Those familiar with Kris Arneson’s career would likely describe her as an institution in the Twin Cities employment law bar. She is a familiar and well-respected figure among corporate counsel and private practitioners alike, and her long tenure at Wells Fargo (and its predecessor, Norwest Corporation) suggests a clear and steady path. Interesting, then, that when asked to describe her career in a single word, Kris chose “serpentine.”
From the time she was five, Kris was a figure skater. She started in the “bus program” taking group lessons once a week at the Golden Valley Ice Center and she progressed quickly and became a serious figure skater relocating in her teens to Colorado to train with renowned coach Carlo Fassi, coach of Olympic champions Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill. Kris remains active in U.S. Figure Skating as a member of several committees and a judge and referee of high-level figure skating competitions. For figure skaters, “serpentine” has a very special meaning, and her choice of the term to describe her career path reveals something of Kris’s personal history and experience that may not be obvious to the casual observer. Here’s the official definition:
A serpentine is a basic three-lobed compulsory figure done in figure skating. One and one-half circles are skated on each foot.
The figure is skated by first going a half circle on the ice on the center lobe. Then, the skater executes a change of edge on the same foot and completes a full circle on the end lobe of the figure. The same action is repeated on the other foot.
As one long-time figure skating judge puts it, “The serpentine should look simple and effortless, but it’s not. It requires balance, control, precision, accuracy, and the ability to transition smoothly from one edge to another.”
Before she went to college, Kris assumed she would have a career as a figure skater. Her first job was teaching figure skating during her undergraduate years at St. Olaf College. During those college years, however, she became less focused on skating and started to feel what she describes as “confused” about her future. She took some undergraduate constitutional law courses from St. Olaf professor Charles Umbanhauer, and in the process of reading and briefing cases she “fell in love with the stories” that were at the heart of the law. That led to law school at the University of Minnesota, where she got her Juris Doctor degree in 1983.
Kris clerked at Morrison & Foerster’s Los Angeles office during law school and joined Frederikson & Byron in Minneapolis after graduation. Employment law was developing rapidly in the early 1980’s, and soon became Kris’ practice focus. She recalls being fortunate to have had supportive mentors in those early years. Nevertheless, being a woman lawyer in the 1980’s was not always easy, and Kris remembers that she and her female peers thought it important that they not “act too differently” from male lawyers. There were few female confidantes and fewer female mentors available, and both were important. Kris observes that women entering the legal profession now have many more mentor choices than those available at the start of her career.
After a few years of private practice in management-side employment and labor law, Kris became the first in-house employment lawyer at Norwest Corporation, which was beginning a period of exceptional expansion. She recalls being given extraordinary opportunities to do things that relatively junior lawyers don’t usually get to do, and being trusted by her superiors to assume great responsibility. Norwest’s expansion included buying dozens of smaller banks all over the country. From an employment law perspective, all those acquisitions required that Kris oversee the merging of company work cultures that could be very different. From benefits to discipline policies to supervisory hierarchies, Kris saw to it that employees were merged into Norwest’s systems with a minimum of personnel problems and legal issues. Through it all, she developed and maintained what she thinks of as one of her strengths: the ability to take the enterprise view. She learned to see beyond and across corporate lines of authority and corporate policies and to recognize how individuals, groups, and issues fit into the big picture. Today, mentoring less senior lawyers on how to achieve that enterprise view is one of the most rewarding parts of her job.
In 1998, Norwest bought Wells Fargo & Company, including Wells Fargo Bank, and that acquisition brought very challenging logistical issues for everyone involved, including Kris. Her already demanding and consuming job became even more so, and Kris also began to struggle with a serious health issue which took a long time to diagnose and address.
Becoming ill, and coming back from illness, has taught Kris that work-life balance is a necessity. She knows from experience how easily a professional career can consume you and affect your priorities. Now, she tries to be as disciplined about taking care of herself as she is about performing her professional responsibilities.
Kris very much enjoys her work and expects to keep at it. She also makes room in her life for other interests: figure skating; working on homelessness issues, particularly as they relate to the young; working on how to feed the hungry and how we source our food; and bringing art into everyone’s life. An ambitious set of priorities, but undoubtedly carried out with the same calm, diligence and smiling certainty that Kris brings to employment law. She talks about the importance of “practical humanness,” and that’s a quality she exhibits every day.
When asked what advice she would give to women lawyers beginning their legal careers, she recommends being prepared to “serpentine.” She encourages women lawyers – and all lawyers – to be ready to take different or unexpected paths, to learn to juggle and make choices, and then to “just move forward” in their selected direction.