Meet the Women Leading Minnesota Law Firms
From left to right: Alana Bassin (Nelson Mullins), Keiko Sugisaka (Maslon), Amanda Cialkowski (Nilan Johnson Lewis), Tami Diehm (Winthrop & Weinstine), Gina Kastel (Faegre Drinker), Karla Vehrs (Ballard Spahr) Photographs by Nate Ryan

Meet the Women Leading Minnesota Law Firms

In Minnesota's largest law firms, women are increasingly being chosen for the top leadership positions.

After abandoning plans to become a history professor, Gina Kastel had no clear career path in the mid-1990s, when she was working as a receptionist in St. Paul for U.S. Rep. Bruce Vento.

She had a bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame in liberal studies, which, Kastel says, “is not the most marketable thing in the universe.” A native of the small town of Pine City, Minn., Kastel thought working in Vento’s Washington, D.C., office would be exciting, so she pursued and landed a job there as a legislative aide.

“I had no plans to be a lawyer until I was about 25 years old,” she recalls. It was her D.C. experience—surrounded by lawyers—that led her to Harvard Law School, where she graduated in 1999. In November, Kastel was chosen to serve as chair of the Faegre Drinker law firm, which employs more than 1,200 attorneys and other professionals. She’s based in the Minneapolis office of the law firm, which has offices in 21 locations in the United States, London, and Shanghai.

Kastel, who started her new job April 1, is among a major contingent of women lawyers who’ve risen to top leadership jobs in law firms with Minnesota offices. Women are now leading one-third of the 15 largest law firm offices in the Twin Cities. Some firms are headquartered in Minnesota, while other firms are national in scope and have Twin Cities offices.

In the U.S., women held only 12% of managing partner roles in 2020, according to data from the National Association of Women Lawyers. In 2023, why is there a critical mass of women in Twin Cities’ law firm leadership?

“The Twin Cities has a really strong business community,” Kastel says. “There’s a lot of focus among the larger companies and smaller ones, too, on diversity and inclusion.” Gender diversity in law firms is something that business clients notice. Back in 1999, Kastel says, “I joined the firm [pre-merger Faegre & Benson] when there were no women on our management committee.”

Alana Bassin, managing partner of the Minneapolis-area office of Nelson Mullins, cites another reason for women’s progress in law firms. “Part of it is women aren’t afraid to make the ask anymore to get to be in leadership,” Bassin says.

Nearly 17 years ago, Marianne Short made history when Minneapolis-based Dorsey & Whitney announced that Short would become its first female managing partner. Short was among the first women to serve in that key role among the 100 largest law firms in the United States.

Short had a distinctive background. She had represented some of the firm’s biggest clients, had been elected to Dorsey’s policy committee, and had served on Minnesota’s Court of Appeals for a dozen years.

“I was an active litigation person, so I did know a lot of clients,” she recalls, but she added that she’s unsure precisely why she was selected to lead the firm beginning in 2007. “If you asked my siblings, they’d say it was because I was the bossiest,” quips Short, one of seven children of the late Bob Short, a prominent Twin Cities businessman and lawyer.

Short, who left Dorsey in 2013 to serve as chief legal officer of UnitedHealth Group, says one of the key responsibilities of a firm’s managing partner is to examine the “different [practice] areas in which you want to focus because you can’t focus on everything.” Short led Dorsey through the Great Recession and the following years of recovery, dealing with business development, strategy planning, office expansion decisions, and oversight of potential client conflicts.

What it takes to lead

In Short’s case, it’s not surprising she pursued a career in law. In addition to watching courtroom dramas on Perry Mason as a teenager, she was constantly exposed to people in the legal system. “I just had a lot of politics around in my mind from my father’s career,” she says, and several of her father’s friends were judges and lawyers. She also learned about ferreting out facts, she says, because “my uncle was a detective.”

Short, who graduated from Boston College Law School, learned early in life what it took to be an attorney and a leader.

