MSBA President 2019-20 – Tom Nelson: A Life of Service

By Amy Lindgren 


Tom Nelson, a partner at Stinson, LLP (née Leonard, Street and Deinard) and the incoming President of the Minnesota State Bar Association, isn’t shy about telling his age. He just doesn’t think it’s particularly relevant to his life choices. At almost 72, he has effectively held two careers simultaneously for decades—one as a successful, award-winning attorney focusing on business litigation and “door law” (as in, whatever walks through the door), and another as public servant, donating thousands of hours to groups as seemingly divergent as Global Rights for Women, the Givens Foundation for African American Literature, the Landmark Center, the American Swedish Institute, and many others. Not to mention his work through the MSBA, which he is about to lead as part of what his wife, the Honorable Susan Richard Nelson (U.S. District Court, District of MN), calls the capstone of his contribution to the legal profession. “Tom’s very proud of the bar and all its work,” she says. “He’s one of its best supporters.”

Jeffrey Keyes, a retired U.S. District Court magistrate judge, is impressed with the example Nelson sets by working with such intensity at this stage in his career. “He’s willing to give back, and to tell other lawyers, ‘You can make a contribution, at any age.’” On the other hand, having golfed with Nelson for more than a decade, Keyes might be the first to counsel him that retiring to such traditional pastimes would not be a good bet anyway. After tactfully evading the question of his friend’s golf prowess, Keyes acknowledges that Nelson may eventually cure his slice: “He does improve year over year. But it’s a slow process.” It’s lucky, then, that Nelson isn’t planning to retire anytime soon.

In fact, just the opposite seems to be true. Nelson is looking forward to a year of amplified public service in relation to the bar association, traveling the state promoting not only the value of bar membership, but the values that the bar association advances, and that bar members help to support through their participation. In his ideal, every member would recognize and embrace what he calls the association’s four key roles: to lead, speak for, support, and connect lawyers. If that were to happen, Nelson says, the result would be a richer bar in all aspects. After more than 40 years in the profession, he’s excited to lead the charge. Pretty remarkable when you consider that he is still surprised that he became a lawyer at all.

From the classroom to the courtroom

If it weren’t for teacher’s strikes in New Haven, Connecticut during the 1970s, and an acquaintance’s off-hand remark—“You should be a lawyer”—Nelson might never have entered the legal profession. He loved teaching, but the original plan had been to study pre-med at St. Olaf College, moving forward to medical school and life as a doctor. But as the first in his family to attend college, he may not have grasped the transitory nature of freshman career planning. What sounded good on paper turned out to be less appealing in the classroom. It was organic chemistry that finally did him in, early in the second semester. He recalls thinking “I have no idea what these people are talking about” and “What am I doing here?” And so, “I got up right then and left class and went to change my major to philosophy. Friends of mine still remember that. They were saying, ‘Where’s Tom going?’”

Although he didn’t realize it at the time, where Nelson was going was onto a lifetime of viewing the world through the lens of the great philosophers, learning to apply the insights of Bertrand Russell, Kierkegaard, Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus, and everyone in between to situations as everyday in nature as the MSBA treasurer’s report—or as momentous as matters pertaining to the lives of Guantanamo detainees or the students he taught. Nelson fell in love with philosophy and decided to extend the affair by moving to New Haven after college to pursue a master’s degree in religion at Yale. It was there that he tumbled into teaching, when a work-study assignment evolved into the opportunity to help create a new type of alternative public high school in the city. In no time at all, the would-be physician was writing curriculum, teaching rooms full of teenagers, and collaborating with experienced educators to forge a new education model. 

For a young man from Bloomington, Minnesota, with degrees in philosophy and religion, the experience was profoundly influential. Not only were the school’s students from a broad swath of backgrounds, but the air was electric with a sense of possibility. As Susan Nelson notes, “You have to put yourself back into the late ‘60s. It was a different world and everybody was intensely involved in making change. It’s a piece of both of us that we have in common. At the time we were being molded, being in public service was everything, and he’s never lost sight of that.”

