As previously mentioned, Minnesota Litigator is profiling experienced and interesting Minnesota trial lawyers who may not be widely known by the Minnesota Bar and beyond. We had the opportunity to sit down with Elliot Olsen, partner at Pritzker Olsen, to discuss his path to becoming a lawyer and his nationwide niche practice of litigating foodborne illnesses. Olsen has tried more than 50 jury trials, is a Certified Civil Trial Specialist and a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates.
Check out our conversation below. He talked about his path to law school, switching from defending insurance companies to suing them, what he likes to do in his free time, and gave some advice to new litigators.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Carleton College and majored in geology. I always liked the sciences and geology was something that caught my interest.
What did you do after college?
I didn’t go straight to law school. I took two years off after college. I worked part-time as a legal assistant, but mostly I traveled. I went mostly through Australia but also to South East Asia and China. My favorite place during that trip was probably Tasmania. I liked it because it was about 20 years behind the U.S. so it was like stepping into a different era.
What made you decide to go to law school?
I always had law school in the back of my mind. I think it was because, as a kid, I always liked to argue – not so much anymore. Now I just like to be right.
Where did you go to law school?
I went to Washington University in St. Louis. Saint Louis just felt like a southern city in a lot of ways and it had a different feel than Minnesota.
Did you know what type of law you wanted to practice?
Going into law school, I wasn’t entirely sure that I would practice law but I thought that it would be a versatile degree if I wanted to do something in business. In law school, I realized that I wanted to practice law, at least for a while, and suddenly I couldn’t imagine going through three years of school and never actually appearing in a courtroom or never actually representing any clients.
How did you get started as an attorney?
I worked for a firm called Gislason & Hunter for about 11 years. There I was doing personal injury work from the defense side, insurance companies or hospitals would hire us to defend people when they were getting sued.
Why did you switch from the defense side to the plaintiff side?
I think I switched over for a couple of reasons. The opportunity to practice with Fred Pritzker was one of the main reasons. Fred is a mover and a shaker, and a very creative, very smart and an intelligent guy. I really liked my old firm and I wouldn’t have left to go with just anybody.
I always thought that at the end of my career, it would be better to say that I really was able to help some people who needed a lawyer and who couldn’t have done it without me — rather than saying that over the course of my career I really saved an insurance company a lot of money.
Has your experience working from the defense perspective helped you as a plaintiff’s attorney?
I think it’s helped a lot to know how insurance companies think and how defense attorneys think. So it kind of gives me an insight about how to get a case settled or why a case isn’t settling. It also helps me figure out which cases will have to go to trial from the very beginning.
The biggest help about being a former defense attorney was trying a lot of cases. You’re always taking a deposition or arguing a motion or trying a case. It really develops your litigation and trial skills.
Talk about your practice at Pritzker Olsen.
We focus mostly on products liability and defective food products cases are probably the biggest part of my practice now. When I started at the firm, 10 years ago, about 60% of my practice was automobile accidents and now that’s more like 20% of what we do. Also, 90-95% of my cases were in Minnesota and now over 50% are outside of the state.
A nice thing about having a niche practice is that I know that there is only one other firm in the country that is on par with us in terms of food borne illness cases. We’re the only two firms that are really doing this big time and nationwide. So when people end up with us, I think they’re getting the best there is for foodborne illness.
What’s the most enjoyable part of your practice?
For any part of my personal injury practice, the most interesting thing is the science of things. For example in a basic car accident case I think it’s fascinating to learn about how a fracture is repaired. We represented a number of people who had defective defibrillators, so it’s interesting to learn about how a defibrillator works.
Do you see your practice changing in the next 5 years?
I don’t see it changing within the next five years. In food borne illness, I do always wonder if we will start seeing fewer cases because of better methods of prevention and better methods of tracking and tracing things so that you can stop an outbreak sooner. The goal with spinach, for example, is if you have the bag, and the bar code information, then you can trace it back to the field it was grown in. That’s the goal of these industries now because they can stop an outbreak sooner.
On the other hand, there are better and better methods of tracing outbreaks. We get a lot of calls from people who say “I almost died from e coli” and we can’t help them because it’s not traced back to a particular outbreak. Maybe it will continue to be a growth industry with better and better science.
We’re also serious about preventing foodborne illness. I’ve given a number of talks to growers and other industry people speaking to them about what they can do to prevent outbreaks. I tell these groups, that if there are no food borne illnesses Pritzker Olsen will still be fine.
Has dealing with food related lawsuits and food borne illnesses changed the way you eat?
It has not because what you find is that most of the people who become ill are elderly, they’re young, pregnant, or imuno-compromised because they’re on some immunosuppressant drugs. For healthy people, it’s not as much of a danger.
But there is one thing that I have taken out and that’s Gulf oysters.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
Two things. One thing I enjoy so much more than I ever imagined possible, which is going to my kids’ sporting events. I really like going to my daughter’s volleyball matches and my son’s basketball, baseball and soccer games. I also like going out to dinner.
Do you have a favorite restaurant?
No, I don’t because there are an amazing number of good restaurants in the Twin Cities right now. It’s absolutely the golden age of restaurants.
Do you have any words of wisdom for new lawyers?
If you want to be a litigator and a trial lawyer, you have to look for opportunities. If you’re a young lawyer at a firm, you have to go ask some senior person if you can take a deposition or if you can go to trial and handle some witnesses.
If you can pass off a file to a young lawyer or pass off a project to a young lawyer and they do the project well and they also come back and they say that, “We still need to do A, B, and C, do you want me to do any of those for you?” I think it’s up to the young lawyers to take that initiative where you’re not just doing what’s asked of you, you’re looking forward. That’s what senior lawyers are always looking for.
Is there anything you wished you knew as a young lawyer?
When you’re a young lawyer and you see two partners talking to each other and they go into an office and close the door, you always think it’s about you. The truth is they’re never talking about you.