Helping others is at the center of Holly Dolejsi's practice
Holly Dolejsi grew up in a big blended family in the suburbs of Minneapolis.
She and her sister spent half their time with their dad, stepmom and two stepbrothers. They spent the other half with their mom, stepdad and five other stepsiblings. Dolejsi fell right in the middle of the pack and says it wasn’t surprising she became “a type-A overachiever.”
Dolejsi played the piano, sang in the choir and participated in theater in high school. She also joined the Latin club, where she discovered an ardent love of history. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, she majored in anthropology with a concentration in archeology.
But Dolejsi says two things pushed her away from being an archeologist and eventually toward being a lawyer. She participated in an excavation outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she realized she didn’t enjoy digging in the dirt in the hot sun or trying to draw conclusions from bone and pottery fragments. She later had to write a thesis, in which she also felt she was offering her best guesses.
“That felt very uncomfortable to me—I didn’t like being in that gray space,” Dolejsi says.
After graduating in 2003, Dolejsi moved back to Minneapolis. As she considered next steps, her aunt, who was a paralegal at the firm now known as Yaeger & Jungbauer Barristers, suggested she apply to be a temporary legal assistant. Three years later, she was working as a legal secretary and envisioning a career in law.
“I had never thought about being a lawyer because the only type of lawyer that I really knew of is the type you see on TV,” Dolejsi says. “But the actual practice of law, now that I knew something about it from having worked at a law firm, was something that didn’t seem so intimidating or scary.”
While at the William Mitchell College of Law, which is now known as the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Dolejsi found she liked torts and mock trial. She returned to clerk at Yaeger & Jungbauer Barristers, which represented plaintiffs injured in railroad or other accidents. After graduating in 2009, she became an associate at the firm.
“When I talk to young lawyers, or even before that when they’re thinking about going to law school, I tell them the path you hear about is get good grades, do on-campus interviewing, work at a big firm and stay there for your career,” Dolejsi says. “But that is not the path of probably 99% of lawyers.”
In 2011, Dolejsi moved to Robins Kaplan in Minneapolis and is now a partner and deputy chair of its mass tort, personal injury and medical malpractice groups.
“It’s very helpful to hear that just because you’re not following the path that’s plotted for you doesn’t mean you won’t end up in a good spot,” she adds.
Much of Dolejsi’s practice has been about guiding individuals through the legal system.
Among her notable cases, she helped lead the team representing 28 tribal nations that claimed pharmaceutical manufacturers misrepresented the risks of long-term opioid use and distributors failed to properly monitor orders of the prescription drugs. In 2022, they secured a $589 million settlement on behalf of all federally recognized tribes, which, according to the New York Times, were acknowledged as a distinct litigating entity for the first time.
Dolejsi also represented the state of Minnesota in litigation against Juul Labs and Altria for deceptively marketing e-cigarettes to youth. After a three-week trial, the companies agreed in May to pay $60.5 million to the state. The amount was described by the state attorney general’s office as the largest per capita of all 48 states and territories that have settled with Juul.
“She’s a great story of perseverance and trusting in your talent,” says Tara Sutton, a partner and chair of the mass tort group at Robins Kaplan who works with Dolejsi. “What makes her really great at high-stakes litigation is she is very even-keeled, very calm in the face of any storm. That being calm in the face of any storm also makes her a great leader of our team.”
Dolejsi has made pro bono—and, in particular, helping transgender and nonbinary individuals change their names—another central part of her practice.
In 2019, Robins Kaplan partnered with LGBTQ advocacy organization OutFront Minnesota to launch a free legal name change clinic. Dolejsi joined the initiative, and as part of her work, answers clients’ questions and helps them complete and submit required paperwork to the court.
She tells them what to expect during their hearing and what to do once they receive an order granting their name change. In addition to changing their name on their driver’s licenses, birth certificates and other official documents, clients can change their gender marker on their birth certificates.
By the end of 2022, Robins Kaplan had helped at least 245 clients change their names so they align with their identities. Dolejsi has assisted nearly two dozen of those clients, who range in age from their 20s to their 60s. Many of them, she says, came to her thinking the process would be too difficult or contentious.
“Knowing which paperwork to fill out and how to fill it out, or even which courts to send it to, those can all be hard to figure out and be a psychological roadblock to doing something that sounds scary and maybe is scary,” she says.
Dolejsi adds that in recent years, fear has become one of the largest motivations for name changes as more transgender and nonbinary individuals worry about their safety in an increasingly anti-trans climate.
“In the span of two hours, I can make such a huge difference for someone who is going through a really hard time in their lives or have been through a really hard time,” says Dolejsi, who has also assisted parents seeking name changes for their children. “And in the future, when someone asks for their ID, they can hand it over and not be worried about repercussions, not be worried about follow-up questions or harassment and bullying.”
Dolejsi has found other ways to make a difference, including some in the legal profession.
As a member of the American Association for Justice and Minnesota Association for Justice, she attended conferences that were interesting and informative but also dominated by male lawyers. In 2017, Dolejsi and a few colleagues decided to create a new conference geared toward building female relationships and referrals.
The Women Trial Lawyers Conference, which is free and facilitated by the Minnesota Association for Justice, convened for the sixth time in early November.
“I have heard many accounts of women who have rejoined MAJ because of the conference, joined for the first time because of the conference, or they went to the women’s conference and then felt brave enough to go to the larger MAJ conference now that they knew someone,” Dolejsi says.
Marlene Goldenberg, a founding partner of Nigh Goldenberg Raso & Vaughn in Washington, D.C., met Dolejsi through the Minnesota Association for Justice and worked alongside her to create the conference. She describes it as a safe space for women to learn both about legal practice and issues that arise while running a business.
“Our planning committee, of which Holly is a permanent member, is involved in planning everything, including the agenda, and thanks to Holly’s contributions, we have been able to put on a fantastic program each year, attracting more and more attendees,” Goldenberg says.
Dolejsi recently joined the ABA because she wanted to access an even greater pool of educational and networking opportunities. In her free time, she enjoys attending Minnesota Orchestra concerts and going to a local jazz club. She also loves being with family and traveling with her husband, Nathan Keeler.
“We try to take as much time as we can to live our lives,” Dolejsi says, “because life is short.”
Members Who Inspire is an ABA Journal series profiling exceptional ABA members. If you know members who do unique and important work, you can nominate them for this series by emailing [email protected].