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Answering the call

Answering the Call

Paul Peterson continues a family legacy at the plaintiff's bar.

By Amy Lindgren

For Paul Peterson, incoming president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, being a lawyer is more than a job. As Bill Harper, his law partner at Harper & Peterson, PLLC, says, “It’s a calling. He knows he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing.” Law is also a legacy for Peterson, something he’s carrying forward from his father, the late Duane Peterson, who served as a judge in Minnesota’s Third Judicial District. Before spending the last 12 years of his career as a judge, the elder Peterson was a practicing small-town plaintiff’s attorney with a statewide reach. A number of his cases went to the Minnesota Supreme Court, creating case law that his son and others have relied on in the years since. 

In relating his own story of practicing law, Paul Peterson refers to his father often, entwining or comparing their two paths in the profession while also acknowledging the advantages he believes he gained from his father’s mentorship and reputation—not to mention the early privilege of working in his father’s law firm. Whatever edge Peterson may have started out with, however, it’s clear that he’s carried the legacy far beyond any concept of being “the boss’s kid” when it comes to the practice of law.

Winning the big cases

In 26 years of representing plaintiffs in personal injury cases, Peterson has built an enviable portfolio of wins, along with a reputation for excellence. Retired Judge Arthur Boylan, of Boylan ADR, says he has heard from a number of trial lawyers who have “consistently described Paul as the best trial lawyer they’ve ever seen in a courtroom.” Peterson has stacked up the industry honors to prove the point, including 20 consecutive years with such designations as a Minnesota Top 100 lawyer and as a Super Lawyer. But more than the professional accolades, Peterson values the plaintiff’s awards he’s been able to secure for his clients. At this stage in his career, he’s regularly arguing for settlements or jury awards in the multi-millions of dollars, while helping to create precedents that shape policy. 

One such case that deeply impressed Boylan involved a suit against ADT Security. The case was brought by Harper & Peterson on behalf of the surviving children of a woman who was murdered when an ex-boyfriend entered her home despite the newly installed alarm system. “I was the chief magistrate for the state of Minnesota,” Boylan says, “and it landed in my lap to get the case settled if possible, before going to court. Bill [Harper] was the guy who was the bulldog, so to speak, and Paul was the guy who really connected with the family. Paul, to his credit, really listened and helped guide them to make the right decision for these kids.” 

Harper, who was building a case that included a detailed three-dimensional rendition of the house demonstrating each failure of the security system, says he very much wanted a jury trial. But it was only after Judge John Tunheim denied ADT’s motion for summary dismissal that they were assured of that possibility. “Paul’s part in that was enormous,” Harper says, “because it was his briefing and his arguments to Judge Tunheim that allowed us to go forward. His appreciation and understanding for the law carried the day. With Jack Tunheim’s ruling that we could proceed with a gross negligence argument, we could hang them—and we did.” 

The “hanging” in this case came not by jury as Harper had wished, but by settlement just three days before the trial was scheduled to begin—and nearly five years after the suit was first initiated. The settlement amount was undisclosed but is widely considered to have been substantial. The case law was also notable, breaching the immunity claimed by ADT’s customer contract and inspiring more cases nationwide. In all, it was a huge win for the plaintiffs, for the firm, and for Peterson himself. But it was also just one of many cases Peterson has argued or helped settle for his clients, often against similarly daunting odds. And yet, such successes notwithstanding, Peterson’s law career was never a foregone conclusion, even as he grew up in the shadow of his father’s law practice. 

Growing up in Winona

Rosemary O’Brien, a Toronto-based insurance advisor, grew up with Peterson in Winona, Minnesota, a thriving but sleepy river town that was home to three colleges. It was a place that really fostered its youth, O’Brien says, and her friend Paul took advantage of the opportunities. “Our running joke is that we were both going to run for class president,” she says, “but we both kind of knew he was more popular than I was. So I finally said, ‘Okay, you be president, I’ll be vice president.’ And ever since he’s said, ‘I’m so annoyed with you for doing that,’ because he’s had to run the class reunions.” As O’Brien recalls, the Peterson home was a gathering place and a comfortable spot to hang out. Peterson’s mother, Patte, was an avid volunteer and his father was active in politics, leading him to a natural affinity for serving the community. “For years my dad was first party chair of the congressional district there,” Peterson remembers. “When I was really young I would be helping with dropping off literature. As I got older I’d help with door-knocking. We also had some pretty amazing times when there’d be a meeting or a fundraiser, with people like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale in our home.”