Karla Vehrs, managing partner of Ballard Spahr’s Minneapolis office, had her epiphany about the law when she was a University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduate studying in Spain.

“I grew up in a blue-collar family in Wisconsin and did not have parents who went to college,” Vehrs says, so her experience living abroad opened her eyes to a potential legal career.

“I was living with a host family,” she says. “I remember walking out in the room and announcing, ‘I think I know what I want to do. I think I want to go to law school.’ The dad in the family barely even looked up from the newspaper he was reading, and he was like, ‘Wow, most surprising announcement ever,’ in a very sarcastic tone.”

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Vehrs laughs while telling the story. The host father was a retired factory worker, and Vehrs says during her time in Spain she encountered a “pretty traditional society in terms of gender norms.”

That was the case when Vehrs and the host father were watching Spain’s equivalent of Meet the Press on a Sunday morning and a woman panelist was talking about “gender issues and women’s opportunities to advance into wholly different positions in society,” Vehrs recalls.

She remembers the host father’s retort was: “I bet she couldn’t even show you how to fry an egg if you asked her.” In response, she says, “I just flew off the handle.”

Vehrs turned 21 during her study in Spain, and she says the host father enjoyed provoking arguments, so she learned how to hold her own in making her case.

“Women deserve every opportunity that men do, and any hint, any whiff of an attitude to the contrary has always prompted a strong response from me,” she says. Her passionate views about women leaders that she articulated while she was in Spain have served Vehrs well as she’s built a legal career in the Twin Cities.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School in 2006, she joined Lindquist & Vennum, which merged into Ballard Spahr in 2018. A year after the merger, Vehrs was selected to serve as the top leader of the firm’s Minneapolis office.

She says she didn’t have a step-by-step road map that would lead her to firm leadership, but instead she kept an open mind about opportunities and adapted to circumstances as they changed. 

“I’ve been very focused from the beginning on having good relationships with colleagues, with clients, with other lawyers at different firms, and all of those relationships have allowed me to chart my course through my career,” Vehrs says.

“I remember from the outset asking a lot of questions and making observations about the workings of the firm and how things fit together, what our path was, what our strategy was, where we were collectively headed, and wanting to understand how those pieces fit together,” she says.

“When you are somebody who shows that interest and that level of caring about the organization, I think that gets noticed,” says Vehrs, who’s now charged with ensuring the health, vitality, and market position of Ballard’s Minneapolis office.

Kastel, in her new role at Faegre Drinker, says, “I’m the chair of the board and I’m the CEO of the firm, so I have very broad responsibility for our overall operation.” Just prior to her promotion, Kastel served on the firm’s executive leadership team and board, with the title of executive partner. After Faegre Baker Daniels and Drinker Biddle & Reath merged in February 2020, she led the integration of the staffs of lawyers and consultants.

Marianne Short

“A law firm is just more like a family. A company can be a little bit pushy, because people are trying to go up the ladder, and sometimes you are in the way.”

Marianne Short, former managing partner, Dorsey & Whitney

Now she’s leading a big firm with no designated headquarters, and she’ll aim to expand the firm’s client base, attract top legal talent, and strengthen relationships with existing clients.

A tremendous ability to build and maintain effective relationships is at the core of how Kastel rose to the top of a large law firm.

“One of the most important things when you are a leader in a law firm, or any professional services firm, is that you lead peers,” Kastel says. “We don’t have the same chain of command that you would have in a corporation. You have to lead through informal influence and help a very bright, analytical, slightly skeptical group of people see the wisdom of whatever it is that you are trying to achieve and get them on board.”

The daughter of two teachers, she says, “my style comes from an educator’s mindset of helping people understand why we are doing this, how it will help move the firm forward.”

Kastel built relationships with peers but also said “yes” when leaders in the firm asked her to take on special projects or new roles. Tom Froehle, co-chair of Faegre Drinker when Kastel was promoted to firm chair, was a key mentor and sponsor for Kastel.

