Ryan Lessmann ('04) has been rated as one of the region’s top employment defense lawyers while also running the busy Denver office of a top workplace law firm, Jackson Lewis P.C. Despite the success of his practice, he stays humble as a leader, lawyer, and even Ironman triathlete.
"I am honored that Jackson Lewis put me in a leadership role and allowed me to maximize my desire to be a servant leader," he said.
"I have long practiced ‘servant leadership,’ regardless of whether I’ve officially held a leadership role," he continued. "Servant leaders do not hoard power, put the needs of others first, and serve first."
In return, Lessmann, the office managing principal of Jackson Lewis, has led the productivity of 15 lawyers and 30 staff members in the firm's Denver office.
Lessmann grew up outside St. Louis. He attended a diverse high school, which he said helped shape his worldview and enabled him to understand the feelings behind some of the claims he sees in his law practice. After high school, he left St. Louis to go to DePauw University in Indiana, where Lessmann was a varsity tennis player. After graduating in 2000 with a degree in philosophy, he went to work for Republican Congressman Jim Talent during his campaign for Missouri governor.
"It was an interesting time in Missouri politics," Lessmann said. "A beloved Democratic U.S. Senator, Mel Carnahan, died in a plane crash just weeks before the election. Many thought that shifted the political tide in favor of the Democrats, and Jim Talent narrowly lost his gubernatorial bid. He later went on to be elected to the U.S. Senate."
Lessmann received valuable career advice from Senator Talent while working on the campaign: to consider law school, as it would open more doors for Lessmann’s career. Senator Talent was also a distinguished lawyer, having graduated from Harvard Law School and clerked for Judge Richard Posner on the Seventh Circuit. So Lessmann listened. He was married the year he worked for Talent, so Lessmann and his wife picked a law school "with a focus on where (they) wanted to live."
"We visited Notre Dame, but it snowed about a foot that day, and my wife was interested in leaving Indiana, where she had grown up," Lessmann said. "I got into some well-known schools in Washington, D.C., but I think three years at CU were the same price as one year at one of those schools. In combination with the fact that both my wife and I loved the Colorado mountains, we decided to move to Colorado and go to CU."
Lessmann was involved in many activities during his time at CU. He was a teaching assistant for legal writing, a research assistant for Professor Carolyn Ramsey, and an articles editor for the Colorado Journal of International Environmental Law and Policy. Given his success in law school, it follows that Lessmann started off his career with a prestigious job.
"Professor Allison Eid—now Colorado Supreme Court Justice Eid—encouraged all of her students to apply for clerkships," Lessmann said. "I took her advice and applied."
Lessmann wound up clerking for one of Justice Eid’s current colleagues—Justice Nathan B. Coats ('77).
"Clerking was certainly a wonderful experience, and a springboard to my career," Lessmann said. "Working for Justice Coats was like working for a patient, private tutor. He knew the law inside and out, but gave his clerks room to explore on their own, form opinions, and articulate an opinion in writing."
When Lessmann made the transition to Davis Graham & Stubbs, he discovered his niche in employment litigation.
"DGS had a rotational program for new lawyers, whereby they were able to practice in one practice area for a year, then rotate to another," Lessmann said. "I started with employment law my first year, then moved to commercial litigation my second year. I realized that I gravitated toward litigation, but preferred the real-people issues of employment law and the faster moving pace to the issues in commercial litigation."
Lessmann has thrived in employment litigation. He was recognized by Super Lawyers as a top employment litigation defense attorney in Denver. After getting into employment litigation at DGS, Lessmann met Mickey Silberman, then-managing partner of the Denver office of Jackson Lewis. Lessmann gravitated toward Silberman and the firm, and he decided to take a job there.
"I have long believed that who you practice with is as important as what you practice,” Lessmann said. "With Mickey and his team, I was able to combine the ‘who’ with the ‘what.’ It was a bit of a leap of faith, but I’ve never looked back."
When asked what moments or cases from his legal career stand out, he remembers a case from his time as an associate.
"I worked with a partner from our Atlanta office on a wage and hour class action case," Lessmann said. "Judge (Marcia) Krieger ('79) granted summary judgment in our favor at the district court level on an issue of first impression. It was gratifying to see a judge interpret a regulation in the same way as we advocated. The case was then appealed to the Tenth Circuit, and I helped prepare the partner for oral argument. For days, we drank lots of coffee and pondered over issues of statutory construction, constitutional issues, and considered every question the judges might ask. It was law in its truest form. Best of all, the Tenth Circuit affirmed in our favor."
Lessmann's path since Colorado Law has been impressive: clerking for the Colorado Supreme Court to associate at a prestigious regional firm to office managing principal of the Denver office of a national firm. Despite the demands of his career, he still finds time to spend with his wife and three children, as well as train for half-Ironman and Ironman triathlons.