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Jenny Gassman-Pines says some aspects of her dance training helped her find her footing as a trial lawyer. She was photographed at the Greene Espel office in downtown Minneapolis. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)
Jenny Gassman-Pines says some aspects of her dance training helped her find her footing as a trial lawyer. She was photographed at the Greene Espel office in downtown Minneapolis. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Ballet’s loss is Minnesota legal community’s gain

“No regrets,” Jenny Gassman-Pines says, when asked if she ever questions her decision to give up her youthful dream of pursuing a career in dance, with all its glittering promise, and turn instead to the study of law.

Believe it. In person, she seems totally at ease with herself and her ability to make good choices. It was at her prompting, in fact, that the subject of her shelved dancing ambitions came to the surface. Gassman-Pines talked freely about her teen years as a budding ballerina, her fondness for the Twin Cities law community, her work as an attorney-partner at the Green Espel law firm in downtown Minneapolis — and of course, her style sense.

Style-wise, she’s a bit of a classic traditionalist, she admits, insofar as dressing for business goes. “I wear what people might expect a lawyer to wear,” she says. For courtroom appearances, she typically presents herself in a suit, sensible shoes (no open-toe), with an eye to focusing attention on her message, and not so much on her as the messenger for her clients.

“Frankly, I think that’s what judges and juries want too,” she says.

“The dynamic for me is to make sure that I’m persuasive and prepared,” she adds.

It’s not so different from how dancers approach their art.

Some aspects of her dance training helped her find her footing as a trial lawyer. One thing that dance teaches its practitioners is to expect the unexpected in a live performance — and to know how to respond appropriately, “to think on your feet,” she says. “You have to stand up in court and perform, too.”

“Being comfortable in that unpredictable environment” is an important for a lawyer as it is for a ballerina, she says.

“Dance helped me learn how to think on my feet,” she says.

She grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. Both she and her sister expressed artistic inclinations, and her parents encouraged them to pursue their passions. “All through middle school and high school, I thought about becoming a professional dancer, either in ballet or modern dance,” Gassman-Pines says.

As a high schooler, she performed in “The Nutcracker.” Between school years, her parents packed her and her sister off to the Interlochen Arts Camp, a summer arts camp in northwestern Michigan. Campers split their time between studying a particular art — ballet, in Gassman-Pines’ case — and enjoying the splendors of the Michigan outdoors. “It was a wonderful experience,” she says.

“Competitive, of course, but also collaborative,” she adds.

Her summer idylls in the wilds of Michigan ended after her senior year in high school, but her romance with the dance world only intensified — for a spell. The Alvin Ailey School, the official school of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the great names in American dance, accepted her on a summer fellowship. She spent the summer in New York City, studying at the school and working part-time in the business office. The experience afforded her a 360 view of the dancing life in the big city — the good, the bad, the mawkish and the mundane.

Most of all “it was an incredible experience” to be so closely associated with the Ailey company, even for such a short while, she says. She saw how the work came together to produce “Revelations,” the company’s African-American spirituals-and-blues-infused signature piece of dance theater.

“One of the most moving shows I have ever seen,” Gassman-Pines enthuses.

She also took note of what life was like for young, aspiring dancers in the Big Apple. Her take: it could be a rough life. Her days would be spent making the rounds of auditions; the rest of the time she would work to make ends meet, waiting tables most likely. The cutthroat level of competition she observed among dancers also turned her off.

Not that the rough-and-tumble side of the arts world was anything she couldn’t handle if she wanted to. But when she finally sized her situation up, she concluded that she would forever be at a disadvantage due to one circumstance completely out of her control: her size.

Many ballet companies, seeking to achieve a certain dramatic effect or proportionality in their productions, look to hire dancers of a certain height, Gassman-Pines says.

Gassman-Pines tops out at 5 feet one inch tall.

“I’m very short,” she says.

“Petite,” she says.

Even so, “I could have gone for it,” she says.

“I would like to think I could have done it,” she avows.

“No regrets,” as she says.

She still stays in touch with friends she knows in the dance world. One friend has worked as an assistant choreographer on several Broadway shows. Others dance professionally in the city. She occasionally sees them performing on stage.

Whether she ever would have enjoyed living on the East Coast is another question that she seems to have answered already too. “I did want to move back to the Midwest and go to law school,” she says.

First, she had to complete her undergrad studies at Wesleyan University, a private university in Middletown, Connecticut, with an outsized reputation for excellence — and an alumni list to die for. Among the school’s degree-carrying luminaries are: Lin-Manuel Miranda, the award-winning creator of “Hamilton”; Bill (the Bad) Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots football team; Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines; Dana Delaney, Emmy Award-winning actress; Karen Freedman, founder of Lawyers for Children; Amy Bloom, author; Kristen Greenidge, playwright; and of course, Jenny Gassman-Pines, attorney-at-law, Greene Espel PLLP, Minneapolis.

After majoring in English and Women’s Studies, Gassman-Pines decided that she wanted to study law. Married by then, she and her husband, Ben — also intending to study law — decided to enroll in the University of Minnesota School of Law.

“I felt [the U of M] was a very welcoming place,” she says. “And of course, it had a great law school.”

She graduated with her law degree in 2006, then spent a year working as a law clerk in the office of Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice (now retired) Russell Anderson. Following that, she joined the Robins Kaplan law firm, working there as an attorney until her 2010 move to Greene Espel. “It’s just a good fit,” Gassman-Pines says of her position with Greene Espel.

Her practice focuses on employment defense, commercial and public-sector litigation law, and investigations, she says. “Most of the work is litigation,” she says.

She finds herself surrounded by lawyers who share her interest in good writing at Greene Espel. Her English major holds her in good stead among such company, but she rejects the idea that she is the company’s writer-in-residence.

“No, I would never say that,” she laughs. “This is a company of good writers.”

She does love to write, though. And read.

Anna Karenina,” Leo Tolstoy’s 19th century classic, rates as one of her favorite novels. Richard Wright’s “Native Son” comes to mind as another of her favorites. Among modern authors, she confesses a fondness for writers such as Julia Alvarez (“In the Time of Butterflies”), Wally Lamb (“I Know This Much is True”) and Jennifer Egan (“A Visit for the Good Squad”) among a host of others. “They’re all very different writers,” she says. “They’re all complex, with a lot of layers, and for all of that, each of them is a page-turner.”

Not that she has so much time to read challenging books these days. Outside of work, she’s very involved in community work. She’s on the board of directors of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota Action Fund (she co-chaired the organization’s spring 2017 fundraiser). She and her husband, Ben (an attorney who works in state government), live the good life in south Minneapolis. They also have a 3-year-old daughter, who enjoys nothing so much as taking her parents out for a family treat at an Izzy’s Ice Cream parlor.

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