It was Froehle who asked Kastel to serve as practice group leader in health care at Faegre Baker Daniels. “Then in 2016, the board selected Tom as the next chair of the firm for a term that would start in 2017, and he asked me to basically take his job, which was the vice chair and chief operating partner role,” Kastel says.

She earned that level of confidence by doing a good job with her law practice and demonstrating she could lead in positions of increasing responsibility. When she shares advice with young women lawyers, Kastel says she tells them to believe in themselves and to avoid underestimating their ability to lead from their current positions. “When people recognize they actually have a lot of ability to shape the world around them, that helps them step up into leadership roles,” she says.

Law firm leaders and mothers

Tami Diehm took an unconventional path to become president of Minneapolis-based Winthrop & Weinstine, which she’s helped grow to 166 lawyers.

A native of Coon Rapids who earned a full scholarship to Augsburg University, Diehm got married at 18 and then chose to be a stay-at-home mother after she earned her bachelor’s degree.

“When my kids were 3, 5, and 7, I went through a divorce,” Diehm says. “So I decided that it was time to figure out what I wanted to do professionally.” She thought she could make a good living as a city planner, but she would first need to earn a master’s degree in urban planning.

Her life was dramatically altered after she had lunch with her Augsburg adviser, Andy Aoki. Diehm had asked Aoki to write her a letter of recommendation for her graduate school application, but he didn’t think she sounded very passionate about her plans.

“If you could do anything, what would you do?” Diehm recalls Aoki asking. At the time, Diehm was serving on the Columbia Heights Planning Commission. “Well, if I could do anything, I would go to law school,” she says she told Aoki. “When the really juicy cases would come before [the Planning Commission], people would bring their lawyers.”

Aoki told Diehm he’d write the recommendation letter on the condition she explore attending law school. Because she was a single mother, she didn’t think law school was an option.

“I am a person of my word and I checked into it,” Diehm says. “I took the LSAT without telling anybody.” She did so well on the LSAT that she was offered a full scholarship to William Mitchell College of Law, now Mitchell Hamline School of Law. She enrolled and adopted a new daily routine. She would drop off her sons James and Braden at elementary school, and then drive to St. Paul, where she’d drop her daughter Kira off at a preschool before going to her law school classes. “Then I would pick her up and pick her brothers up, and we’d all go home and study,” Diehm says.

After graduating from law school, she had a prestigious judicial law clerkship with Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Russell Anderson. “He helped shape my whole view of the legal profession,” Diehm says. “You can be a lawyer and you can do legal work and charge clients, or you can be the type of lawyer that is going to contribute to the profession as a whole and to the people coming up underneath you. That is just something I saw every day with Russ.”

After she completed her clerkship in the middle of 2004, she joined Winthrop & Weinstine and never left. Her practice has included representing clients in complex real estate transactions, and she’s an expert on campaign finance laws and city government issues. She was elected to the firm’s board of directors in 2018, and in late 2020 she was selected to become the firm’s president in early 2021.

Diehm says law firms historically were quite rigid in what they expected from associates and partners or shareholders. “I have tried very hard to shift that perspective internally,” she says. “If we are going to retain talent, we need to build an environment that offers people flexibility so this job remains inspiring and motivating and they can achieve success throughout different phases of their lives.”

Like Diehm, Amanda Cialkowski took an indirect route to law firm leadership. In January, Nilan Johnson Lewis, based in downtown Minneapolis, announced that Cialkowski was succeeding Heidi Christianson as the firm’s president.

After graduating from Carleton College in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Cialkowski decided to earn a law degree from the University of Oregon School of Law. During her law school years, she worked for the attorney general’s office, then briefly served as a prosecutor after graduation. She also taught at the University of Illinois College of Law. “I was firmly convinced I would never be in private practice,” she says.

