John Conard and Kaarin Nelson Schaffer: Trial Ready, Battle Tested

By H. K. Wilson 

There is a strength that comes with making a stand in the courtroom accompanied by a steadfast belief in justice. When such conviction is accompanied by preparedness and skill, victory can be achieved no matter the might of the opponent or unpopularity of the cause.

The cause of justice gives purpose to criminal defense and plaintiff’s employment trial attorneys John Conard and Kaarin Nelson Schaffer, co-founders of Conard Nelson Schaffer, PLLC. They dare to amplify voices that might otherwise be silenced, ensuring that justice is both impartial and accessible. They promise to fight for their clients, to help tell their stories in a way that illuminates the truth and demands fair resolution — and they make good on it.

Conard and Nelson Schaffer have long respected one another and found kinship in their views on social justice. They are both battle-tested trial veterans, with an impressive record of wins and an array of professional honors. Each is teaching faculty of the distinguished Trial Lawyers College, a nonprofit learning institution dedicated to training lawyers and judges who are committed to the jury system and to representing and obtaining justice for individuals, and to protecting the rights of people from corporate and government oppression.

In the meantime, I’m having lot of fun litigating them aggressively, so when they do settle, I’m getting really good results for my clients.”

Kaarin Nelson Schaffer

After assembling more than half a dozen top lawyers for the defense of former Starkey Laboratories President Jerry Ruzicka in one of the biggest white-collar trials of the last decade, Conard decided it was time to create a “more well-rounded trial practice. I’d been doing some consulting, and some people were saying, ‘Why not try civil?’ I had known Kaarin when we went to public defender trial school together when we were both baby attorneys. We developed a professional respect and friendship. We talked about what it would look like to start the process of building a trial practice, and before COVID, it became real.”

The duo opened Conard Nelson Schaffer in February 2020, and only a month later, the pandemic shut down much of the world. The resulting political landscape made the time ripe for Conard to seek civil trial opportunities in states where the courts remained open. Applying the same methods that have earned him renown as a criminal defense lawyer, he achieved a record-breaking, multimillion-dollar verdict in his first civil jury trial.

“For me, the chance came in Nebraska, where a firm had a very strong plaintiff’s civil litigation practice. They asked me to come first chair some cases. I hit the ball out of the park on the first case, which allowed me to keep the pace of trials going during the pandemic as everything else slowed down.”

Recognized as one of the top trial lawyers in the nation, Conard is certified by the Minnesota State Bar Association as a criminal law specialist. With a focus on complex white collar and criminal defense matters, he has handled more than 2,000 cases in state and federal courts throughout the country, taking roughly 70 trials to verdict. He has achieved favorable results in cases spanning conspiracy, drug crimes, felony assault, sex crimes, wire fraud and first-degree murder. Conard’s practice also includes professional board representation. He is frequently engaged by other firms as a first chair trial attorney, consultant and trainer.

John Conard

After his first civil victory in Nebraska, Conard tried another case to victory in Iowa. “Given the facts of the case, we got a huge verdict in a case profile nobody really wanted. Earlier in my career, I was a public defender and a prosecutor. In both roles, some tough cases have to be tried, and you do the best job you can with it. As a result, I might be more willing to try ugly cases than the average civil litigator. Surprising and fun things can happen when you do.”

Conard achieved a “not guilty” first-degree murder verdict following the Starkey trial, and while he maintains that criminal defense work is still his first love, he says he is enjoying the new challenges that come with civil trials. “In the future, I have a variety of cases I’m working on — a surgical medical malpractice case, some nursing home cases, a brain injury case on a work site. It’s been really fascinating. I don’t do the litigation; the firm that hires me generally does that. But whenever I have a litigation question, Kaarin is there with answers. We have a good ability to co-produce trial rhetoric and trial theory together.”

Kaarin Nelson Schaffer

Nelson Schaffer is a fierce advocate on behalf of employees in employment-related matters, including sexual harassment, whistleblower retaliation, discrimination and other forms of unlawful workplace conduct by employers. She has spent her legal career in the courtroom, from her years as a public defender to her subsequent experience in private practice as a criminal defense and plaintiff’s employment attorney. Named a Minnesota Rising Star or Super Lawyer every year since 2014, she was honored as a Minnesota Attorney of the Year by Minnesota Lawyer in 2021.

A vivid legal storyteller with a genuine love for people, Nelson Schaffer was seeking more occasions to take civil cases to trial. Her timely reconnection with Conard provided just the opportunity she was after. “It can be hard to push these cases to trial,” she says. “In the meantime, I’m having lot of fun litigating them aggressively, so when they do settle, I’m getting really good results for my clients.”

