“Iʼm involved in the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers (MABL); Iʼm Dorseyʼs representative in the TCDIP Emerging Leaders Group; and on the board of the Minnesota Black Women Lawyers Network (MBWLN),” says Tiana Towns. “Working on programming and access for minority lawyers takes time. Some of my colleagues donʼt need or want to spend time advocating for their place in the profession. They can spend that time billing hours, while Iʼm spending 70 or more hours a year making the profession more inclusive so everyone can bring their best selves to work.”
Despite growing up in racially and culturally diverse Southern California, attorney Tiana Towns says that she never saw women like herself in the legal profession. That realization inspired her decision to attend law school.
“I couldn’t really recall seeing a black woman on TV or meeting one who was a lawyer,” Towns says. “I did not see anyone who looks like me in this profession, and the challenge intrigued me. It made me want to go into the law to change that. I figured I’m smart and hard-working enough, so I’ll just become a lawyer and blaze a trail for people behind me.”
Towns was accepted to Howard University School of Law, a historically black college whose mission has always been to promote civil rights and level the playing field for marginalized communities. Her excellent year-one performance earned her a series of on-campus interviews, and her first was with Cornell Moore, a recruiting committee member and co-partner of the firmwide diversity steering committee at Dorsey & Whitney LLP.
“I remember being so nervous,” Towns recalls. “He made me laugh and also terrified me at the same time. I wasn’t sure I’d get a call back, but I heard back immediately. Mr. Moore encouraged me to come to Minnesota and assured me that I’d be supported and that he would be my advocate. I wouldn’t be out here all alone.”
Towns earned a summer associate internship at Dorsey along with two other Howard students and was extended an offer for a permanent position after graduation in 2014.
An associate in Dorsey’s trial group, Towns works closely with clients in a wide range of litigation matters, including construction and design; real estate; and intellectual property litigation in state and federal courts. She says that one of the most valuable aspects of her journey at Dorsey was the opportunity to try different areas of practice and find the best fit. After starting out in the trial group, she spent more than a year in the trademark group.
“I quickly learned that I didn’t want to do trademark and copyright prosecution work, which is form-based. As a former college athlete, I am extremely competitive, and there is not much of an adversarial process in trademark prosecution. When I realized that I wanted to go back to the trial group, there was no question that I would be able to do so. Associates at Dorsey are encouraged to chart our own paths, and I know several other associates who have changed practice groups. The partners let us figure out what we want to do and determine where we offer the most value to our clients.”
Nearly four years later, Towns is an established commercial litigator who has found a niche in construction and real estate litigation. She says that many mentors have contributed to her professional advancement, including Jocelyn Knoll, chairperson of Dorsey’s construction and design practice group; Theresa Bevilacqua, Dorsey’s trial group co-leader; and Eric Ruzicka, partner in Dorsey’s trial group.
“Jocelyn took an interest in me as a young woman in her construction group and told me, here are the things you need to know to be successful in this area of practice. Last year, she volunteered me to help write an article with a retired construction partner from Dorsey. She has been amazing in supporting my professional goals. Eric and Theresa have also been great at giving me a ton of work and always pushing me a little bit further. I’m learning by constantly being placed in situations that are uncomfortable for me, and I’m grateful for the confidence the partners here instill in me.”
According to Towns, mentoring is about more than just the practice of law, as there can be social and cultural disconnects that can occur for minority attorneys when they enter the law firm environment. Having Moore as an ongoing advocate inside the firm has been key to her remaining at Dorsey.
“First joining Dorsey, I felt completely out of place. It has helped having him in my corner and helping me to navigate the politics of the profession and the firm. Still to this day we chat weekly. My parents are blue-collar people who didn’t go to college, and no one in my family is a lawyer. He’s someone I can talk to when I don’t understand something, and he helps me navigate situations so I know what to do next time.”
Towns has also gained invaluable insights from participating in the Minneapolis City Attorney Program, which allowed her to get jury trial experience. “That training helped me solidify the fact that I want to be a trial attorney. I’ve found my style in terms of how I relate to a jury. At the City, I tried a couple of different styles, and found that for me, I have to be personable. I couldn’t have known that without the opportunity to take part in the program and all the litigation training opportunities at the firm.”
Recently, Towns was selected to participate in the Leadership Counsel on Legal Diversity (LCLD) Pathfinder Program designed for diverse, highpotential, early-career attorneys at LCLD member organizations.
“It gives us the opportunity to meet and network with other upcoming diverse attorneys and refine our leadership skills. One goal of the program is to use those relationships to build up our practices, and I’m looking forward to learning from other ambitious young attorneys and working with them in the future.”
A Minneapolis-based law firm whose legacy reaches back more than a century, Dorsey has grown to 19 locations across the United States and in Canada, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. One reason the firm continues to thrive as a first choice for commercial clients across industries is its commitment to being an inclusive organization that values diverse backgrounds, perspectives and contributions. Diversity and inclusion programming is routine within the firm, and associates receive up to 50 hours of diversity-related activities as billable time.
“I’m involved in the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers (MABL); I’m Dorsey’s representative in the TCDIP Emerging Leaders Group; and on the board of the Minnesota Black Women Lawyers Network (MBWLN). Working on programming and access for minority lawyers takes time. Some of my colleagues don’t need or want to spend time advocating for their place in the profession. They can spend that time billing hours, while I’m spending 70 or more hours a year making the profession more inclusive so everyone can bring their best selves to work. It’s not enough to hire a handful of attorneys of color; you have to celebrate their differences if you want to keep them. Getting credit toward billable hours for that work levels the field a bit.”
Participating in pro bono work is also an essential part of Towns’ practice, and in 2019, she contributed to the landmark reversal of death sentence in the Bruce Webster case. “We have a wealth of resources here, and it’s gratifying to be able to use the skills I have to make a difference.”
As a trailblazer who is changing the face of the law for the next generation, Tiana Towns is looking to the future with optimism. “What drew me to the profession in the first place was the lack of women — especially black women — in the law. We still have work to do to support, retain and promote attorneys of color, and we need help from the clients, firms and the profession itself. I’m glad to work in a place where they’re doing a good job of taking critical feedback and creating opportunities for diverse attorneys.”