Peterson toyed with a career in politics himself, and also thought about going into communications and broadcasting—a family business of sorts, since his mother had hosted a local radio show on weekday mornings while he was growing up. The fact that he didn’t immediately imagine law as a career is a testament to his father’s ability to separate his work and home lives, and his commitment to letting his kids choose their own paths. Even so, all five Peterson children took a turn working for their father’s Main Street practice, doing daily after-school chores such as submitting filings at the courthouse or delivering packages to clients around town. 


 

“Can we do this law thing better? Not to say we don’t do it pretty darn well now. I’m very proud of our profession.

For Peterson, the turning point toward law came in a surprising way, at the bidding of someone outside the family. As he tells it, “Going into my senior year of high school, about mid-summer when nobody was paying attention, the school board decided to cut all the extracurriculars in the junior and senior high school. It was a budget decision to save one of the elementary schools, but at the cost of athletics and pretty much everything else at the upper schools.” Peterson took it upon himself to rally others and pressure a re-vote, and then became the spokesperson at the school board meeting. “So I spoke,” he recalls, “and I liken it to doing a closing argument for a trial. I’ve always said that when a closing goes well, there’s a feeling like electricity or a sizzle in the room and that’s what I felt. A parent actually interrupted while I was speaking and she was very emotional when she said, ‘I wish we could bring in an elementary student and he could be as eloquent as Mr. Peterson.’ And I turned to her without even hesitating and said, ‘If you give an elementary student all the opportunities that I’ve had, I guarantee he will be as eloquent as I am.’ It’s one of the moments when you realize, maybe law school would be for you.”

Peterson’s parents hadn’t attended the school board meeting but the chair of the school board—one of their friends—came to the law office the next day and asked Peterson’s father, “Have you talked to Paul about going to law school?” When the elder Peterson answered “No, I don’t push anything on the kids,” the reply was, “Well, you should.”

A legacy and a responsibility

Once the idea was planted, Peterson found himself more and more drawn to his father’s work. He started college at St. Thomas in St. Paul, working summers in the practice doing research and administrative tasks. As he started to realize he might take over the practice one day, he switched to Florida State University to experience a different part of the country before settling into the life of a small-town attorney himself. He was still working for the practice during the summers, but things were changing. Now he was the boss’s kid, with the potential to make things awkward for the professional legal team already in place. “I was going to the paralegals for help and asking questions, but I could tell there was this whole sideways kind of look: What’s this going to be? Is he going to be our boss someday?” Peterson learned quickly “that I was underneath them. That was made real clear from the top guy: ‘Don’t come in here and shoot your mouth off because I’ll drop you.’ He would have, too.” Instead, Peterson worked to earn their respect while coming to appreciate their talents, “a good life lesson no matter what you do.”

The question of becoming the boss was resolved in a frightening way shortly before Peterson started law school. His father had a serious heart attack that summer and they realized he couldn’t maintain the stressful life he’d been leading. The opportunity to become a judge meant closing the practice, but Peterson believes it also gave the family another three decades with him they wouldn’t have had otherwise. The younger Peterson headed off to law school knowing he would be a lawyer, but not what kind of law he would practice, or where.

Even so, Peterson believes he had a significant advantage in starting his career because of his father’s example and mentoring, not to mention his reputation and the opportunities he’d already given his son. In law school, Peterson says, he became very aware of friends who hadn’t had those advantages. Indeed, the same had been true for his father, who grew up in Duluth with a father who discouraged him from going to college at all. Peterson’s father had put himself through law school as part of a combined Bachelor’s / Juris Doctorate program at the St. Paul College of Law, working as a claims adjuster to pay the tuition. When he graduated with a law degree, Peterson says his father had no connections and nowhere to start as an attorney. “One lesson he taught me is that being active in the professional associations is a way to connect with the legal community,” Peterson says. “I think about that a lot. He graduates and has to find a job and make his own connections. I graduate and sit in an interview and I’m the son of a judge. I had to bring something to the table, but he paved a lot of trails for me. It would be foolish to think that the connections didn’t matter.”

