A few years ago, Target Corporation was facing two potentially costly class action lawsuits that sought billions of dollars in damages. The company certainly would have been in its rights to retain a large, heavyweight firm to fight the case, but its legal department instead went with a Minneapolis boutique—Nilan Johnson Lewis.
Why entrust such weighty matters to a 48-attorney firm? Because Nilan attorneys have worked closely with Target for more than 13 years, proving the firm to be an effective, responsive, flexible, and knowledgeable partner on numerous matters, says Jim Rowader, Jr., a Target vice president and the company’s general counsel for employee and labor relations. In this instance, the Nilan team defeated class certification in one case, convinced the plaintiffs to drop their class claims in the other case, and successfully resolved the remaining claims in both cases.
Nilan’s attorneys, Rowader says, are “extremely smart and good at what they do, and they have such a deep knowledge of our business and our operations so there is no ramp-up time for them. Their desire to spend the time and get to know the client and understand our business pays off in situations like that.”
When 27 lawyers came together to form the Nilan Johnson Lewis firm in 1996, they aimed to offer premium client service in a few practice areas. Currently, those areas of practice are product liability and mass tort defense, commercial litigation, labor and employment, health care law and consulting, and business law.
The firm’s founders sought to provide world class legal services through a cost-effective approach. “It was the universal feeling of being client-centric, and everything we did was focused on our clients and very little on us,” says Mike Nilan, a director and a founding shareholder of the firm. “Some things were unique at the time but more common now, like not giving anyone window offices or bigger offices. That’s a small example, but we try to take absolutely everything we do and focus on what our clients need, and [we] think about what brings more value to our clients.”
In Target’s case, that means Nilan attorneys spend time in the company’s stores, visit distribution centers, and work hand-in-hand with in-house counsel. When a Target attorney takes time off for maternity leave, a Nilan lawyer often fills in at corporate headquarters. “Their fee structure is very attractive, and it makes it feasible for us to have them spend the time to learn our business and build close relationships,” says Rowader. “It helps them be very effective in the legal work they do for us.”
The firm uses this approach with all of its clients, giving it a unique formula for success. Notable achievements include representing one of the largest chemical manufacturers in the country for 20 years on nearly 200 cases and never losing one. Nilan handles diverse and complex litigation for clients including Cargill, Siemens, Polaris, ING, and Johnson & Johnson.
More than half of the firm’s attorneys and 48 percent of its shareholders are women—the national average is 19 percent, according to the National Association for Law Placement. In 2010, the firm won the Minnesota Women Lawyers’ Leadership Award and was named one of the 50 Best Law Firms for Women by the National Association for Female Executives and Flex-Time Lawyers. “Across the board, our clients are looking for diversity as an important part of providing services to them,” Nilan says, “just as they are trying to maintain a diverse work force.”
NILAN JOHNSON LEWIS, PA:
Employees: 92 (48 attorneys)
2011 revenue: $23 million