A Solid Foundation

How Jeffrey W. Coleman built a construction law career out of an engineering degree

Published in 2016 Minnesota Super Lawyers — August 2016

I wanted to be an engineer coming out of high school. I was good at math and science and chemistry; and in those days, if you were good at those things, you were supposed to be an engineer. So I went to Iowa State—I grew up in Cedar Rapids—and I got a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, and then stayed on for a master’s degree in structural engineering. 

I wanted to design big structures: bridges, buildings. If you wanted to do that kind of work, you had to be in Kansas City or St. Louis or Chicago or New York—big cities. Well, the only big city I wanted to be in was Minneapolis, because it’s halfway to my cabin up on the Gunflint Trail. So I came up here in 1977 and started working as a structural engineer at Ellerbe.

But then, a couple interesting things happened that changed my perspective. In 1978, the Hartford Civic Center Coliseum collapses—with a big snow load on it—in downtown Hartford, Connecticut. I ended up being the on-site structural engineer and, later, the on-site construction representative for Ellerbe during the reconstruction. When you walk around a building collapse like that—that had 4,000 people in it the night before, just hours before the collapse—you think, ‘Holy crap. This is serious stuff.’  

[Then] the Rosemont Horizon in Chicago collapsed, the Kemper Arena roof collapsed in Kansas City, and the Hyatt Regency walkway collapsed in Kansas City and killed over 100 people. The structures were all less than 10 years old.

There was actually a congressional study done on why all these buildings were collapsing, and it had to do with high interest rates; everybody was building really fast. One of the co-authors on that congressional study was this young Tennessee congressman I’d never heard of named Al Gore. Well, this was in the early ’80s, and I thought, ‘Gee, this guy’s pretty bright—he’s got it pretty figured out.’

From that job, I moved up to Massachusetts for a job on the Worcester civic center, where we got into a 200-plus-day arbitration fight with some contractors. I ended up helping the lawyers work with the engineers. … In the midst of that I realized—and I joked with people about this—‘The lawyers are having a lot more fun with this than the engineers and the architects are. I think I’ll go to night law school.’

From there it was one day at a time. I figured I’d take the LSAT, and if I did OK, then I’d take the next step. I started at William Mitchell [College of Law] in 1980, and I had one child when I started and two when I finished. About all I did was work, eat, sleep, study and go to law school. I gave up television for four years. 

But I did it because I wanted to be an attorney working with architects and engineers in construction. And that’s exactly what I’ve been able to do. Also, in my master’s thesis work, I did research in fatigue behavior of concrete pavements for the Iowa Department of Transportation, which started my interest in concrete. And I’ve stayed with that for coming up on 40 years. 

I’m still licensed as an engineer in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, and I’m licensed as an attorney in Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota. My goal was to do exactly what I’m doing, and I’m doing it. 

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