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Attorneys of the Year: Thomas Nelson

A lawyer’s lawyer. A class act. A reasoned voice of the bar. An impactful and important leader.

These words and many more were used to describe Stinson Leonard Street partner Thomas Nelson, who received four nominations for this award.

The immediate past president of the Hennepin County Bar Association has made a point of cultivating young lawyers by mining the wisdom of those he refers to as “vintage lawyers,” and of honoring those members of the bar who have passed away.

For the latter purpose, Nelson has served on the Hennepin County bar memorial committee for 15 years, 10 of those as chair. The committee plans an annual ceremony with a booklet of obituaries written by people who knew the deceased.

“It’s a huge amount of work,” said longtime Minneapolis business attorney and frequent legal opponent Paul Floyd. “When it comes to making sure it gets done, making sure that the obituaries are actually done well, Tom’s really worked hard on that.”

Nelson acknowledged that organizing the ceremony is “a lot of work. But it’s a lot of work that gets done by the committee and the HCBA staff,” he said. “I think it’s a really special way of honoring the profession and the professionals who have made it a profession.”

During his tenure as bar association president, Nelson also emphasized diversity and inclusion within the bar, and keeping politics as far as possible from judicial elections in Minnesota.

“We have to be sure that no one—not anyone—ever leaves the courthouse suspecting that there was an unseen thumb pushing down on one side or the other of the scales of justice,” Nelson wrote in the president’s column in Hennepin Lawyer. “Our courtrooms are, after all, the very place where our people meet the promise of our great nation: Equal Justice Under Law.”

Nelson also formed a group of about 60 lawyers age 65 and older who got together several times during his tenure with newer lawyers to socialize and learn from one another. The sages shared their wisdom, and on one occasion, the newer lawyers taught their elders how to use Facebook and Instagram. (For the record, Nelson still does not have an Instagram account.)

Nelson also guided the bar association through the transition toward a new executive director. In addition to his official duties, he gave each member of the staff a book or notepad emblazoned with the words, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

He has worked to strengthen relationships among the presidents of the Hennepin, Ramsey and Minnesota State bar associations.

“I think all of us decided it would be better if we talked,” Nelson said. “We’ve continued to do so. It’s a really good exercise.”

Other lawyers turn to Nelson for career guidance and legal advice about the profession, according to Floyd.

“He’s always been professional in dealing with others,” Floyd said. “He’s trying to work out that the lawyer and the law firm are both coming out in a way that both can save face or not burn bridges, and he’s really good at that.”

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