The experimental school thrived. Nelson might still be teaching there, had he not heard that whisper about being a lawyer just when he did. After surviving—and leading—multiple school strikes in just a few years, he began to wonder if there might be a more stable way to earn a living. Asked and answered: Nelson entered the Connecticut School of Law as a slightly older-than-usual 1L and launched himself on to the new path. 

Mastering the law, one dog bite at a time

Although Nelson found the first year of law school to be harder than expected (“It took me a while to get my bearings”), he knew he had made a good choice. He summer-clerked with a venerable New Haven firm, and after law school clerked for the Honorable Thomas J. Meskill of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. 

Tom Sheridan, now a partner with Simmons Hanly Conroy, LLC in New York, became one of his best friends. Although he was younger than Nelson, he was Nelson’s senior as a law clerk for Judge Meskill, putting them in the position of both teaching and learning from each other. Their two-year clerkships overlapped for just one year, but it was enough to establish the relationship. They would go on to serve as best man in each other’s weddings and to share life experiences such as the birth of their children. “Tom has certain qualities that are really special,” Sheridan says. “At the top of the list is empathy. He’s really good at getting into the mind and spirit of the other person. You get the sense that he’s listening carefully to what you’re saying.”

Sheridan also appreciates his friend’s humility, which he says influences everything from Nelson’s desire to keep learning to his ability to take instruction. On the other hand, Sheridan says he quickly learned that being humble wouldn’t equate to being a pushover, particularly when it came to editing each other’s work for the judge. “He doesn’t take anything for granted,” Sheridan says. “There are things you put in a draft that you’re assuming are true because other lawyers assume it. He would say, ‘How do you know that’s true? We should check that out.’”

Sheridan says Nelson carried that thoroughness into the practice of law, sometimes to a hilarious degree. When the neighborhood’s canine bully attacked one of Nelson’s two little Cairn Terriers, Sheridan recalls, “Tom wrote up a complaint against the owner of the pit bull that used every word you can think of for one dog to bite another. Every possible synonym for bite. I didn’t even know some of those words.”

If Nelson was happy to augment his friend’s vocabulary, he was even more in his element holding court with the lawyers at the New Haven firm he joined, Tyler, Cooper, Grant, Bowerman & Keefe. Susan, who is a few years younger, remembers meeting her future husband in the early ‘80s. “He was a senior associate and I was a junior associate, and the lawyers we hung out with would tease him about giving out so much advice when we all got together. So we made him a badge that said Senior Associate.” With someone else, the propensity to dispense advice might seem overbearing, but his friends saw it differently. “He’s an extraordinary mentor,” Susan notes. “And he really is an excellent advisor. Young people still make a point to come see him because he gives the best advice.”

Public service and pickled beets

Tom and Susan married in 1983 and soon moved to Minnesota, where they had two sons, Rob and Mike. The opportunity to live near Nelson’s parents was a draw. “They were remarkable people,” Susan says. “Salt of the earth, filled with gratitude. Very glass-half-full kind of people.” The Nelsons built a home less than two miles from Tom’s parents, a choice Susan calls “the best decision we ever made as a couple.” In addition to passing on their excitement for life to their children and grandchildren, Tom’s parents modeled public service, an unwavering work ethic, and respect for the roles of women. His father, Ed, was a World War II Navy veteran and airline reservations agent who wrote a meticulously researched history of his two ships’ involvement in World War II—including the Battle of Leyte Gulf; his mother, Fern, was a new-born nurse who worked throughout their long marriage. “Tom’s relationship with his parents was extraordinary,” Susan says. “It’s what defines him.”