Acknowledging that difference created a sense of responsibility for Peterson to watch for others in the legal community who don’t have a similar background. “Whether it’s economic, like my dad experienced, or whether it’s first generation to grow up in this country, or someone from a minority background, it reminds me to be on the lookout and to have our professional groups be on the lookout for promoting people of diverse backgrounds who are new to the profession.” Service to the profession is another legacy Peterson feels committed to continuing, having seen his father co-found the MSBA’s Civil Litigation Section and later become active in the Minnesota Association for Justice, an organization in which the younger Peterson has also been active.

Building a career and a life

While Peterson may not have followed directly in his father’s footsteps in terms of his legal practice, he came close. After working as a judicial clerk in law school and then as an attorney for two defense firms, he switched gears to start his own solo practice as a plaintiff’s personal injury attorney in 1996. He was influenced, he says, partly by the volunteer work he’d been doing for SMRLS (Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services) and largely by his father’s example of representing plaintiffs in workers’ compensation and injury cases. “It’s an area of law where you get to directly help people, but also create public policy,” Peterson explains. “Lawsuits drive changes. That really draws me to do what I do.” He also believed that he could create more of a community-based practice in plaintiff’s work and thereby avoid the travel that sometimes comes with successful defense practices—two important ingredients for settling down with a family.


Retired Judge Arthur Boylan says he has heard from a number of trial lawyers who have 'consistently described Paul as the best trial lawyer they’ve ever seen in a courtroom.'

In those years it was just him and an administrative assistant working from an office in Woodbury, with Peterson still taking some defense cases from friends in the business who helped his business survive initially. In 2000, he joined forces with Bill Harper and the two formed an unusual but highly successful partnership in which they both maintained their own practices while also trying cases together and, eventually, buying their business building together. As Harper explains, “We have always operated as separate corporations and we’ve worked together on cases and then sat down together to figure out the fees. It has always worked wonderfully for us and in all these years we have never had a dispute or an argument about money.” The arrangement has been satisfying on other levels as well, according to Harper. “I really appreciate what Paul has brought to my life,” he says. “Paul has a true affection for the law. He’s given me a greater respect for the law, even though I still disagree with it from time to time, in terms of what it keeps from the have-nots. And we represent the have-nots.”

At about the same time that Peterson and Harper were creating their business life together, Peterson was starting a family that would eventually include two sons, Charlie and Tommy, now 24 and 21, and a home in Woodbury near the law office. Peterson followed in his father’s footsteps again. Where his dad had coached him in basketball in junior high, he now coached his kids in basketball and baseball for community leagues, often going to comic lengths to fit it in with his growing law practice: “The baseball fields were just a couple of blocks away and I still remember, I’m out there in a suit over the lunch hour and maybe I have a hearing in an hour and I’m out there trying to rake the field and get it dry in time for a game that night.”

Unfortunately, one way Peterson’s path diverged from his father’s was in the dissolution of his marriage, following a separation when the boys were teenagers. It’s unusual in Peterson’s family, which he says brings pressure, even though the split was amicable. When it happened, Peterson says, he wasn’t expecting to find a new partner in life, much less start a new family. But that’s exactly what happened, starting with a chance meeting and evolving into a relationship with his now-spouse, Stephnora Jacob. Now he and Jacob live with one-year-old Ellie and nine-year-old Jordan in their Shakopee home. Jacob, who immigrated from Nigeria in her 20s, had earned a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) and built a career there in broadcasting and film. In the United States she earned an MBA from the University of Phoenix and now does the marketing for Harper & Peterson while also running a retail business called StyleLiz. Peterson and Jacob each speak highly of the other, with Jacob especially appreciating Peterson’s commitment to family and his sense of humor, saying, “It’s one of the things that first drew me to him.” When Ellie was born last year, Peterson was delighted by the prospect of adding a girl to the family of three boys, although he’s already disavowing any wish to be the disciplinarian. “I told Stephy, you have to do that because I’m not going to be able to say anything to this little girl.” In all, Peterson counts himself surprised but lucky by this turn of events, saying, “This is nowhere I expected to be on the one hand, but on the other hand, I’m really loving it.”

