Justin Weinberg: A Storied Past Informs a Dynamic Future

Justin Weinberg
2024 Feature Nominations

Attorney at Law Magazine Minnesota Vol. 10 No. 7

In June 2021, the Minneapolis Star Tribune named Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP a Top Workplace based upon an independent audit conducted by organizational research firm Energage. Despite the recent merger with Briggs and Morgan, P.A. in 2020 and the pandemic that soon followed — ultimately sending half of the firm’s employees to work outside the office for more than a year — Taft’s intentional culture proved deeply embedded in the hearts of its people. The audit’s high engagement score demonstrated that attorneys and staff alike were enthusiastic about participating, and time again, they used the words “collaborative,” “respectful” and “inclusive” to describe their work environment.

Results like these do not come about by chance. They are the legacy of leaders who have striven to understand the needs of both clients and colleagues, and who have gone outside the norm to devise bold methods for meeting those needs.

Stewarding a Great Legacy

At the start of 2021, Taft Partner Justin Weinberg succeeded Steven J. Ryan in the role of Minneapolis Partner-in-Charge. A graduate of William Mitchell College of Law, Weinberg is a Minnesota native whose attorney uncle inspired him to pursue a career in the law. After establishing his outside general counsel, commercial real estate development and construction practice, Weinberg joined Briggs seven years ago, where he enjoyed the resources and collaborative framework to support his expanding roster of clients.

Weinberg is intent on advancing Taft’s status as a forward-thinking commercial law firm whose influence, despite being a Midwest-rooted firm, reaches both coasts as well as international shores. To do so, Weinberg said he is continuing Ryan’s model of team leadership.

“It’s not just one person doing the work. We always have the next generation of leaders right here. Our culture has always been to boost people up so they can step into the role when they need to. At the end of the merger, Steve decided he had spent 20-plus years in leadership, and it was best for him and the firm to focus on client development and lateral hiring in the marketplace. Given my role on the executive committee, it was a natural progression for me to take this role. He wasn’t worried about his title, but putting the interests of the law firm first. When lateral hires ask where the leadership opportunities are, I can tell them to take it from a guy who was here seven years and is now leading the largest office in the firm — there are opportunities for everybody if they demonstrate good leadership traits.”

Taking a proactive stance, Weinberg and his team have intently focused on lateral hiring. Since January 1, 2021, they have added or obtained commitments from almost 40 lawyers and staff — increasing the size of the Minneapolis office by more than 10 percent in only five months.

“We’re not hiring for the sake of hiring,” Weinberg stated. “We’re looking for real talent among people who want to deliver great service and also have fun. Our culture definitely has that piece in it.”

Returning to the idea of Taft as an award-winning workplace, Weinberg said the firm used the Energage survey opportunity strategically to “get a baseline for what is important to everybody here. We were allowed to have some degree of customization of the survey within certain parameters, so we tried to make sure we drove right down the middle to get an authentic result. We didn’t want to go out and buy an opinion we already owned — we wanted it to be completely raw, so we could see where we are now and how we can strengthen those values we cherish and fix our deficiencies. That authenticity is what we wanted to come out of it, and it’s what we got. While we received a lot of positive feedback, it also told us that we still have an incredible amount of work in front of us. Culture isn’t born out of thin air.”

As a legacy law firm, one of Taft’s most significant challenges is positioning itself as an enterprise grounded in the present and thinking toward the future, rather than one that looks to its storied past for its identity. The Energage assessment generated the terms “traditional” and “progressive” to characterize the firm, words that seemingly occupy opposite ends of the cultural continuum.

“As a firm that’s been around for decades, we can’t keep looking back on tradition. We can’t continue to do the same things over and over again because we’ve always done them. But we also don’t want to leave the past completely behind. We look at things we’ve done well and use those as foundational blocks as we build for the future. We can lean on our tradition to help guide us in the future, but the future is where we’re primarily focused. We’re asking ourselves, what does it mean to be a modern firm — one that is progressive, forward-thinking and forward-looking, not just reactionary? What can we do for clients and everybody who works here to be progressive?”

Taft recently updated its parental leave policy to provide 16 weeks of paid parental leave for attorneys and staff, regardless of gender and primary-care status, for the birth or adoption of a child.

