit comes, the goal-oriented Thompson will most definitely wave them home. 


What Jennifer Thompson has learned from sports

RCBA-Softball-1999


During her days as an attorney referral  coordinator at the Ramsey County Bar Association, Thompson (rear, 2nd from left) was also a stalwart of the RCBA softball team.


An athlete since her parents first tossed a wiffle ball at her plastic bat, Jennifer Thompson loves the teamwork and competition inherent in sports. Her favorites have always been softball and basketball, but in the right circumstances she’ll play anything from tennis to flag football. She’s even been known to hit a golf ball around.

Like everyone who is serious about sports, Thompson has learned certain lessons, including some things that she applies to her professional life. Here’s what she says:

Being in team sports has taught me…

how to hear feedback, positive and negative, and translate it into something you can use to improve your performance;

how to rally people behind you, how to motivate people, how to encourage people. And how to accept coaching;

that you have to learn devotion to putting in the work to achieve an end. What making that commitment means. You can’t show up and play if you haven’t put in that kind of time in practice; 

how to win and lose gracefully;

that you can be talented in your own right, but it’s not going to be enough to advance the goals of the bigger group. You need the team for that.

As Thompson begins her year at the head of the Minnesota State Bar Association, she’ll likely lean on her “gleanings” from a lifetime of teamwork and sports. She might even find herself with a new list to carry into the years ahead: Being MSBA president has taught me… 


Just the Facts: Bio bits on Jennifer Thompson

Jennifer-Thompson-TLLOFamily

Raised in Minnetonka, MN by Peggy and Paul Lehman in a family of four sisters (Jennifer, Allison, Jessica, and Alexis)

Married to Tony Thompson, 17 years

Children: Fox, 6; Charlotte, 8; Sebastian, 9

Education

Juris Doctorate, Hamline University School of Law, 2003

Bachelor of Arts, cum laude, University of Minnesota, 1999

Hopkins High School, 1996

Legal career

Partner/co-founder, Thompson Tarasek Lee-O’Halloran PLLC, Edina, since 2015 

Attorney and shareholder, Hammargren & Meyer, PA, Bloomington, 2007-2015

Law clerk and associate attorney, Hammargren & Meyer, PA, Bloomington, 2002-2007

Additional pro bono & work experience

MN Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company, Board of Directors member since 2019

Children’s Law Center of Minnesota, volunteer attorney since 2016

Association of Women Contractors (AWC), legal advisor since 2012

Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission, vice-chair, 2012

Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission, attorney commissioner, 2011-12

Ramsey County Bar Association, attorney referral service coordinator, 1999-2002

Professional leadership roles (selected)

Minnesota State Bar Association, president, 2021-2022; Executive Council member since 2018; member of 14 MSBA committees or sections since 2015, including Investment, Budget, Strategic Planning Oversight, Operations, Bylaws, Technology, more

MSBA Budget Committee chair 2019-2020

MSBA Membership Committee chair 2017-2020

MSBA Awards Committee chair, 2018-19

MSBA Construction Law Section chair, 2015-16

National Association of Women in Construction, membership director 2009-10 

Memberships & bar admissions

Minnesota Supreme Court

United States District Court, District of Minnesota

Ramsey County Bar Association

Hennepin County Bar Association

Minnesota Women Lawyers

Honors

Minnesota Super Lawyers List, 2020-21

Minnesota State Bar Association, President’s Award, 2018

Minnesota Rising Stars List, Minnesota Law & Politics Magazine (2007-12) and Mpls. St. Paul Magazine (2014-17)

The Top Women Attorneys in Minnesota list, St. Paul Magazine, 2015, 2017; Twin Cities Business Magazine, 2013

Minnesota Women Lawyers, Leadership Project: A Core Development Program for Women Attorneys, selected participant, 2020-21

Civic volunteering

Church of the Holy Name of Minneapolis, various roles since 2006 (Finance Council, Parish Council, Religious Education, Fall Festival co-chair)


additional facts about Jennifer Thompson

1) Friends say she is an addict of Alchemy 365 fitness classes and once held her birthday party at a gym, with workouts preceding the champagne and cheese.

2) She has a reputation as a “trash talker” and might challenge you to go one-on-one on the basketball court to settle a mild dispute.

3) As a teenager, she took her mother’s advice and earned the Red Cross babysitter certification.

4) She loves kids and finds it energizing to spend time engaging them in outdoor activities.

5) Her first jobs were as a camp counselor and a parks and rec leader.

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