Published in 2019 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers Magazine on November 13, 2019
In April 2016, more than a decade after they started their firm, Tom O’Toole and Tom Mickes made a decision that transformed their brand. They named two new hires—Vince Reese and Jeff St. Omer, both African American men—equity partners.
“There was opportunity to be aggressive on the diversity front, to be a minority- and women-owned law firm, and make that a focal point of the next generation of the firm,” Reese says. “From a business perspective, and from a competitive perspective, we think that opens up a lot of opportunities. But we also think, in some sense, it’s something that’s long overdue.”
Less than four years later, Mickes O’Toole has nearly doubled in staff size; 78 percent are women or people of color.
“Diversity, for us, has become a part of our culture; it’s ingrained. I can’t tell you about our firm without talking about it,” Reese says. “It’s part of every conversation we have with clients.”
One of the first things they saw happen when they made the change, Reese says, is other attorneys expressing interest in joining a more inclusive work environment; with experienced attorneys comes books of business.
“So immediately we are not only bringing in top-talented attorneys, we’re also bringing in new clients and diversifying our client portfolio,” he says. “There’s profound evidence that diverse groups tend to outperform non-diverse groups. They can more easily provide unique perspectives and broader connections, which is key—especially in the legal profession. Clients are always looking for innovative ways to solve problems.”
Businesses are increasingly headed by women, people of color and other minority groups, and they want representation to reflect that, too. “Clients want to work with a firm that they identify with and can share the same diverse perspectives, and we have come a long way to create an environment that is truly reflective of the community we live in and clients we serve,” says Natalie Hoernschemeyer, who heads the firm’s education practice.
“A week-and-a-half ago, I was talking to the president of a large banking client, and he flat-out said, ‘We like the diversity you guys have, and we think there are lots of things that we can collaborate on to help us increase our position in the community, our client base, and also community outreach.’ I think that story is the same for several of our clients,” Reese says.
Private practice demographics show women and minorities are still rare in board rooms. Any firm can choose to become more diverse, Reese says, but it takes more effort than merely saying you care.
“The legal industry has been working on this problem for decades, and if you look at the progress that’s been made over the last 20 years, it’s disappointing to say the least,” Reese says. “It’s not that easy, because if it were, everybody would be succeeding in doing it.”
It takes commitment to devote time, energy, and effort to make it successful, Reese says. With hiring, for example, they recognized that everyone has unconscious biases, “but if you have a team making your hiring decisions that is diverse, what you’ll find is those biases counteract themselves,” he says.
“A lot of people will say, ‘We tried, but nobody applied or we didn’t get any qualified candidates,’” Reese says. “If something is a business priority, then you generally do whatever is necessary to achieve it. What we do is reach out to the law schools and different bar associations, and make sure that people know who we are and what we value.”
Whenever Mickes O’Toole hires, Hoernschemeyer says applicants are drawn to the workforce makeup. “That’s a huge bonus, to say over 70 percent of the partners are women and the executive committee is two-thirds African American. It’s hard enough to be a female litigator. You want an environment that knows and supports where you’re coming from.”
Having underrepresented groups in charge helps; not only do they have decision-making power, but it provides mentorship and sends signals to others that they can succeed. They are committed to a support system so attorneys “feel like this is not just a job for a couple of years to put on their résumé, but someplace they can put roots down,” Reese says.
“I head the education practice; we have a banking practice headed by a female partner, and a public finance group led by a female partner,” Hoernschemeyer says. “We have a place at the table to make change, and I’ve never seen a firm do what we do to encourage and retain people with families and interests in the community.”
The firm has experienced growth as a direct result of diversity, Reese says, “but what I’m also encouraged about is that the legal profession is extraordinarily competitive and a copycat industry. So if we do something as a firm and we are successful, other law firms will notice. If somebody wants to copy that, copy away. I’d love for that to happen.”
Mickes O’Toole’s Diversity Statistics
65%: Attorneys are either women or attorneys of color
67%: Firm’s executive committee is African-American
70%: Partners are members of underrepresented groups