Goals for the bar

By contrast, leading the Minnesota State Bar Association is exactly where Peterson expected to be at this point, having started on the leadership track four years ago as MSBA secretary. Before that, he led the Ramsey County Bar Association (2017-2018), giving him a total of eight years already in officer roles. In that time he’s had the opportunity to hone his ideas, coming to the conclusion that his will be more of a management role than direct leadership. He wants to facilitate progress in three areas, without imposing an exact agenda.

Chief among the three is wellness, an issue he and other MSBA officers have been intentional about developing, at least since pre-pandemic days when the Minnesota Supreme Court created a task force to take on the topic. They were responding at the time to the Hazelden report on the pervasive and disproportionate rate of chemical dependency and mental health issues in the legal profession. Although a new report hasn’t been made, Peterson feels certain the issue could only have worsened since the pandemic. 

“I’m very concerned,” he says. “I look at wellness as more than the things that Hazelden was discovering. Those are the symptoms, but we have to re-examine how the profession operates. What we’re talking about is, how do law firms re-examine how they do things? How do solo practices re-examine things? How do we reconfigure, if we can, the public defender system so they’re not handling caseloads far in excess of what’s really possible? Really, how do we re-examine things so we can make the profession better? Because I think the reason it’s disproportionate to other industries and professions is because we are dealing with a lot of strife in life.” 

As Peterson notes, his own work has brought him into highly stressful situations, working directly with families who have lost loved ones under sometimes gruesome circumstances. “And that’s tough,” he says. “You have to find a way to manage that. Nobody taught me that in law school and I haven’t done it well at all times in my life, quite frankly. I’m not sure I do it well today, but I’m trying. All of us have to take a step back and say, ‘Yeah, it’s always been done that way, but we can re-examine that.”

Paul Peterson

In addition to wellness, Peterson plans to continue to promote diversity, in alignment with the MSBA’s strategic plan, and with a particular eye on first-generation attorneys. The third focus for his presidency will be operational in nature, he says, with the goal of better leveraging the knowledge and skills of the permanent staff to create more consistency and forward progress from one set of volunteer leaders to the next.

If there’s a theme to these goals, Peterson says it might be, “Can we do this law thing better? Not to say we don’t do it pretty darn well now. I’m very proud of our profession. I’m very proud to be a lawyer. But we’re in a changing world and change is happening very fast. The excitement I have coming out of the pandemic is that it has caused us to re-think everything. I want to take that spirit this year. I don’t know if I’m going to ever be the one with the answers, but I want to take that discussion and facilitate it. Because I do think we can do this law thing better, and use the technology to serve our clients better and give ourselves more time with our families.

Roger Kramer, Peterson’s long-time friend from law school, is one of many who are excited to see his term begin. “He’s going to do great things for the bar,” Kramer predicts. “He’s going to work really hard. Nobody I’ve met cares more about the law than Paul. The bar should be excited. They’re getting a terrific president.” 


 

A star is born

Think of your typical 15-year-old boy, and what comes to mind? Shy, perhaps? Slow to open up to others? Now put him in a roomful of people he’s never met, in a foreign country no less, and check to see where he lands. If he’s typical for his age, he might be on the edge of the group or standing just outside the door. But if he’s 15-year-old Paul Peterson, meeting dozens of his kin for the first time on a family trip to Ireland, you’ll have to place him center stage, about to win everyone’s respect as the day’s best storyteller.

Or at least, that’s the event as recalled by Peterson’s younger sister, Nora Rogers—no mean storyteller herself. Rogers describes the tradition of their maternal grandmother’s family, many of whom still live in Ireland: “One of the great things when our family gets together in Ireland is you have to sing songs or tell stories to entertain everyone.”

Did Peterson recite a poem, or perhaps a story from growing up in America? No, Rogers explains: “He basically made up this long joke from something he had seen in a birthday card once.” The joke in its original version was about someone receiving a little animal called a rary that keeps growing and growing until the owner can’t contain it anymore. Since he can’t seem to get rid of it, he eventually brings it up a tall cliff and tips it over the edge. Punchline? It’s a long way to tip a rary. Ouch. That’s enough of a groaner as it is, but apparently Peterson won over his clansmen by taking 10 minutes to get there. “He just kept extending the joke,” Rogers recalls, “dragging the story out with all these details he’s making up on the spot. First it gets too big for the bed, and then the house and whatever and he keeps trying different ways to give it away until he finally tips it off the cliff. Paul was just pretty funny telling it and everyone loved that he was beating out all the older guys.”