Settling into suburban family life, the Nelsons juggled their jobs as attorneys with the boys’ school and sports schedules (especially baseball). As a partner with Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, Susan worked on the 1998 landmark tobacco trial before starting her judicial career in 2000. Tom, meanwhile, worked at Pophaim Haik until 1997, when he made the switch to Leonard, Street and Deinard. It would be easy to gloss over this period of 30-plus years in Nelson’s career as “typical lawyer stuff” were it not for the incredible productivity he displayed. In addition to conducting a distinguished full-time law practice, he also threw himself into volunteer roles that ranged from nonprofit boards to coaching baseball for the boys’ teams when they were young. Then he began to fold in service to the bar, joining committees for both the Hennepin County and Minnesota State Bar Associations. 

For all the variety of Nelson’s activities, some patterns do emerge. For example, projects and committees related to diversity and inclusion stretch back decades, giving him a certain gravitas on a topic that many are only now beginning to grapple with. Jeannine Lee, a partner with Stinson, experienced this aspect of Nelson firsthand when he sought her out to join the firm in 2010. “Tom was trying to implement solutions for the lack of women at the firm, especially in litigation,” Lee recalls. “When he heard I was thinking about moving my practice, we got together to discuss things and I was really impressed with his commitment to the women’s initiative.” 

Lee has since served on a diversity committee with Nelson, and talks with him frequently about philosophical approaches to handling litigation on related issues. She has learned, however, that if their conversation is going to cover lunch, it will likely happen at The Brothers in the skyway near the office. Not necessarily as a matter of proximity, but for the free buffet. “He’ll probably order something standard, like a cup of soup,” she reports, “but it’s the buffet that drives that dining decision—that’s where he can load up on herring and pickled beets.”

Now that the word is out, Nelson might find pickled beets on the canapé list around the state as he goes about his MSBA presidential duties. He’ll be toting his tan canvas briefcase with the MSBA logo stitched on the front—the one he had made last year, which he’s been carrying around the state and posing like a traveling garden gnome in front of landmarks like the Duluth lift bridge. As for his agenda, Nelson says he’s taking a lesson from his earlier presidency of the Hennepin County Bar Association (2014-15), and from MSBA presidents before him: Don’t overplan. His term will encompass the first full bar year since the MSBA combined staff operations with the Hennepin and Ramsey County bars and, while Nelson anticipates everything will continue smoothly, he knows that extra time could be needed for parts of the transition. In the meantime, he does have a few areas that he wants to promote during his year as president: diversity and inclusion; wellness issues for attorneys; the development of programming that will help build relationships between young attorneys and their more experienced counterparts; and support for Greater Minnesota and solo/small firm lawyers. Within seconds of meeting him, people will see how much he enjoys and admires lawyers, and how deeply he reveres our legal and justice system.

Lynn Anderson, executive vice president and general counsel for Holiday Companies—and a founding board member of Global Rights for Women, where Nelson has volunteered for a number of years—believes he is the right person for the job. “I think of Tom as the Great Connector,” she says. “He’s a philosopher, a big thinker, an egalitarian, and a brilliant writer, but ultimately he’s a public servant. He’s just very committed to making a difference in the world and this role is an extension of that
commitment.” Jeff Keyes, Nelson’s golfing buddy, agrees completely. “Tom Nelson is an unbelievably enthusiastic and positive person about all aspects of life,” Keyes notes. “I think we’ll really see that in this role for the bar association. He truly believes in the good of the profession.” 


Hard work. Creativity. Fun.

Everyone in Tom Nelson’s circle seems to have a tale to tell about times he has interjected a creative aspect into his work.

According to those who know him best, Nelson can hardly take on a project without immediately seeking a creative approach. Moreover, he seems surprisingly able to convince others to take the long road along with him. Asked to present a eulogy in 2008 for the judge he served as a clerk (Thomas J. Meskill, Chief Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit), Nelson eschewed the obvious stand-and-deliver process in favor of a partnered give-and-take with fellow clerk and friend Tom Sheridan—which required special permission from the chief judge and the memorial committee, and hours of rewrites and practice. Too much? Hardly. As Sheridan notes, “It was never brutal. It was more, ‘How can we make this better? How can we make the reasoning stronger?’ I have a very clear memory of sitting on a bench in Central Park, practicing what we were going to say.” It went over well indeed.