But her outlook changed in 2000 when she and her husband decided to make their home in the Twin Cities to be near her mother and siblings. She decided to join a relatively new firm that was founded by five men, which is now called Nilan Johnson Lewis.

She started building a career as a litigator. “I primarily do catastrophic injury trials. I also do toxic exposure trials,” Cialkowski says. “It’s a nice combination of my background in teaching and in psychology because so much of being a trial lawyer in front of juries is persuading them of the justness of your side’s story.”

Cialkowski and her husband, also an attorney, have two daughters, ages 13 and 16.

“When the kids were little, we had one moment in time where both Dave and I were in trial simultaneously,” she says. “And you have that moment of, ‘Did anyone go get the kids from day care today?’ ” She says she felt like she had “too many balls in the air” and was “doing everything poorly.”

She wanted and needed a change. “I talked to lots of other women attorneys from all over the country about what they had done and how they handled being in law firms with young families,” she says. “And I got great advice that you can take a step back and it doesn’t mean that you are leaving private practice.”

From left to right: Karla Vehrs, Alana Bassin, and Amanda Cialkowski
From left to right: Karla Vehrs, Alana Bassin, and Amanda Cialkowski

About 10 years ago, Cialkowski walked into the office of Matt Damon, the firm’s president. “Matt, I just can’t do this anymore. This doesn’t feel good. It’s not working for me,” she recalls saying.

His response: “Tell me what you want. Tell me what will work for you.”

Her ask: “I really would like to get my girls on the bus in the morning, and then I’d like to be there in the afternoon when they get off.”

Damon concluded: “OK, let’s figure out how to make that work.”

Cialkowski got the flexible schedule she wanted, and when she was at trial her relatives backed her up with child care for her daughters.

“I have no question if that conversation had gone a different way that I’m sure I would have been one of the statistics of women who left private practice,” she says. “Instead, I am here now a decade or more later and running the firm.”

In 2023, many law firms are offering greater flexibility on schedules and career tracks, and several provide 16 weeks of paid leave for lawyers after the birth of a child.

Diversifying law firms

Attorney Keiko Sugisaka’s parents are both Japanese, though they came to the United States at different times. “My mother and her entire family were interned during World War II,” she says. “That sparked my interest in law. It’s part of the understanding of the intersection of law and, frankly, social issues and other politics.”

As a student at Park High School in Cottage Grove, she took part in a mock trial program and then went on to Macalester College, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in speech communication and law and society.

A 1996 graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School, Sugisaka is the board chair of the Minneapolis firm of Maslon, where she’s built a reputation as a trial lawyer handling product liability, complex business, and intellectual property cases.

In recent years, white women have been breaking into law firm leadership in the Twin Cities, but that hasn’t been the case for BIPOC women lawyers. As an Asian woman, Sugisaka is a rarity among law firm leaders in Minnesota. “I’ve practiced here [in the Twin Cities] a long time, and the numbers of diverse attorneys at equity partner levels have not changed significantly,” she says.

“Being elected to a firm leadership role takes time and experience,” Sugisaka says. “Besides being able to demonstrate success as a lawyer, you have to be trusted by your partners to exercise good judgment and be a good steward of the firm.”

Retaining attorneys of color is a major challenge in Twin Cities law firms, she says. “Retention issues with diverse attorneys are even greater than with female attorneys,” she says. Some BIPOC attorneys leave law firms to work in corporate legal departments with better work schedules than the heavy time demands frequently found in firms. In addition, some BIPOC lawyers leave the Twin Cities for other U.S. cities with more diverse populations.

Sugisaka says law firms and corporate legal departments have joined together to address these challenges through an association called Twin Cities Diversity in Practice. Its purpose is to attract, recruit, advance, and retain lawyers of color.

“It makes a difference that you have diversity in a room, whether it’s gender or race or educational background,” says Short, former managing partner of Dorsey. She also encourages geographic diversity, noting that people can have different perspectives if they grew up on the East Coast or in the Midwest or were raised in a big city or on a farm.

