Attorney of the Month Steven J. Terry
A Reputation Built on Character and Results
By Haley Freeman
A well-recognized figure in the Twin Cities, Steven Terry is more than the founding partner of TSR Injury Law and the face that Minnesotans associate with the phrase “TSR Time.” Terry is a genuinely nice guy, husband and father, whose determination to do the right thing for injured people has guaranteed justice for thousands of Minnesota families.
Terry grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and was raised by a well-educated trio: his father, Dr. Robert Terry, his mother, Dr. Jo-Ann Terry and his Harvard-educated stepfather, Frank Steiner. He attended high school at the well-regarded Cass Technical High School (of which Diana Ross is an alumna), where he was a minority in an institution that occupied a full city block in a crime-ridden area of downtown. He moved to Minnesota to be near his father and attend the University of Minnesota, where he developed an interest in criminology and sociology. “I got it into my head that I wanted to be an FBI agent,” he said. “That was my goal and why I went to law school.”
During his second year at William Mitchell College of Law, where he graduated magna cum laude and served on the law review, Terry’s FBI fantasy faded away. “I started taking classes in torts, medical malpractice and products liability. I could not believe how interesting this area of law was. The material was so logical and entertaining that I would read assignments before they were due.”
While having lunch with a fellow law student who was clerking for an insurance defense firm, Terry experienced an epiphany. “He told me about a case where his law firm planned to assert the Emergency Doctrine to defend a car crash case. I truly did not understand why he would want to do that since it would further hurt the already injured plaintiff. We had a fairly serious discussion that day about what is right and wrong, and it became clear that I was wired to help the injured person and hold tortfeasors accountable for their actions. Plaintiff ’s work was my future.”
After clerking for The Honorable Isabel Gomez and working briefly for a corporate firm (he quit after a month of reading bank contracts), Terry found a position with two solo personal injury practitioners who hired him as a clerk and eventually as an associate. He then received some sage advice from his now brother-in-law, Peter Barry, who suggested that he advertise in the yellow pages. His bosses, however, didn’t want to make the investment, so Terry took a loan out against his home and made an agreement to share the profits on whatever business came in. Only a year later, Terry had so much work that he signed a separation agreement, took along his secretary Sherri Beyenhof (now the lead paralegal and business manager of TSR) and opened up Terry & Associates.
Terry attributes a great portion of his professional success to the lessons and support he received from his parents. When he was unable to get a bank loan for his new business, Terry’s father “gutted his retirement and gave me the money. He said he knew I was going to succeed. I paid it back with interest in about eight months, and the funds were very helpful, but it was his faith in me that I valued most. My mom instilled a hard work ethic (she earned her doctorate at the University of Michigan while raising me and working fulltime) and always showed me uncompromising love no matter how bad I messed up – loving me for who I am and not trying to make me into somebody else. I’ve always known that if things didn’t go well for me, I could only blame myself, because it was not for lack of foundation given to me by my parents.”
Eighty hour work weeks lasted a few years, and help was needed. The firm soon became Terry & Slane, when Terry was joined by his law school buddy, Chuck Slane. “Chuck used to give me files to litigate that his old firm did not want to handle. After a few years of handoffs, we decided working together would be better.” The firm’s next incarnation came when they were joined by Rich Ruohonen. “It is pronounced like Rich is ‘ruinin’’ the law firm,” Terry explained with his characteristic good humor. “So the firm became TSR, because nobody could pronounce Rich’s last name.”
Each attorney played to their strengths. Slane took over litigation; Terry focused on marketing, business development, firm management; and Ruohonen did both, often explaining “how his back hurts from carrying both of us.” By the time partners Nate Bjerke and Erik Willer came on board, the TSR brand was well-established and the firm elected not to change its name again.
Today, TSR Injury Law has grown to five partners, five associates and 27 staff members. Terry maintains a busy practice, consistently representing 200 clients and managing the firm. TSR’s continued growth is rooted in its culture of expert care, where clients are ethically represented and cases are rigorously pursued. Terry explains that while the TSR brand has become a local icon, it is the firm’s reputation for getting results that brings clients through the door. “Even though we advertise, the majority of our new business comes from current and past clients and from other professionals. We may not be very well-liked by the insurance companies’ bean counters, but the defense lawyers and claim adjusters refer their family to us when they need an attorney. They know who does it the right way and gets results. That’s the greatest testimonial there is.”
About the firm’s sometimes controversial advertising image, Terry said, “I’ve had many lawyers come up and say they don’t like advertising in general, but respect our firm because we do a great job. We don’t just settle and get rid of cases. We try cases and get results. I can’t think of another plaintiff ’s firm that is trying as many cases as we are right now. Our best marketing is our results. Even if we lose at trial, our other clients win because insurance companies offer better settlements knowing we will not go away.”
Because of those litigation results, other firms are sending their cases to TSR. “When someone brings us a case, we take over and prepare it for trial. There are numerous instances when we show up at the first hearing and the insurance company will up their last ‘final offer.’ Over time, the momentum of what my litigation partners have created is the expectation of victory. We are serious about trying cases when offers are not fair. We recently added a courtroom to the firm so our attorneys can better practice and prepare for trial.”
Terry is also the current president of the Minnesota Association for Justice (formerly Minnesota Trial Lawyers Association). He has been on MAJ’s board of governors for almost 10 years with the last five on the presidential track. He became an active participant in the association as a new attorney, serving on its many committees and learning from more experienced lawyers. “I got involved, and those lawyers all took me under their wing,” he said.
As president, he is often at the legislature alongside executive director, Carla Ferrucci, and lobbyist, Joel Carlson, monitoring legislative hearings and promoting consumer rights bills that better protect Minnesota families. “Right now there is a Republican-led debate about rampant insurance fraud in Minnesota. National experts are brought in claiming Minnesota is under attack. The examples given, however, are problems in other states. What is frustrating is no one is pro-fraud. Consumers do not endorse insurance fraud and MAJ certainly does not endorse fraud. But, the question of how big the problem really is in Minnesota and what to do about it is debatable. Insurance companies have proposed that we eliminate certain consumer rights to curb fraud (with the clear inevitable result of protecting and increasing their profits). Instead, MAJ advocates for the enforcement of already existing consumer protection laws, which will achieve the same outcome while protecting current consumer rights. We don’t need more laws, we just need to enforce those we already have.”
Often honored by his peers, Terry has been recognized as a Minnesota Rising Star and Super Lawyer, and he received the Minnesota State Bar Association’s Award for Professional Excellence for his generous pro bono work on the 35W Bridge Collapse Consortium.
Terry is well-known in the Twin Cities, and is frequently seen court-side rooting for the Timberwolves or in his helmet and leathers riding his Harley. He and his wife, Jennifer, have two daughters, and Terry expresses that he likes officing close to his home and kid’s schools so he can be on hand to attend all of their extracurricular events.
His tenacity and unwavering commitment to his own principles have resulted in a gratifying and successful career. “I feel blessed to be where I am. This is absolutely what I was supposed to do with my life. Sometimes I can’t believe that I’ve found a way to practice law, run a business, do exactly what I’m good at and get to work with law partners that are true friends. I truly believe that a personal injury law firm can be aggressive and ethical while still being successful.”