Dru Nielsen and Tom Ward share a passion for advocacy and justice, a passion that has led to their success as criminal defense attorneys in the greater Denver area. Nielsen is co-founder and a partner at Eytan Nielsen, LLC, and Ward is a partner at McDermott, Stuart & Ward LLP. They met in their third year at the University of Colorado Law School and married in 2001.
Ward initially thought about becoming a lawyer while he was in undergrad, but he took a few years off exploring Colorado before starting law school. “I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and I went to undergrad at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and majored in finance,” he said. “After I graduated, I moved to Colorado for a ski season and never left,” he joked.
Ward continued: “I worked in the real estate business in Telluride and applied to some law schools in the Midwest while I was there, but I realized I didn’t really want to leave Colorado just yet. I became a resident after another year in Telluride. When I visited Boulder, I fell in love with the campus and realized it was a great opportunity to continue to stay in Colorado and become an attorney with in-state residency tuition.”
Nielsen, on the other hand, knew she wanted to be a lawyer from a very young age. “I knew I wanted to be an attorney ever since elementary school. In eighth grade, I participated in a career day with [Colorado Law Adjunct Professor] Lisa Wayne and I saw the inside of a courtroom and I knew that was where I wanted to be,” she said.
Nielsen grew up in Colorado, where she attended Wheat Ridge High School, but she decided to move to California for undergrad. “When I was in high school I didn’t appreciate how awesome Colorado was, and I went to undergrad at UCLA. Several times I thought I had made the wrong decision. I applied to Colorado Law and was waitlisted, but right before the school year started I was accepted and never looked back.” she said. “I briefly thought about becoming a sports agent, but after Contracts, I realized that was not really my talent so I stuck with criminal law,” she joked.
While a law student, Nielsen interned with the Boulder Public Defender’s Office and honed her oral advocacy skills through mock trial. “A friend of mine, Jamie Gettman (’97), really wanted to do mock trial so I agreed to do it with her. We ended up winning the Carrigan Cup and we went on to do the traveling team,” she remembered. “Mock trial was my favorite part of law school and it was where I felt most engaged and I was lucky enough to have Pat Furman (’80) as a mentor.”
For Nielsen, mock trial had the greatest impact on her future career. “It gave me an advantage that other people didn’t have. When I went to the public defender’s office I knew how to do a trial from my training at Colorado Law.”
After law school, Nielsen went on to work at the Colorado Public Defender’s Office in Colorado Springs. “Working in Colorado Springs was a great experience. It’s a large office, and I was able to get a lot of experience right away. I moved from Colorado Springs to the Denver office and ended up being a public defender for 10 years. I never thought I would leave, but I became good friends with Iris Eytan, who was working at Reilly Pozner LLP. She wooed me over to work with her in private practice at Reilly Pozner, and I ended up working there for about eight years,” she recalled.
Almost four years ago, Nielsen and Eytan decided to create their own criminal defense practice. “I love it,” Nielsen said about her private practice. “I’m very fortunate to have the ability to have my own criminal defense firm, which is entirely run by women.”
Ward’s path to criminal defense work began later in his law school career. “My dad was an officer in a labor union, so originally I thought I wanted to do labor law,” he said. “But after three years in law school, I decided labor law was not for me.”
While a law student, Ward participated in the Rothgerber Moot Court Competition. “My team won the Rothgerber Moot Court Competition final round at Colorado Law, and we also competed in the New York Bar Association National Moot Court Competition,” he recalled. “Moot court was one of the most important experiences for me in law school.”
Additionally, Ward interned with McDermott & Hanson, focusing on civil litigation. During his third year, Ward met Nielsen and began learning more about public defenders and criminal defense. “I took a criminal law and evidence class with Professor [Mimi] Wesson and I really liked it. I was also hanging out with Dru a lot in my third year, and she was working for the public defender at the time.”
After law school, Ward briefly interned with the ACLU of Colorado, but it was through networking that he managed to find his way to a career in criminal defense. “I went to the public defender’s conference in the fall after graduating from law school. I talked to [former Colorado State Public Defender] David Vela (’73) about possible job openings, and a few weeks later I had an interview, and then a job in Denver. Soon after, they offered me a position in Pueblo, and since Dru was in Colorado Springs I thought it would be a great opportunity to be closer to her and continue working as a public defender.”
Throughout Ward’s career, he gained invaluable advice and support from other attorneys. “The training experience with the public defender’s office is second to none,” he said. “When I started at the Pueblo Public Defender’s Office, I worked for [former Colorado State Public Defender] Doug Wilson, and he had a huge influence on my career. He was a great teacher in the trial world.” In 2001, Ward started his own solo office, The Ward Law Firm PC, before forming McDermott, Stuart & Ward in 2016. “When I was starting out in my solo practice I rented space with Jim Castle, and he encouraged me to get involved in federal criminal defense which is now a big part of my practice,” he remembered.
Both Ward and Nielsen are extremely proud of the work they do and the people they are able to help. “Working in criminal defense is an opportunity to work with people at the lowest points in their lives. Every component of society is trying to label them as a criminal but they have family and friends—they are people. They made a mistake, and I have always found something redeeming about all of my clients,” Ward said. Nielsen recalled some of her recent victories: “Just last night I was celebrating with a team of lawyers because Curtis Brooks was granted clemency. I am extremely happy to be part of that team that helped Curtis.”
“Another client I have had the honor of representing is Tom Fallis. Mr. Fallis was wrongly accused of the murder of his wife. Representing Mr. Fallis and achieving the right outcome has been a tremendous moment in my career.”
Nielsen’s advice to young attorneys is to persevere in your passion. “I didn’t like public speaking, I would get bright red and sweaty when I was called on,” she remembered. “I would get so embarrassed, but I kept going. I would advise students to persevere and do what you love.”
“I was different than Dru—when I was a kid, I did theater and I performed a lot,” said Ward. “However, I think for young attorneys it’s important to be yourself and have authenticity as a trial lawyer. Do it your way to show what you believe in. Also, always be nice to the clerk.”
What do you wish other people knew about working in criminal defense?
Nielsen: You have an opportunity to help innocent people.
Ward: Whether it is a very serious felony or a seemingly minor charge, our clients always have a lot at stake. Sometimes the potential collateral consequences like losing one’s livelihood can be more severe than what happens in the courtroom. Helping someone through a very difficult situation with a positive result is incredibly rewarding.
Who are some of your role models, professionally and personally?
Nielsen: RBG, Martin Luther King, Sonia Sotomayor, Lisa Wayne, Iris Eytan.
Ward: The best role models I could ever have are my parents. My mom for her incredible warmth and generosity and my dad for his ability to stay positive and make people laugh no matter what the situation.
What might someone be surprised to know about you?
Nielsen: I grew up in Colorado, and I love to ski, but I’m terrified of mountain driving.
Ward: Once my car broke down in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and by the end of the day, I was awarded the Key to the City. True story.
What is a book that you read recently that you would recommend?
Nielsen: My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor.
Ward: The Newcomers by Helen Thorpe. It was inspiring to hear the stories of refugee children right here in Denver, the horrible situations they fled and the incredible challenges of learning a new language and functioning in a completely foreign environment.
If you could do another job for just one day, what would it be?
Ward: I was asked this question on my first job interview with a bank after graduating from University of Illinois with a finance degree, and I answered “rock star.” Needless to say I didn’t get the job, which worked out for the best!