“We also did a mid-year, across-the-board salary increase for associates, regardless of hours or evaluation, simply because it was the right thing to do,” Weinberg added.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

In a statement coauthored by Taft Chairman & Managing Partner Robert J. Hicks and Chief Diversity Officer & Co-Partner in Charge, Cleveland, Adrian D. Thompson following the death of George Floyd, they described the modern workplace culture as one that promotes “fairness, diversity, and equal opportunity.” They issued a call for action both internally and in partnership with the community to develop “effective, tangible, and enduring solutions” to problems stemming from legal, social and economic inequities.

Taft’s five core values — integrity; quality of work; diversity and inclusiveness; having a respectful, professional, caring workplace culture; and teamwork — are best exemplified in its commitment to diversity and inclusion. These principles are applied in its methods for recruitment, mentoring, retention, work-life balance, and promotion and leadership.

Taft also puts its values into action as the host firm for nonprofit Twin Cities Diversity in Practice (TCDIP). It provides the organization with office space and technology support and will continue to do so in order to help foster greater diversity in the Minneapolis-St. Paul legal market.

“At this incredibly pivotal moment in time, we have focused on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts here in Minneapolis,” Weinberg said. “The firm as a whole has a very aggressive and bold initiative around DEI, and in Minneapolis, we want to redouble those efforts to be impactful. It’s especially important as we bring new hires in that people feel included and welcome. We also want to make an impact on diversity and inclusion in the community. We’ve been restructuring in that area and have made incredible headway on those goals and energized people to that end.”

Taft strives to be an employer of choice in every market where it has a presence. In 2021, the firm was once again named among the “Best Law Firms for Women” by Seramount (formerly Working Mother Media). This is the second consecutive year Taft has been featured. It was one of only 60 law firms to earn a spot on this prestigious list.

With a “mindset of inclusiveness,” Taft believes that its diversity is key to delivering the highest standard of professional representation to its clients, as innovative solutions are borne of diverse experiences and varied perspectives. Taft maintains an active Gender Advancement Committee, and each office supports Women of Taft, which is a market-based sub-committee organized to talk about impactful programming and to highlight the contributions women are making across the firm.

“Half of our executive committee are women,” Weinberg stated. “Most of our C-suite are women and most of our directors and senior leadership are also women. Of the eight practice sections we have in the Minnesota office, six are led by women. And we do a better job than most making sure there are no barriers to anybody, regardless of their gender or any other affiliation. We are doing everything we can to make sure we are fostering gender equality and women are ascending to leadership. The numbers don’t lie, and this is one of the things that makes us a top workplace for women. One of our recent lateral hires, Nicole Hittner, has done an incredible amount of work in gender advocacy in a practice group primarily made up of male attorneys. She noted that the number of women in leadership made a big difference in her choice to come here.”

The Law Firm of the Future

Moving deliberately toward the future means crafting new strategies for a post-pandemic world.

Prior to the pandemic, Weinberg played a key role in directing a sweeping renovation of the firm’s offices in the IDS Center. “We were thinking about what is the modern law firm today and what we could do that would allow us to be flexible and continue to add space for the needs of the firm tomorrow,” he said.

The renovation resulted in fewer square feet — 23,000 less, in fact — since the firm gave up an entire floor. But due to a more efficient utilization of space, modular walls and customizable work hubs with sit/stand stations, the firm’s attorneys and staff are operating more collaboratively, and the space can easily be adapted for future growth. The changes were fortuitous in light of the pandemic.

“When we embarked on this project, we had no idea the pandemic was going to hit us. But the new configuration of space allowed for social distancing. Single offices have sliding glass doors and all of our legal assistants are not closer than six feet to others. Even our benching environment allowed people the ability to continue working in the office as soon as June of last year if they found it difficult to work at home.”

Maintaining its presence downtown was an important factor in Taft’s decision to recommit to the IDS Center and refresh its space. In the wake of the pandemic and other tragedies, the idea of reinvigorating downtown has taken on new meaning. Taft’s Chief Strategy Officer Ann Rainhart and Chief Client Officer Julie Henson lead a newly formed strategy office born of the merger with Briggs. Together, they created a strategic coalition of downtown Minneapolis law firms to tackle the issues facing the downtown workforce.

“As a business in the community, we engage with the broader community and ask them and ask ourselves how we are going to continue making Minneapolis a great place to work and live,” Weinberg said. “We do all we can as leaders in the business community to help, but nobody has a magic bullet. We think it takes being proactive, not just reactive, and engaging where we can make a difference. Here in Minnesota, through Ann Rainhart and Julie Henson, we took it upon ourselves to put together a coalition of downtown law firms to show how important downtown is to us. We’re all leaders in the business community, and we feel we owe it to our community to be thoughtful about how we are going to come back downtown, and how we can work with the cities and other constituencies to reenergize the downtown area.”

He continued, “Working together with Steve Cramer and the Downtown Council, we’re doing whatever we can to make sure people are coming back. We want it known that the city can count on us and the law firm community to do our part. We’ve been very vocal that we want to be thought leaders in this space. It’s not just about the pandemic, but all of the tragic events following the murder of George Floyd and other civil unrest. We want to be there to help the city heal and be leaders in bringing Minneapolis back to being a great Midwest city where people enjoy living and working.”

While the law is backward looking, Taft proves that a law firm does not have to be. Standing on the shoulders of those who have come before gives today’s leaders at Taft a clearer and farther view toward the future. The people of Taft today are the same people who have been in the community for nearly 140 years — graced with a greater depth and breadth of resources to continue delivering optimum legal solutions for value to their upper-middle-market clientele.

Taft has always grown through mergers with established marketplace leaders who share a common culture and vision for growth, and its merger with Briggs was no exception. “Since the merger, we have continued to reinvent ourselves, harnessing that forward-looking view of what we need to do to best serve our clients. We are a firm with a tradition of deep roots in the community. We are incredibly energized and looking forward to tackling the problems of tomorrow.”

Taft Welcomes Business Attorney Nicole Hittner

In May 2021, Nicole Hittner joined Taft as a partner in the Business practice group. With a focus on mergers and acquisitions and ongoing complex contract negotiations, Hittner’s practice touches an array of industries, including manufacturing, food, health care, events and hospitality. Her experience as a certified public accountant with PricewaterhouseCoopers prior to entering the legal profession informs her perspective and enhances her advice to clients. Hittner was named a “Top Woman in Finance” by Finance & Commerce in 2019, and she has been recognized as a North Star Lawyer by the Minnesota State Bar Association every year since 2008.

Although her move to Taft was recent, Hittner said the firm “already feels like home. I have been embraced and supported in a way that is truly incredible for a national firm of our size. A close-knit, supportive culture is the best environment to grow a thriving practice, and is exactly why I made the move.”

Making a lateral move during a pandemic comes with special challenges. To facilitate her integration into the firm, meetings were arranged between Hittner and colleagues essential to her practice. She said she was also “flooded with welcoming emails and offers to connect.” With significantly more client work than she could tackle on her own, she also sought assistance from Taft colleagues in markets other than Minneapolis. Through that outreach, she was able to get to know people throughout the firm and learn about their varied skillsets.

Hittner has long been committed to advancing the legal careers of other women. Prior to joining Taft, she was a partner at Ballard Spahr and served as co-chair of Ballard Women, focusing on female attorneys’ ongoing development and advancement. She brings that same dedication to Taft. “Advancement of women in the legal field and genuine mentorship have been two passions of mine throughout my career. I’ve been fortunate to have formal and informal mentors (both male and female) that have had a major impact on my life and career trajectory, and I consistently strive to give my mentees the extra support and insight necessary to help them achieve their own goals. … I’m definitely enthusiastic about now joining the ranks of the other high achieving women at Taft who are leading the way for gender advancement in the legal field. In the short period of time I’ve been with the firm, I’ve already been very impressed with the willingness of the entire Taft team to take an objective look at what is working, and what isn’t, with respect to achievement of equity goals and the willingness of everyone to make necessary adjustments with an open mind.”

Overall, Hittner described Taft as a place where “transparency and accountability are key components to ensuring a level playing field for all attorneys. Openness is clearly a hallmark of Taft Stettinius & Hollister, and I’m excited to be part of the continued growth and success of the firm as others join us and experience it for themselves.”

H.K. Wilson

H.K. Wilson is a contributing writer for Attorney at Law Magazine. She has been writing features for the publication for more than four years.

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