Thought Leadership

Attorney Spotlight: John Steffenhagen

In what area of law do you practice and why did you choose this?

I practice trial advocacy. Frankly, I didn’t choose it. My old firm hired me after my second year of law school and decided whether to place me in corporate or litigation to start. Very fortunately, they chose to place me in a position that, completely unbeknownst to me at the time, could not have fit me any better.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be frogman for NASA. I subsequently wrote a letter to West Point when I was 9, asking for application materials. West Point could not have been nicer and sent me both an application and a box of books.

When did you decide you wanted to be a lawyer?

I abandoned the foregoing career plans when I realized that: 1) I couldn’t swim at the time; and 2) I would probably dislike having people try to kill me. I firmly settled on being a lawyer by 9th or 10th grade. I’ve always read a ton and many of the books I read up to that point involved legal issues or biography subjects who were lawyers. When I read biographies of Robert Kennedy and Lincoln, the hook was set.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a lawyer?

I actually have a hard time answering this question. I’m doing what I love to do already. Perhaps I would time travel to 1975 and join Lynyrd Skynyrd, as long as they agreed to tour by bus.

Tell us about a mentor who made an impact on your career.

I didn’t really have one. Fresh out of law school, I worked with a partner who simply assigned me first chair against Dorsey Whitney in a bank closure case brought by the FDIC. When that case ended well, I sought out others, kept doing what seemed to work, and closely observed opposing counsel. Eventually, it became kind chafing to work as second chair beneath a partner. I must have been insufferable. Today, I would probably be tempted to fire my younger self. I basically learned by myself. This should have been a recipe for disaster, but it turned out to be the best possible way for me to learn and for those lessons to take hold in a way that I use to his day.

What do you like best about practicing law at H&J?

I trust and like the people with whom I practice. That sounds like a simple or common thing, but it is not.

What is the best career advice you have received?

It wasn’t so much advice as observation. Early in my career, I tried a case with a very wise trial attorney. He very politely and courteously filleted an opposing witness at trial. The witness actually thanked him when he got off the stand. I remember thinking to myself, I’ll know I’m doing something right if this ever happens to me. This taught me that you can ethically, aggressively pursue a case, without being a jerk or cutting corners or giving up your values. It also taught me that being yourself in a courtroom is the only thing that will really work, even though this trial attorney did not put in in those words.

What is the strangest legal question you have ever been asked?

An unpleasant client (who very likely did the horrible things that the plaintiff group alleged, even though he got out from under 90% of it) asked me why I couldn’t be more like Gen. Patton than Gen. Eisenhower. I don’t know what he was trying to prove, other than maybe put me in place by using his big brain on an arcane subject that we had never discussed. I told him that if he understood World War II history, he would realize that our strategy was more like Rommel than either Patton or Eisenhower. Busted.

What is an item on your bucket list?

I can’t think of one, but I can specifically name the one on my list that I can never accomplish. When I was in college, Muddy Waters was playing at The Cabooze in Minneapolis. My friends mocked my taste in music and I didn’t have a car so I couldn’t drive to see him myself. He died not long after.

What is your favorite vacation spot?

Nashville is great. The music is outstanding and I geeked out over Hank Williams’s guitar (Hank, Sr., not his far lesser son, Hank, Jr.) at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

What is your favorite Minnesota Lake?

Deer Lake. Loved it as kid on family vacations.

What is your favorite Twin Cities restaurant?

Would anyone hold it against me if I truthfully said Long John Silver’s? The best now-closed restaurant was the Anchor Inn chain. They had a restaurant in Lake City, where I grew up, and it was the one place where we ate out at times (mostly because it was all you could eat and I come from big family).

When you are not working, what would people find you doing?

Spending time with my wife and kids. They are truly tremendous in every way. I also still read a lot (I have literally not been without a book to read since elementary school). I can also be found trying (with very limited success) to play guitar like my heroes. About the only thing that we have in common is that most of them couldn’t read music either.

What is your favorite part of practicing law?

The intellectual challenge. I love the fact that every case I handle allows me to delve deeply into the subject area. I also love being in a courtroom. It is hard to believe that someone pays me for cross-examination; at times, I feel like it should be the other way around.

Who is your hero?

This will sound sappy, but it is true: my parents, without question.

What is a recent good book you read?

I just finished a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. It changed my perception of him (for the better) as a general, president and civil rights advocate.

What advice would you give to the young version of yourself who is just entering law school?

Nothing. Even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I would follow the same path, mistakes and all.

What might people be surprised to know about you?

I played on the same unbeatable intramural basketball team as Joe Beckman at Georgetown. A law school professor was a basketball nut, reviewed the law school applications for incoming students with college playing experience (our point guard was drafted by the Knicks), and approached everyone over 6’4″ who looked athletic during first year orientation. It will surprise no one that I was demonstrably better than Joe in every category, even if you just make up a pretend category on the spot for the fun of it.

What is your strongest asset?

Professionally, it is that I will never quit or compromise my standards or beliefs, no matter what. On a personal level, it is that I am devoted to my family and vice versa.

If you have an out-of-town visitor, what are the “must see/do” things in the Twin Cities?

I can’t think of one, although Long John Silver’s is probably out.


John J. Steffenhagen
Phone: 952-746-2163