In 2005, I was a young, bright-eyed, newly married graduate of the University of St. Thomas School of Law’s second class with a job lined up as an associate attorney at a downtown Minneapolis firm. Today, with a couple of stops in between, I serve the people of Minnesota as general counsel and deputy chief of staff to Governor Mark Dayton and Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith. In addition, I am mother to four young children and wife to a wonderful husband.
Governor’s general counsel, what does that entail? In many ways, this office is much like that of any in-house counsel, providing advice and counsel to our client on a whole host of issues ranging from interpretations of statutes and legislation to personnel matters. Additionally, the General Counsel’s Office is where executive orders are drafted, extraditions are reviewed, bond issuances are vetted and legal policy is developed. My colleagues and I work closely with the Attorney General’s Office and attorneys in state agencies on major litigation matters involving the state of Minnesota, and with the leadership of state government daily on a variety of issues. I also am a deputy chief of staff to the governor and lieutenant governor, serving as a member of their senior staff. The externally facing portion of that work includes staffing the governor and lieutenant governor at various public meetings, including the standing obligations of the Board of Pardons, the Executive Council, and the State Board of Investment, where I also serve on various subcommittees as the governor’s designee.
How does someone become a governor’s general counsel? Prior to joining the state in 2011, I represented a variety of public and private clients, in both litigation and transactional capacities. During that time, I felt a strong call to service and a desire to do more for my community. In 2011, I was asked to serve as the Commerce Department’s general counsel and subsequently was promoted to deputy commissioner and chief of staff. In addition to overseeing 330 staff and a biennial budget of approximately $400 million, while chief of staff I had the opportunity to regulate, among others, Minnesota’s banking, securities, insurance, energy, real estate and debt collection industries. Our team conducted investigations of industry practices that resulted in some of the largest settlements in the department’s history, brought criminal cases against insurance fraud rings, advocated for millions of dollars in savings to utility rate payers, and along with other agencies, was at the forefront of Minnesota’s implementation of health reform. In the spring of 2013, I was asked by the governor’s general counsel to serve as acting general counsel while she was on maternity leave with her first child. When the governor’s general counsel notified the governor of her intention to resign and move out of state with her family, the governor offered me a permanent position, which I gladly accepted.
I share the story of how I came to this position because I think it is an important one, particularly for women in the legal profession who are raising families. For me, over the last 10 years, networking and client happy hours have been traded for soccer practices and swimming lessons. Throughout my career, I have tried to support other women making these same choices, foster working environments that promote work/life balance, and be an example for my children that a woman may be successful professionally without sacrificing her family. I am fortunate to have a client who appreciates that I am a better general counsel because of and not in spite of the fact that I am, at all times, simultaneously serving my family and the people of Minnesota.
Emily Johnson Piper is a 2005 graduate of the University of St. Thomas School of Law, and general counsel and deputy chief of staff to Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton and Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith.