A Profile of AAJ President-Elect Kathleen Flynn Peterson

Kathleen Flynn Peterson Published in Minnesota Trial Lawyer, Spring 2007.  Copyright © 2007 by the Minnesota Trial Lawyers Association.  Reprinted with permission.

In July, at the American Association for Justice (AAJ) Convention in Chicago, Kathleen Flynn Peterson of the Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi law firm will become Minnesota's first AAJ (formerly ATLA) president. That honor exemplifies the remarkable professional career for the former nurse, now successful trial lawyer.

Kathleen Flynn grew up in Bloomington, the oldest of six children. Her mother was a medical secretary, her father a CPA. But, even after graduating from Bloomington Kennedy High School in 1972, a legal career was nowhere to be found on her personal radar screen. Instead, Kathleen enrolled at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, where she pursued a nursing degree.

During the course of her nursing education and hospital training, Kathleen came to realize that a nurse not only needs to be a well-trained care giver, but also an advocate for the patient's well being. As a nurse at St. Paul Ramsey Hospital (now Regions Hospital), Kathleen often worked nights, when staffing was less compared to day shifts. "Working nights was challenging, but it definitely helped stretch my skills. I learned more, including how to be an effective patient advocate," Kathleen recalls.

In addition to realizing how patient advocacy was an integral part of nursing, during these years Kathleen also attended a seminar on nursing malpractice. While observing the legally trained lecturers speaking on various medical/legal issues, a new light was ignited in the young nurse's mind and the radical idea of adding a law degree came into play.

Jury Duty

After graduating from St. Catherine's with her R.N. degree, Kathleen struggled with the decision between graduate school and law school. In the midst of that decision, her professional manifest destiny was determined by, of all things, a letter calling her for Hennepin County jury duty. She passed through voir dire and was selected to serve on a jury in which the defendant was charged with conspiracy to commit murder. She vividly recalls the experience:

"Judge (now Magistrate) Jonathan Lebedoff was presiding over this trial. I was intrigued by the whole process - the language and persuasive techniques, in particular."

Kathleen recalls being torn by the jury's difficult deliberations and the decision to ultimately find the defendant guilty. Afterwards, she actually called Judge Lebedoff to discuss the case. The judge, undoubtedly impressed by the diligent, impressionable young nurse's conflicted feelings about whether the jury had done the right thing, proceeded to explain various evidentiary rulings that had required him to keep out evidence that clearly affirmed the guilty verdict.

RD&L and RKM&C

After that experience, Kathleen enrolled in the four-year program at William Mitchell College of Law. She continued to work full-time as a nurse and managed to keep up that very challenging schedule (including having to work every third weekend at the hospital). Then came a second professional epiphany of sorts. Kathleen heard the Robins, Davis and Lyons law firm was looking for a nurse/paralegal to work on medical negligence cases. She interviewed with lawyers John Eisberg and Terry Wade and was hired as the firm's first nurse/paralegal. Kathleen immediately found the blend of medicine, law and advocacy to be exciting and intellectually challenging on many levels. To this day she appreciates the firm giving her the chance as a nurse/paralegal, "I could not have asked for a better opportunity. I was the first nurse they hired, and they accepted me and we worked well together right from the start."

Looking back on her early years as a paralegal, then associate attorney at the Robins' firm (now Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi), Kathleen fondly recalls the great mentoring and outstanding role models she had the benefit of, particularly Messrs. Eisberg, Wade and, of course, Solly Robins. "Solly loved to tell stories," she recalls. Kathleen came to realize those stories contained lessons for every young lawyer. She recalls one life lesson about which Solly Robins had very strong feelings, "Solly's office in St. Paul overlooked his boyhood home and he would look out at it and regularly remind us: Never forget where you came from."

A Call to Action

At RKM&C, Kathleen has achieved many outstanding jury verdicts and settlements for her clients. She has also served on the firm's Executive Board and Chairs the firm's medical malpractice and personal injury practice. Early in her career, Kathleen realized that the firm's lawyers in the plaintiff's medical malpractice and personal injury practice areas were expected to be actively involved with MTLA and ATLA. She jumped on board (literally) and served on the MTLA Board of Governors for over 10 years and as MTLA President in 1995-1996. But it was a call from Roxanne Conlin, an Iowa lawyer, and ATLA's first female President, that heightened Kathleen's involvement with ATLA (now know as American Association for Justice or AAJ). Kathleen recalls:

"Roxanne called to say she had just appointed me to the National College of Advocacy, the organization that oversees and develops the education and advocacy courses for AAJ. She was very persuasive. Little did I know that I would end up serving on the College of Advocacy's Committee for 12 years."

Kathleen believes AAJ's education and advocacy programs are vitally important to members as these programs "help all of us achieve the best of our abilities for the benefit of our clients."

Kathleen feels she has reaped many benefits from her active involvement in AAJ causes and education courses. The networking opportunities provided through AAJ has been an extremely helpful resource for Kathleen and her clients. Because of the benefits AAJ has provided her, Kathleen has dedicated herself to numerous AAJ causes, culminating with her ascending to the AAJ Presidency at this summer's Annual Convention in Chicago.

Kathleen expects AAJ to have continued success with its focus on the "Fight For Justice Communication Campaign" an effort by AAJ to support the State Trial Lawyer Associations by swiftly providing fact sheets, materials, research and talking points that can be effectively used in support of (or to counter) proposed legislation and also provide assistance with the media.

AAJ's CEO, Jon Haber, has said this about Kathleen Flynn Peterson:

"I think Kathleen is one of these unique individuals that cares very much about defending the civil justice system, not only in her home state of Minnesota, but nationwide. When it comes to speaking out, lobbying or taking an active role in legislation, she is really one of the leaders."

Family Support

Kathleen's professional achievements have largely been the result of her intelligence, training, preparation, and hard work. In addition, she has had the good fortune of having three very supportive and understanding men in her life: her husband and two sons. She recognizes and appreciates the sacrifices her husband of 27 years, Steve, has made in order to enable her to pursue her litigation practice at RKM&C and keep her commitments with AAJ. Kathleen admits she is built to go "full speed ahead" and that, at times, she and her family have had to pay a price for some of her choices. Through it all, Kathleen knows Steve and their sons, Chris (a graduate of Villanova University) and Colin (currently a junior at Penn), have always known just how important they were to her. But, to their credit, they also had to learn and try to understand that when she was getting ready for trial, and in trial, "the client comes first".

Calling Steve "a wonderful husband" and her sons "both great boys" one gets the impression that the sacrifices the members of the Peterson family made have brought them closer and helped them better appreciate the times they spend together.  One benefit of seeing her children move into young adulthood is that "now Steve can travel with me when I am called out for AAJ activities," Kathleen says with a smile.

Looking back over the years of juggling an active litigation practice with family life, Kathleen observes, "I guess we worked out a way that worked for us."

The Challenge Ahead

Kathleen feels AAJ has a great opportunity, for the first time in several years, to seek and achieve affirmative changes in the law that will benefit citizens who have been injured, and had their lives damaged, through the negligent acts and omissions of others. Inspired by the words of John Adams, who said, "Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty," Kathleen believes, as she prepares to become AAJ's president:

"Trial lawyers must never give up the fight to maintain the integrity of our civil jury system. I am honored to have the opportunity to serve as President of AAJ, and to support the work of trial lawyers who dedicate their lives to ensure our country's civil justice system is available to all."