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The POWER 30: Ellen Brinkman

Neither COVID-19, nor facial masks, nor plexiglass could keep Minneapolis attorney Ellen Brinkman from her jury trial. Neither could three continuances of the trial during the court closure.

“I love to try cases. I believe most cases should settle, but I love it when they go,” said Brinkman, of Nilan Johnson. She was right about that case, which resulted in a defense verdict for her client, U.S. Bank, who was facing a claim for $12 million.

Brinkman said that Hennepin County District Court Judge Edward Wahl asked jurors to complete a questionnaire and also questioned them very carefully about their comfort level during the pandemic. They used a bigger courtroom and spread out, with three jurors in the jury box and four in the gallery. Everyone wore masks except the witnesses while they were testifying.

“It was a significant challenge to try to read the jurors when they wore masks,” said Brinkman. “We watched when they took notes.”

Brinkman joined Nilan last year after being at Briggs for 14 years. When Briggs merged with Taft, Stettinius & Hollister in 2019 she encountered too many conflicts of interest, necessitating a move.

COVID or no COVID, there’s usually a “fair amount” of sexual harassment litigation. “Sexual harassment has been pretty set law. But situations crop up and scare people,” she said.

When the pandemic arrived, the firm put together a COVID response team to be up to date on regulations. “It’s been great for the counseling side of the practice,” she said.

Lately she’s been encountering a lot of accommodation issues, especially with the pandemic. There’s a tension between the employee’s interest in privacy about medical issues and the employer’s leave policies, Brinkman said.

As other lawyers have said, there’s a jump in whistleblower complaints, Brinkman continued. There may be a dispute about whether a complaint is over a recommendation or a mandatory protocol, she said.

Working from home has also raised issues for employees of mental health and stress, and for employers of accountability and performance. Employers empathize with their employees but also need to keep the business on track, Brinkman said.

But she does not see employers using COVID as a “cover” for discrimination. “I haven’t seen a client of mine hide improper activity. I see employees using COVID to raise the flag to save themselves,” she said.

While lawyers at Nilan are working from home, Brinkman misses her personal face time with her firm’s newer lawyers. “I love mentoring young associates,” she said. “I had opportunities at a young age and I’m trying to pass them on.”


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