Janel M. Dressen: Born to be Advocate

Janel Dressen
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“While I chose not to be a traditional family law attorney, my practice focuses on business divorces involving families, which tend to be very emotionally charged”

Some would argue that great trial attorneys are born, not made. In the second grade, Janel Dressen declared to her classmates that she was going to be a lawyer. Dressen is not sure how she arrived at that conclusion at such a tender age, but she can surmise that her inborn talent for debate must have prompted some adult to suggest she would make an excellent attorney.

Dressen’s confidence in herself and her purpose spurred her to excel in school despite the early loss of her father and growing up in the small town of Sleepy Eye, where her young single mother owned and operated a bar and restaurant. The first in her family to go to college, Dressen worked her way through school, finishing her undergraduate studies in three years to keep costs down. She was determined to go to law school, and she did, at the University of South Dakota Law School, also a decision she made to save money.

After her first year as a law student, Dressen spent a summer working for the prosecuting attorney’s office in a small town in South Dakota, and she learned that criminal law was not her calling. However, she knew she belonged in the courtroom, whether that meant practicing family law or civil litigation. After her second year of law school, she had a summer clerkship at Lindquist & Vennum where she was offered a position in the litigation department after graduation.

Dressen’s first assignment at Lindquist set the course for her entire career. “I worked on an appeal for a shareholder buyout case for a closely held company. The Minnesota Court of Appeals reported that decision – which has turned out to be a decision that is routinely cited in shareholder rights cases. The Gunderson v. Alliance of Computer Professionals decision involves Minn. Stat. § 302A.751, which specifically governs shareholder rights in Minnesota closely held companies. Since then, a significant portion of my law practice has been representing families, companies and individuals involved in disputes over their closely held businesses.”

Her career was off to a great start, and Dressen anticipated a long future with the firm. “But after nine months,” she recalled, “two mentors at the firm, Richard Ostlund and Randy Gullickson, decided to leave Lindquist & Vennum and partner with Joe Anthony. I was working on several cases with them at the time and they asked me to join them. It was a difficult decision so early in my career, but the idea of working in a smaller boutique firm where all of the lawyers were focused on business litigation as well as having the opportunity to learn from a concentrated group of experienced and highly successful trial attorneys was very appealing to me.”

Dressen has spent the bulk of her 17-year career at Anthony Ostlund Baer & Louwagie P.A., where she has crafted a practice centered on the resolution of business and employment matters involving shareholder, partnership, officer, and director disputes; valuation and appraisal matters; employment matters; business competitor disputes; and bank-related as well as bank regulatory matters through mediation, arbitration and litigation.

“I represent both plaintiffs and defendants in my practice, where plaintiffs are usually minority shareholders and/or corporate executives and defendants are usually the companies. Often, the companies are owned by families or individuals who are not only business partners, but consider themselves family. While I chose not to be a traditional family law attorney, my practice focuses on business divorces involving families, which tend to be very emotionally charged cases when there is a separation of a family member or shareholder who has often worked with the business since the business was founded.”

This area of law draws upon Dressen’s keen ability to calm her clients’ fraught emotions while guiding them through complex business issues. “The part I really enjoy is helping people sort through their emotions while making complicated legal and business decisions. I’m driven to be a problem solver, and I enjoy figuring out the intricacies of the legal, business and personal issues that converge in these cases. I work with people during a crisis that hopefully they will never have to experience again. After spending so much time and energy working through one of the toughest periods of their lives, I get to know my clients, their businesses and what’s important to them intimately. We develop a close relationship and often form lasting friendships.”

Dressen has achieved outstanding results in a number of high-profile, high-stakes cases. Earlier this year, she prevailed in a $45.2 million shareholder buyout in favor of her client, Kim Lund. She is also representing Melanie Barry in the much-publicized Twin City Fan matter.

However, Dressen insists that it is not only her legal skill, but also the firm’s culture of teamwork and inclusion among some of the region’s top trial attorneys that make these successes possible. She stated, “I don’t think I could do this high level of complicated legal work without the support of my firm and mentors. Everyone at Anthony Ostlund is dedicated to working hard, providing top level service to our clients, working as a team and supporting one another to meet our clients’ needs and expectations. I’ve been fortunate to learn from the best.”

Dressen did take a brief sabbatical from the firm in 2007, when following the birth of her second child, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She decided that a more regulated schedule and less pressured work dynamic might be a better fit for her circumstances, and she did a yearlong stint as in-house litigation counsel at Valspar Corporation. “After a year, I missed private practice. What I missed most was being in the courtroom and advocating for clients daily.”

Anthony Ostlund was delighted to have her back. She returned as a shareholder in 2008 with restored health and a renewed passion for trial practice. She also came better equipped with an insider perspective on business litigation. “I learned how legal strategy fits into the overall picture of a corporation and what is important to a legal department in its relationships and expectations with and of outside counsel. I worked with 10 to 15 outside firms in that year, and I learned what I was looking for from those firms as the client and what I was and wasn’t getting from them. It really helped me improve my client service when I returned to Anthony Ostlund.”

During her brief time away from the firm, Dressen also affirmed what she already knew about herself in the second grade – she is a born advocate. As a busy wife and now mother of five children in a blended family (with four dogs to boot), Dressen encourages women in the profession to hold on to their ambition in the law, whatever that may be. “This can be a challenging career choice for anyone, but it can be harder for women for various reasons. For younger women starting out in private practice, and especially litigation, if you’re looking at having a family or already have a young family, it’s easy to give up on private practice, particularly litigation. It can feel like too much. But I encourage you to stick with it if this is what drives and fulfills you. It really does get easier. Kids become more self-sufficient, and with experience, you stop second guessing yourself, and the challenges you have when you’re starting out as a new attorney go away. Seek out a place where you have support from your co-workers and mentors. I think it’s extremely important that we have strong females litigating cases. I want to see just as many women in the courtroom in their 50s and 60s as I see men, and I want to do what I can to help make that happen.”

Dressen also credits her family for their encouragement and support. She said frankly, “My life is crazy. I couldn’t do this intense, demanding job without a husband and family at home that is supportive and understanding of my desire to be successful in representing my clients. I think it’s important to show my children that you can work hard and be successful, and still be an involved parent. Technology gives me a degree of flexibility so I can be there for their activities, while still attending to my clients’ needs. I truly try to cherish every minute with my kids. Even if I have to run them around until 10 at night, I look at five years from now and readily recognize I won’t be doing this anymore with them. Life goes by too fast, and you have to enjoy every moment.”

Somehow, she also manages to find time to volunteer for social causes she believes in, including the Academy of Whole Learning, a private school for children with autism. “I try to teach our kids that life isn’t all about us. There’s so much we can do to help others, and we need to do so.”

Dressen is one of the lucky few who was certain of her path early in life, and she has stayed true to her course through personal and professional challenges. Her constancy marks her as an extraordinary advocate with the strength to stand with and for her clients, guiding them to favorable solutions during troubled times.

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