Tamara Olsen

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Tamara Olsen hadn’t always planned on being a lawyer. Coming from a family of “farmers, preachers, and teachers” in the Fargo-Moorhead area, Tamara completed her undergraduate at Minnesota State University – Moorhead and taught high school students at North High in Fargo upon graduation.

It was the recommendation of David Flint, one of her political science professors at Moorhead, which led Tamara to take the LSAT. When she showed Dr. Flint her scores, he told her she could apply to any law school she wanted. So Tamara applied to the two schools whose names she recognized at the time: Cornell and Harvard. Thankfully, Harvard said yes. (Years later, Tamara would reflect: “It was just the most naïve, unconsidered path imaginable… but it worked out fine.”)

Tamara served as a summer associate at Gray Plant Mooty following her second year at Harvard, which turned into a job offer—and the next year, fresh out of law school, Tamara joined the firm as a full-time associate.

While Tamara began her work at GPM in general litigation, her work quickly moved to a more specialized practice. She was instrumental in launching the firm’s Employment Law Practice Group in 1992; Tamara focused her efforts on sex discrimination and harassment cases in particular. Two years later, Tamara was elected to the firm’s board of directors. That same year, she chaired the firm’s Gender Task Force, which aimed to support the development of female attorneys, and Tamara was instrumental in expanding and strengthening the firm’s family leave policies. In 1999, drawing on her own experience as an educator, Tamara founded the firm’s Higher Education Practice Group, for which she also served as chair. (In 2014, the Employment Law and Higher Education practices merged into a single group.)

Carl Crosby Lehmann, currently the co-chair of the Labor, Employment, and Higher Education practice group, respected Tamara as a leader and mentor, as well as a close personal friend. Carl says he admired her sense of principle, at the firm and in the community, and her commitment to compassionate legal practice. Tamara never lost sight of the human side of her work, and she challenged her colleagues to do the same, even when that work involved disputes of a highly adversarial nature.

And when Tamara was named managing officer in 2007—the first woman to hold the position in the firm’s history—she brought those same values to the highest levels of firm leadership. Her early tenure was marked by the financial crisis and ensuing recession of 2008, which slowed the firm’s business and created much uncertainty about the months and years to come. With many employers laying off staff to address their sudden financial shortfalls, some wondered if GPM would follow suit.

Amid those uncertain times, Tamara’s leadership proved instrumental in maintaining the firm’s confidence. Tamara assuaged any fears that existed among the firm’s employees, reassuring staff that the firm—and their jobs—would survive the market turmoil. Tamara insisted the entire firm share the burden; relatively minor reductions to staff hours and attorney compensation rates could help the firm obviate the need for lay-offs. By appealing to this spirit of collective sacrifice, Tamara was reaffirming the core values that had been central to the firm since its founding in 1866. This was Tamara’s best quality as a leader: She fought for her colleagues, and they trusted that she was looking after them.

Sadly, Tamara’s leadership of the firm was cut short. In 2010, only three years after taking the managing officer position, Tamara was diagnosed with cancer. After a yearlong battle, she passed on July 4, 2011. While Tamara’s absence is still deeply felt among those who worked with her, she leaves behind a wide-ranging legacy—and although she may not have expected to find herself practicing law, her friends and colleagues are thankful she did.