Nelson engineered a similar above-and-beyond effort when he partnered with Lynn Anderson in the 1990s as part of an alumni project for their alma mater, St. Olaf College. What was originally conceived as a simple conversation for students on the linkages between liberal arts and the law quickly became a full-fledged annual series on topics in business, law, and medicine, featuring such impressive speakers as Ralph Nader, Medtronic CEO Bill George, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, and Minnesota State Supreme Court Chief Justices Douglas Amdahl and Robert Sheran. 

They didn’t stop there. When he and Anderson decided to revive their involvement with St. Olaf a few years ago, they hatched a plan over lunch at the Dakota that saw Nelson creating the name and visual branding on the back of a napkin for what became Ole Law, one of the school’s most popular off-campus annual events. Anderson credits Nelson’s creativity for developing a program that attracted more than 200 students and 100 alumni lawyers to meetings that resulted in internships, mentorships, and cross-generational friendships over the course of several years. 

As it turns out, Nelson’s creativity is underpinned with artistic talent. In addition to being a gifted writer, he has a facility with visual art. His wife, Susan, remembers the first time she understood this. When their son Rob was a youngster, she recalls him asking them to explain “horse and carriage.” Before Susan could offers a definition, Tom had pulled out scissors and paper to create a perfect free-hand cutout of the objects in question. “It was alarming,” she says drily.

This off-hand kind of creativity seems to extend to every area of Nelson’s life. When he plays golf with friends, he doesn’t just keep score. He keeps elaborately annotated scorecards, complete with symbols and color-coding, which he savors later as mementos of the outings. Likewise, tasked with finding holiday gifts for clients, Nelson will bypass the obvious pen sets and portfolios in favor of engraved magnifying glasses, hour glasses, and compasses, all with messages about the value of relationships. Lynn Anderson remembers the mysterious boxes he placed on the tables at the Hennepin County Bar Association annual meeting a few years back—which turned out to be filled with Legos for the purpose of “building bridges” together at their tables. “His theme for the year was building bridges,” she notes. “That lunch was a lot of fun.”

Keeping things light is one of Nelson’s hallmarks, even when his creative solutions are meant to answer larger problems. For example, recognizing the growing chasm between young attorneys and their more experienced counterparts, Nelson created the Vintage Lawyers Group. The loosely organized group of experienced attorneys provides semi-regular events for younger attorneys to benefit from mentoring and a shared learning experience. Topics have ranged from the experienced attorneys describing mistakes or challenges they’ve faced to younger lawyers providing tutelage to vintage attorneys on the use of technology and social media. 

Jeffrey Keyes, one of those “vintage lawyers,” has seen Nelson’s creative mindset extend to his legal work as well. “Tom approaches every legal problem by asking the large questions,” Keyes says. “Tom will not only ask, ‘How do we get there?’ but he’ll ask at the beginning, ‘Why are we going there?’ He’s very challenging in that respect. He brings a fresh, creative perspective.” Keyes expects to see the same approach in Nelson’s new role. “I think he’s going to bring that to leading the bar association,” he says. “In his columns for the Hennepin bar when he was president, you can see that he asks the tough questions.”

Like most attorneys, Nelson’s work demands a lot of writing. But unlike some, Nelson actually enjoys the process and looks forward to opportunities to do it, both professionally and personally. When his father passed away earlier this year, Nelson wrote an extended obituary he called a love letter, describing in detail his father’s long life, his career and military service, and even the bright red peonies his father grew on the two-acre property of Tom’s childhood home by Bush Lake—peonies that Tom now takes pride in growing, along with hostas and ferns, in the nearby home where he and Susan raised their own children.