Peterson never outgrew his love for the spotlight, becoming in later years what his law school friend Roger Kramer calls a comedian and frustrated actor. “He was made for the stage, more than most people,” Kramer says. “He’s very, very funny. Many times when we were out at parties, he would do impersonations and make people laugh.” In fact, pre-covid, Peterson and sidekick Steve Kirsch of Larson-King would co-host the Bench & Bar benefit for the Ramsey County Bar Foundation’s annual fundraiser, delivering well-received send-ups of local sports figures and national politicians. But even though he gained relative infamy for his convincing Bill Clinton impersonations, Peterson’s chef d’oeuvre might turn out to be telling the entire Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer saga from memory, handling every voice himself, a feat he mastered when he and Nora were still kids. 

 


Just the facts: biographical notes on Paul Peterson

Family

Raised in Winona, MN by Duane and Patte Peterson in a family of five siblings: Mark, Dan, Joan, Paul, and Nora
Spouse, Stephnora Jacob
Children: Charlie, 24; Tommy, 21; 
Jordan, 9; Ellie, 1

Education

Juris Doctorate, cum laude, Hamline University School of Law, 1989
Bachelor of Arts (History and Political Science), Florida State University, 1986
Winona High School, National Merit Scholar, 1982

Legal career

Founding partner, Harper & Peterson PLLC, Woodbury, MN (2000-present)
Solo practitioner, Paul D. Peterson, LTD, Woodbury, MN (1996-2000)
Shareholder and treasurer, King & Hatch, PA, St. Paul, MN (1993-1996)
Associate attorney, Murnane, Conlin, White & Brandt, St. Paul, MN 
(1990-1993)
Judicial law clerk, Hennepin County District Court, Minneapolis, MN (1989-1990)

Professional leadership roles & memberships (selected)

President, Minnesota State Bar Association (2022-2023); Executive Council member since 2019
Board member, American Academy of Certified Trial Lowers (ACTLM) 
(2010-2020)
Assembly member, Minnesota State Bar Association (2006-present)
Chair, MSBA Joint Coordinating Committee (2018-2019)
President, Ramsey County Bar Association (2017-2018); member, Board 
of Directors
President, MN Chapter, American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA) (2012)
Board member, American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA) (2015-present)
President, MN Chapter, Douglas K. Amdahl Inn of Court (2011)
Member, American, Minnesota, Ramsey, and Hennepin County Bar Associations
Member, American, Minnesota and Wisconsin Associations for Justice
Member, MSBA Civil Litigation Section
Member, Campaign for Legal Aid Urban Leadership Committee
Member, Public Justice Foundation
Member, International Society of Barristers

Certifications & bar admissions

Minnesota and Wisconsin State Courts
Minnesota and Wyoming Federal Courts
Western District of Wisconsin 
Federal Courts
United States District and Circuit Courts
8th Circuit Court of Appeals
Board Certified Civil Trial Advocate, certified by the National Board of 
Trial Advocacy
Board Certified Civil Trial Specialist, certified by the Minnesota State 
Bar Association

Honors (selected)

Top 100 Minnesota Lawyers, SuperLawyers Magazine (2003-present)
AV rating by Martindale-Hubble, 20 years in a row (2002-present)
Super Lawyer designation, Thomson Reuters (1999-present)
Named “Rising Star,” Minnesota Law & Politics, 1999

Additional pro bono and work experiences

Legal assistant / courier, Duane Peterson Law Office, junior high through college years
Volunteer attorney, SMRLS (Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Service)
Fundraiser, co-auctioneer, Ramsey County Bar Foundation

Civic volunteering

Baseball and basketball coach for sons’ teams in Woodbury, MN

 


 

5 Additional Facts About Paul Peterson

1. He and his friends worked for three years during high school at Taco Johns and learned to tolerate smelling like 
taco meat.

2. He and his sister Nora learned to dance in the family basement, following Arthur Murray footprint decals their parents practiced with. 

3. He suffered a collapsed lung in high school that knocked him out of contention for Air Force fighter pilot training during ROTC. 

4. He worked as a Florida poll taker during college and knew early on that Reagan would beat Mondale by a landslide.

5. He loves cartoons and can do a killer Elmer Fudd impersonation.

 

 

 

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