Jen Cornell, Nilan Johnson lewis

Title: Attorney, labor and employment practice group

Age: 42


Jen Cornell, a former battalion chief in the Minneapolis Fire Department, is taking on potentially heated legal issues as an attorney in the Minneapolis law firm of Nilan Johnson Lewis.

Cornell, who works in the firm’s labor and employment practice group, was a firefighter for 15 years before she left the fire service to go to the University of Minnesota School of Law.

Cornell said the workplace issues that can lead to labor and employment disputes prompted her to pursue that specialty. “There’s so many stories behind labor and employment cases, as opposed to general litigation where you have two companies having a dispute about a contract,” said Cornell, who previously worked with the Dorsey & Whitney law firm.

The opportunity at Nilan Johnson Lewis appealed to Cornell in large part because of the firm’s “pronounced and active commitment to diversity,” Cornell said, which she said includes active recruiting of GLBT and racial and ethnic minority attorneys. Nearly half of the firm’s shareholders are women, she said.

Cornell said she had planned to go to law school immediately after earning her undergraduate degree, until a recruiter encouraged her to apply to the Fire Department. A high school and college athlete, Cornell said the fire service “sort of struck me as the ultimate team sport.”

Cornell got $65,000 from the city and was promoted to battalion chief in a 2006 settlement of a lawsuit she filed against then-Fire Chief Bonnie Bleskachek. Cornell had accused Bleskachek of hindering her career as part of a personal vendetta.


Q: How did your experience at the Fire Department influence your pursuit of a legal career?

A: I had taken the LSATs before I joined the Fire Department thinking I would go into law, and that never changed. The professionalism of the attorneys and court personnel involved in the case, and my interest in the workings of the court, just reinforced my desire to pursue law as a career.”

Q: Has your fire service helped in your new career?

A: Many of the skills that I learned in the fire service have served me well as an attorney, in terms of having to assess priorities and figure out what’s the most pressing problem at the moment and focusing on that. And being able to make quick decisions but also change your decisions as you get more information. That’s exactly what lawyers have to do as well. It’s been a pleasant surprise that I was more than prepared for the change.

Q: Why should a company hire Nilan Johnson Lewis?

A: The firm has a phenomenal entrepreneurial spirit, and it’s nimble so it can adapt to client needs. Some of that has to do with being a midsize firm and some of that has to do with the character of the firm’s founders and the firm’s culture.