“I don’t want someone just saying exactly what I might be thinking,” Short says. “I want them to help me think differently. On the board of a law firm, [diversity] is really important, especially as you start merging with other law groups, that you have representation. What you are really looking for is the richness of thought.”

The business of law

When she was growing up in Toronto, attorney Alana Bassin learned what it took to compete and to juggle multiple titles. Her father, Sherwood “Sherry” Bassin, had a law degree and taught legal courses during the day. “His night job and weekend job and the rest of his life was 100% hockey,” Bassin says, noting his long career in hockey team management.

Bassin has drawn upon her own grit and ability to work long hours to establish a Twin Cities office for Nelson Mullins, a national law firm. She and several other attorneys left their former firm in 2022 to join Nelson Mullins, which has expanded to 21 lawyers in the Minneapolis-area office.

More than half of the attorneys Bassin oversees locally are women. She’s continuing to work as a trial attorney, including representing medical device companies. She also has a firmwide role as an assistant leader for about 400 litigation lawyers.

Bassin is among several women serving as managing partners of Twin Cities offices attached to national law firms. It’s a job with business and people management responsibilities.

Part of her role is helping young women lawyers build client portfolios, or what the legal profession calls a “book of business.”

“Business development coaching is incredibly important,” Bassin says. “In law school, they teach you how to be a lawyer, but they don’t teach you how to get clients or have clients hire you.”

Bassin, a mother of four, also understands the challenges of simultaneously being a mother and a lawyer. How law firms support working mother attorneys affects retention. “When I had Talia in 2003, we had an eight-week maternity leave at my old firm,” Bassin says. When Talia was six months old, the baby spent some time in Texas. “I didn’t want to miss trial opportunities, so I hired a nanny and took her to trial,” Bassin says.

Sugisaka, the mother of three teens, shares Bassin’s commitment to support and retain women attorneys throughout their working lives. To make advancements in a law firm, Sugisaka says, you need more than a record of great legal work. “You don’t necessarily just need a mentor, you need a sponsor or a champion, someone who is going to say your name in a room,” she says, when career opportunities are being discussed.

“You have to lead through informal influence and help a very bright, analytical, slightly skeptical group of people see the wisdom of whatever it is that you are trying to achieve and get them on board.”

—Gina Kastel, Faegre Drinker board chair

Talented women long have pursued C-suite jobs in public corporations as well as leadership roles in law firms, and men still dominate in both arenas. Short, who recently retired from UnitedHealth Group, has worked in both settings and had many corporate clients.

“There’s a big difference between a law firm and a corporation. It’s mainly because a law firm is about partnership, so you feel like you are more connected. Whereas, in a company, it’s much more about what level you are at,” she says.

“A law firm is just more like a family,” Short says. “A company can be a little bit pushy, because people are trying to go up the ladder, and sometimes you are in the way.”

The fact that so many Twin Cities women have risen to law firm leadership by 2023 is a reason for optimism about women’s career potential in the legal field.

The roster of women leaders continues to grow. In mid-March, intellectual property firm Merchant & Gould announced that Heather Kliebenstein will become managing director, the first woman to hold that position in the firm’s 123-year history.

On a personal level, Diehm is thrilled that her daughter, Kira, who attended preschool at the church across from William Mitchell while Diehm was in classes, is now an attorney at Bassford Remele. “Having women in leadership roles in law firms is so important to me,” Diehm says. “I want to show her and the next generation of young women that the path forward is there and that there are people who have blazed the trail for them.”

While Bassin is savoring the progress, she also emphasizes that women lawyers are a long way from gender parity in firm leadership. “Diversity in the room is so important because that’s how we got pay equity,” Bassin says. “Having women in the room is how we got better maternity leave. Diversity in thought and women in leadership truly make a difference, and it’s important we keep fighting this battle.”