Nelson is looking forward to applying creativity to his new role, with all the opportunities for writing, partnering and problem solving that it offers. His friend Tom Sheridan can’t imagine otherwise: “He’s always bringing forward new ideas. He’s a catalyst.” 

Just the Facts

Bio Bits on Tom Nelson



  • Raised in Bloomington by Fern and Edward O. Nelson in a family of three children
  • First-generation college graduate, along with siblings Mark and Karen
  • Married 35 years to the Honorable Susan Richard Nelson, U.S. District Judge, District of Minnesota
  • Children: Rob (married to Anna; son, Caleb Thomas)and Michael (married to Christine)


  • Juris Doctorate, University of Connecticut School of Law, 1977
  • Master of Arts, Religion, Yale University, 1971
  • Bachelor of Arts, Philosophy, St. Olaf College, 1969
  • Bloomington High School, 1965

Legal career

  • Partner, Stinson LLP (formerly Stinson Leonard Street), Minneapolis, MN, 2014-present
  • Partner, Leonard, Street and Deinard, Minneapolis, MN, 1997-2014
  • Partner & Associate, Popham Haik, Minneapolis, MN, 1983-1997
  • Associate, Tyler, Cooper, Grant, Bowerman & Keefe, New Haven, CT,
  • Law Clerk, Judge Thomas J. Meskill, U.S. Court of Appeals for the
     2nd Circuit, NYC, 1977-1979
  • Law Clerk, Tyler, Cooper, Grant, Bowerman & Keefe, New Haven, CT, 1975

Prior career

  • Founder/Teacher & Unit Head, High School in the Community, New Haven, CT, 1970-1974
  • Teacher, The Cloverdale Project, Nevada

Bar leadership roles (selected)

Minnesota State Bar Association

  • President, 2019-20
  • At-large member, Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council, 2015-present
  • Past (Founding) Chair, Arts Law Committee 
  • Delegate, MSBA delegation to Cuba, National Union of Cuban Jurists, 2013

Hennepin County Bar Association

  • President, 2014-2015
  • Chair, Bar Memorial Committee
  • Member, Bench and Bar Committee; Diversity & Inclusion Committee

Additional legal volunteerism & membership (selected, past & present)

  • Member, American Bar Association
  • Member, Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, Federal Bar Association, MN Chapter & FBA Board of Directors
  • Member, U.S. Magistrate Judge Merit Selection Panel
  • Panel Co-chair, 8th Circuit Judicial Conference on Baseball and the Law
  • Pro Bono Counsel, University of Minnesota Law School Guantanamo Defense Project

Community volunteerism (selected, past & present)

  • Board Chair, American Swedish Institute 
  • Commissioner, City of Bloomington Charter Commission
  • Commissioner, Minneapolis Arts Commission
  • Board member, Landmark Center
  • Board member, The Givens Foundation for African American Literature 
  • Board member, Global Rights for Women 
  • Board member, The Playwrights’ Center
  • Faculty, Disability Justice (online resource for legal professionals and law students)
  • Past Co-chair, St. Olaf College Conferences: Liberal Arts & the Law; Ole Law; Ole Biz; Ole Med

Recognition (selected)

  • Richard S. Arnold Award for Distinguished Service and Lifetime Achievement, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit
  • Professionalism Award, Hennepin County Bar Association, 2008
  • Pro Bono Award for Outstanding Legal Service in the Legal Interest, Leonard, Street and Deinard
  • St. Olaf College Outstanding Service Award
  • Stinson 2019 Diversity & Inclusion Champion Award, Stinson LLP
  • Attorney of the Year, Minnesota Lawyer
  • Inducted into the Litigation Counsel of America
  • Included in Super Lawyers every year since its inception
  • Named one of Minnesota’s Top Attorneys in Business Litigation, Super Lawyers Corporate Counsel Edition
  • Named in The Best Lawyers in America in five practice areas 
  • 2016 Minneapolis Insurance Law Lawyer of the Year, Best Lawyers