“Kaarin has had a monster verdict in a case a lot of people wouldn’t have taken,” Conard says. “My perception is that her cases are settling for numbers that sometimes make trial impossible. It reflects the unexpectedly large award in the last case she tried to verdict.”

A key factor that makes both attorneys such a force in the courtroom is that they are always ready for trial. “No matter the issue, our firm is gonna come ready,” Nelson Schaffer says. “We are so comfortable and ready to go to trial that we don’t encourage clients to settle for less than their cases are worth. We want to go to trial. Our goal is to try the cases and get every penny we can for them.”

There are plenty of times when one of us is struggling, but knowing the other person has your back and understands you makes it wonderful in this stressful type of work.”

John Conard

While Conard had previously practiced solo, founding a firm was a new experience for Nelson Schaffer. In their collaborative partnership, both have found a creative and intellectually stimulating space to explore ideas and craft high-impact results for clients.

“I was not unhappy as a solo,” Conard says, “but I am more effective in this arrangement than without it. Now both of us are taking cases as trial counsel out of state. When you take over somebody else’s baby, the dynamic can be different. It’s nice to have a place to openly explore ideas and other parts of that dynamic with someone who is credible and has actually done it before.”

“It’s nice for me because we both have significant trial experience,” Nelson Schaffer echoes. “We also both come from the same place because we went to the Trial College together. We’re willing to talk about challenges as good friends who trust each other. There are plenty of times when one of us is struggling, but knowing the other person has your back and understands you makes it wonderful in this stressful type of work. We each have distinct practices, but we are also constantly consulting with each other, especially closer to trial. We give each other feedback and ideas. We get the benefits of both being independent and having someone we can rely on. It really is the best of both worlds.”

Compassion is a word you’ll hear spoken often by these attorneys, and it is a quality they say lives side by side with advocacy. Nelson Schaffer explains, “Compassion comes with taking the time to get to know clients, understanding their stories, goals, what happened to them and how it felt. Also to understand everybody else’s role and what happened to them and how it felt. It is the human element present in every case. Everything we do is about people’s lives. Everyone comes with their own stories and feelings.”

“In pitched battle, we have an adversary in the courtroom, but we laugh when we see lawyers that are aggressive,” Conard says. “I don’t know if being interpersonally aggressive with opposing counsel in front of a jury has ever worked. Adding to Kaarin’s statement, this philosophy also fits with how we construct a trial presentation because we have compassion for the jurors. We focus on what they need to reach the right outcome. As a law firm, we don’t subscribe to the ‘jurors are stupid and we’re here to manipulate them’ view. Jurors are generally good, decent, honest people who deeply want to do the right thing. They are often put in an impossible situation, and we can help them with that.”

Their joint training by the Trial Lawyers College has shaped Conard and Nelson Schaffer’s unique approach to courtroom advocacy, reinforcing their professional partnership. Conard says, “A fundamental component of the method is to be authentic about yourself and what’s happening. That unvarnished sort of approach makes it a whole lot easier for two trial lawyers to work together and be constructive.”

That authenticity shows up in other ways, too. Together, Conard and Nelson Schaffer continue to win significant awards year after year, yet you won’t see a single trophy hanging on the walls in their offices. Instead, you’ll see art decorating the walls, some of it their own, some of it the work of local artists. Their office uniform typically consists of jeans.

Another fun fact about Conard … the law was not his first career. Some might call him an adrenaline junky, and they might be right. As a youth, Conard had two dreams — to be a race car driver and a lawyer. He is among the fortunate few who have made their dreams come true, twice over.

“We expect to win cases by being who we are,” Nelson Schaffer says. “We are Kaarin and John. We don’t change that when we walk into a courtroom.”

“Jurors do notice that,” Conard adds. “There is a lot of training out there that purports to teach lawyers how to be authentic. Why not just be real? Just be who you are. It also makes the work a lot more fun.”

The boldness with which Conard and Nelson Schaffer show up every day also inspires courage in their clients. “One of the gifts of wanting to take cases to trial is that we are able to be totally frank with clients about the outcome,” Nelson Schaffer says. “We’re not operating from a place of fear or a need to settle.”

Conard sums up, “What really matters to us is that we put on an excellent trial.”

Conard Nelson Schaffer, PLLC

121 South Eighth St. Suite 1425
Minneapolis, MN 55402
(612) 808-9827

Practice Areas