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“The only thing harder than the practice of law is raising children,” says Engelmeier & Umanah founder Sheila Engelmeier. (Submitted photo)
“The only thing harder than the practice of law is raising children,” says Engelmeier & Umanah founder Sheila Engelmeier. (Submitted photo)

Breaking the Ice: Learning from both sides in employment cases

Name: Sheila Engelmeier

Title: Attorney and founder, Engelmeier & Umanah

Education: B.A., political science, Hamline University; J.D., University of Minnesota Law School

Sheila Engelmeier said the motivation to start Engelmeier & Umanah came in part from “being tired of tall buildings with a bunch of people that were very focused on money.”

Engelmeier had worked for big firms before Engelmeier & Umanah’s 2009 launch.

The firm, which has offices in Minneapolis and St. Cloud, represents employers and employees in employment law cases.

“You learn a whole bunch of things when you sit on both sides,” Engelmeier said.

The firm’s work in the often-cited Ewold v. Royal Norwegian Embassy pay-discrimination case resulted in awards of $270,000 in lost wages and emotional distress damages for the plaintiff and $2.1 in attorney fees. The latter amount, Engelmeier said, is the largest she knows of in a single-plaintiff gender pay case.

Engelmeier, who said she had her first child at 39 and second at 49, likes the flexibility of working for her own firm.

“I can write a book about toddlerhood and menopause,” Engelmeier said. “It’s the best combination of the most challenging times.”

Q: What’s the best way to start a conversation with you?

A: Two things fascinate me: my children, in whom I’m delighted and impressed with and giggle about and get mad about every day; and thorny legal issues.

Q: What prompted you to study law and pursue it professionally?

A: I grew up in north Minneapolis. I had a big interest in trying to change things, trying to make some of the wrongs that I saw in north Minneapolis not continue.

Q: What books are on your bedside table or e-reader?

A: All I read is the law, the sports page and People. People has the highest percentage of good news of any contemporary source of information. I skip the stuff about the Kardashians.

Q: What is a pet peeve of yours?

A: Errors. I have a hard time accepting errors. At 47 I gave up on changing the world. I changed my focus to trying to make a favorable difference in people’s lives one person or one company at a time. My goal at 57 is to grasp the concept that everybody makes errors and you aren’t defined by your errors.

Q: What are your favorite aspects of being an attorney?

A: Helping others, that whole notion of making a positive impact one person or one company at a time.

Q: Least favorite?

A: There are way too many lawyers who appear to view their job as making life difficult for others. I see that as extremely bad karma. At some point it’s going to come back to bite you or your client.

Q: What’s a favorite activity outside your job?

A: Watching my girls attempt to become everything they can be.

Q: If someone visits you in your hometown, what would you take them to see or do?

A: I would take them to Tooties On Lowry (restaurant and bar in north Minneapolis.) It’s like what you would expect in a small town.

Q: Is there an attorney or judge, past or present, whom you admire most?

A: [U.S. District Judge] Susan Nelson was talking about her top 10 core values at a seminar. One of hers is something like be optimistic. Optimism works better than anything else to favorably impact the world and your own situation.

Q: What’s a misconception people have about working as an attorney?

A: Most people think that as a lawyer you have a lot of power and that it’s a pretty easy way to make a lot of money. You have some power as a lawyer but at the end of the day the judges make the law and there’s not a high level of predictability. … The other thing is the practice of law is not even remotely close to easy. The only thing harder than the practice of law is raising children.

Q: What is your favorite depiction of the legal professional in popular culture?

A: My very favorite law movie is “Philadelphia” and Denzel Washington asking, “Explain it to me like I’m a 6-year-old.”

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