Name: Sonya “Renee” Dotson
Title: Senior Legal Counsel – 3M
Firm Background: Summer Associate, 2006; Associate, April 2007 – July 2011
Practice: Business Litigation / Finance & Restructuring
Renee Dotson grew up in East Moline, Illinois, a part of the Quad Cities. Her childhood was not easy and, at the age of 15, she became self-supporting when her father passed away. After high school, Renee did not have the money to attend college right away, so she started working at Younkers department store. Renee can summarize her life in three words: Survive, drive and thrive. And that she has done.
Her Driving Force
Renee did not have the luxuries after high school that others had, so her focus was working to support herself, taking college courses as time and money permitted, and avoiding the pitfalls that she witnessed growing up. Renee had never considered going to law school until a chance encounter with a former teacher. At the time, Renee was working full-time at Younkers and bumped into her former French teacher who blurted out, “You were so smart, you know? I just can't believe you're still working here.” The politics of that comment aside, this was what Renee called “one of those ‘come to Jesus’ moments, where you come to a point in your life and you get these signs that it's time to do something else.” Shortly after that conversation, she decided to go back to school full-time to complete her undergraduate degree (while still working full-time at Younkers and running her own home bakery). She knew she had reached the pinnacle of her career at Younkers as a manager and needed to “use her brain” in a different way. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business and a minor in marketing from Western Illinois University, Renee set her sights on graduate school. “I considered both medical school and law school and, in the end, decided that I didn’t like touching people in that way, so I chose law school,” Renee recalls. It was kismet. She was awarded a full-tuition scholarship to attend the University of Iowa College of Law.
The Road to Faegre & Benson
During her first year of law school, Renee was asked to help plan an event for students of color. The event was sponsored by Faegre Drinker’s predecessor, Faegre & Benson. While networking, Renee met Scott Anderegg, Andrea Carruthers, Eunice de Carvalho and Dana Gray. They asked if she would be interested in interviewing with the firm. Renee replied that she was clerking at Lane & Waterman after her first year, but they encouraged her to interview in the fall. She went for it and was offered a summer 2006 clerkship following her second year of law school. “Had I never met this group of people, Minneapolis and Faegre & Benson would have never been on my radar,” Renee recalls.
Renee spent the first half of her 2L summer clerking for a firm in Kansas City, Missouri, and then joined Faegre & Benson’s Minneapolis office in July. She received offers to stay on with both providers and ultimately joined Faegre & Benson in April 2007 after graduating early and passing the Minnesota bar exam: “It was fantastic because I actually had more time to get established in the firm and get the routine down before the rest of my class came back and started in the fall.”
Renee started practicing law in the business litigation group. She worked closely with Jerry Miranowski and Michael Krauss in finance litigation and eventually moved with them to the finance and restructuring group. She found teachers everywhere, from people like Jerry and Michael to Dara Mann, who approached her when she was a summer associate and has remained one of her mentors since then. I “knew from that day on that Dara was going to be the person to tell me exactly what I needed to know,” Renee shares. She still has mementos from her mentors, including a scrap of yellow printer slip paper on which Jerry wrote, “You are a great lawyer.” Even now, she finds herself looking at that note when she is having a bad day at work.
Renee’s time at Faegre & Benson was filled with little gems like that. She fondly remembers monthly associate breakfasts at Hell’s Kitchen, where Erin Oglesbay introduced her to Mahnomin porridge; the F&R monthly birthday celebrations featuring warm pies from Keys; the day then-paralegal Charlotte Culbertson called and “demanded” that Renee join her family for Thanksgiving; and the intimate going-away lunch that Rikke Dierssen-Morice planned for her on her last day at the firm (which included a large antique scales of justice centerpiece that Renee keeps in her office today). She was especially close to Faegre & Benson’s Black attorneys and keeps in touch with Dara, Marlon Cush and Abam Mambo. She also counts Jen Miernicki and Miko Hernandez among her closest friends.
While Renee loved the work and cherished those internal ties, she was open to other opportunities where she could grow and thrive. So, when firm alumna and now-retired 3M Senior Vice President Kim Price — whom she had met two years earlier at a Twin Cities Diversity in Practice event — contacted her about an open position, Renee pursued the opportunity. And in July 2011, she moved to 3M as in-house counsel.
Thriving in the Corporate World
As counsel at 3M, Renee represented various divisions and business units until she was promoted in 2012 to general counsel for the company’s Transportation Safety Division. It was a stressful assignment, and Renee was thankful to continue working with attorneys like Wendy Wildung and Nick Rotchadl. “That assignment taught me so much about business acumen and how to work effectively with outside counsel,” Renee observes. “I had to understand the business objectives and the strategy and outside counsel had to learn the same so we could make litigation strategy decisions that aligned to the business objectives.” That role also taught Renee how to be “agile at all times” — long before agility became a buzzword. Getting the division through multiple acquisitions and divestitures and litigation matters has been one of her greatest career achievements. And she credits her litigation and finance training at Faegre & Benson for her ability to understand the complexity that she encountered in those matters.
Renee is now general counsel for the Industrial Adhesives and Tapes Division, which is one of 3M’s largest global businesses. She says the most enjoyable part of her job is the rapport she has built with her business clients: “I am a trusted adviser to them and have great relationships with the vice presidents and directors I work with, even the ones who have left 3M.”
These days, it’s the relational aspect of work that Renee misses most. A part of that was lost following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. Renee misses the ability to meet with people in person and read their body language or nonverbal cues. She also worries about their mental and physical well-being: “Are they staying safe? Are they being careful? Are they taking care of themselves or are they taking care of their families?”
Surviving During the Pandemic
3M is planning a phased return-to-work approach, and Renee is not sure when she will return to the office.
Though the shift has not been without its challenges, some adjustments have been for the better. As legal counsel for a global company, Renee is no stranger to 6 a.m. meetings and calls late into the evening with her business partners. But when 3M transitioned to remote work in March of this year, she had to set some boundaries. She blocks out time to take a break, work out and eat dinner. She also avoids working every weekend, if possible. If she does have to work, she limits logging on to Saturday mornings and Sunday evenings.
When she can find the time, Renee enjoys baking, painting, crocheting and reading. Her home is filled with books and if you haven’t read her favorite book, “The Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett, she could loan you one of her 12 copies. Participating in a few book clubs with friends and 3M co-workers, spending time outdoors and carving out time for the things and people she loves — these all keep her sane, though Renee does look forward to the day she can finally visit her family in the Quad Cities. In the meantime, she’s making it through, and she has a little advice on how others can do the same: “Take care of yourself mentally and physically. It’s so easy to work continuously and not take a moment to reflect on how ‘you’ feel. Take a mental inventory and start doing something that makes you happy or brings you joy. That may be going to get your hair done, putting on perfume or makeup, buying new workout clothes or starting a new exercise routine. Whatever it is, just do something that brings you absolute joy! Life is short. Enjoy it.”