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New Partners 2013: Missouri roots

Most new partners went to in-state schools

Melissa Meinzer//February 11, 2013//

New Partners 2013: Missouri roots

Most new partners went to in-state schools

Melissa Meinzer//February 11, 2013//

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Fang Shen, a new partner at Husch Blackwell, grew up in China but has made Missouri her home since she attended law school 12 years ago at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Photo by Susan McSpadden

Of the 94 new partners on the New Partners list this year, 55 earned their law degrees in-state. Saint Louis University School of Law saw 19 alumni make partner. Fourteen were from Washington University School of Law, 13 from the University of Missouri and nine from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Is being from the area — or educated in-state — an advantage to advancing through firm ranks? Or does the commonality just mean that people from the region like staying close to home?

New partners, established attorneys and law school career administrators cite family ties and strong alumni networks as well as a welcoming environment for practicing law as reasons young attorneys seek an education and a career in the Midwest. One new partner who grew up in Missouri returned home after years of practicing in London, and one has been putting down roots here for a dozen years, since she left China for UMKC.


The incentive to stay local and to grow into partnership begins in law school, if not before.

Lisa Key, assistant dean for career development and student services at the University of Missouri School of Law, said Mizzou graduates are practicing law in all of Missouri’s 114 counties and the city of St. Louis.

“It’s a strong alumni network,” she said. “It provides strong support. We promote to our students the network of University of Missouri law school alumni through the state.”

Key said that typically only about 15 percent of each law school class comes from out of state. After graduation, about 15 percent — though not, she noted, the same students — leave Missouri to begin practicing law.

At Wash U, the percentage of students coming from out of state is much larger, at 82 percent in 2012, said Katherine P. Scannell, assistant dean for law career services. But the biggest concentration of alumni is here in Missouri.

“Even as Wash U has begun to draw students from all over the country, many come here and want to stay in Missouri,” she said. The 261-member class of 2012 had 46 students from Missouri, but 69 students were employed in the state after graduating, Scannell said.

Mary Pat McInnis, assistant dean at Saint Louis University School of Law’s office of career services, said most SLU law grads work in the St. Louis area or in southern Illinois. Advisers at universities and law schools nationwide tell students to think about where they’d ultimately like to practice as they are choosing where to study, she said. Young attorneys across the country often start their practice close to where they attended law school, she said.

But specific programs can lead students to attend a specific school, whether they want to practice in that region or not. The incoming class at SLU Law, she said, had students from 25 states. Graduates who don’t stay local often head to Washington, D.C.

“That is where we have a significant footprint” outside St. Louis, she said, based on the school’s health law program, rated No. 1 in the US News and World Report rankings for eight years in a row.

Firms, too, she said, are interested in hiring from the locally developed talent pool.

“Law firms put a lot of money into people, into training and retaining them and grooming them to be good lawyers and partners in their firms,” she said. “You don’t want a flight risk — that’s a lot of money.”

Don G. Lents is chairman of Bryan Cave, the St. Louis-headquartered multi-national firm that leads Missouri Lawyers Weekly’s MOney 20 list of the state’s top-earning firms. Of the four new Missouri partners this year, two have in-state educations, one at Wash U and one at SLU.

“I don’t think our experience has been that it’s disproportionate,” the Harvard-educated Lents said of Missouri-educated attorneys making partner. “We bring into the firm lots of lawyers from different places, including law schools in Missouri.”

Strong networks

Matt Dameron became an equity partner at Stueve Siegel Hanson in Kansas City last year, working in the firm’s public client, commercial litigation and securities practices. He grew up in Sedalia, a small Missouri town outside Kansas City, and earned his undergraduate and law degrees at Mizzou.

“I like the practice of law in the Midwest,” he said. “We’re fortunate in the Midwest to get to practice law in a way that you can maintain some work-life balance. You work with other lawyers who are friendly and amicable. I think I’d enjoy it less in Los Angeles or Chicago.”

That is not, he added, to downplay the skills of Midwestern counsel.

“It’s not that lawyers in the Midwest can’t handle the most complex litigation in the country,” he said. “We approach it differently. Particularly in Kansas City, it’s a small legal market. We have a vested interest in maintaining relationships.”

His path to partner, which he calls “the end of the first leg of a marathon” as opposed to a destination, has included clerking for U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey and serving as chief of staff for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster.

Dameron said he takes calls from law students and newly minted attorneys all the time, lending a hand or a listening ear at the beginning of a career. He said sometimes students or new attorneys find him through a formal process Mizzou has of referrals, as well as a more “organic” process where young lawyers know he takes cold calls and requests for informational meetings seriously.

“There were people who did that for me,” he said. “I think it’s a very cultural thing. I can’t think of many lawyers my age who if they got a call, especially if there’s some nexus between you and the person calling — an alumni network or a friend — who wouldn’t do that. Good lawyers recognize it’s a very small market. The person you help today may be very helpful to you five years down the line.”

Morry Cole is a firm principal at Gray, Ritter & Graham in St. Louis. He grew up in Missouri, and, though he left to attend Baylor University in Texas for his undergraduate studies, he is a University of Missouri law graduate.

“Whenever any of us have deep roots and family and friends in a state, it makes the decision to stay in that state easier,” he said. “The University of Missouri law school stays in good contact with their alumni.”

Half the attorneys at his firm started out in summer positions, he said, which draw strongly on Missouri schools. And part of the temperament that makes a successful attorney, and one who gets promoted to partner, is successful networking during school and soon after.

Local ties, he said, figure into young attorney’s choices as well as firm hiring decisions.

“The partnership decision remains one that both sides weigh very carefully in terms of what’s good for the lawyer and what’s good for the firm, and what’s good for everyone’s future in the immediate and long term.”

Home from abroad

Aaron Mann and Fang Shen are two of the newly promoted class of partners at Husch Blackwell in Kansas City, and both traveled far to get there. Mann’s Missouri ties began with childhood, and Shen forged strong new ones after emigrating from China as a young woman.

Mann, who specializes in complex commercial disputes and intellectual property litigation and works with the international practice team, grew up near Kansas City. He left Missouri for his undergraduate education and again for law school.

Most recently, he and his family moved to London for four years to work at the firm’s office there. He still maintains a British presence, and represents European clients all over the U.S.

But Kansas City is home.

“With the work I do, I feel pretty confident that I can do it from here just as well as I can do it from anywhere,” he said. “I would rather spend less on my living arrangement and cost of living and have a good quality of life — it’s very true, the Midwest is a very comfortable place to live.”

Sometimes, though, European clients need a little reassurance.

“I have to do a bit more convincing of international clients that we are capable of handling these things even though we don’t have a Los Angeles office.”

And since the clients have matters all over the country, it’s actually a benefit to be away from the coasts, he said.

“I’m not constrained by being in the Midwest — if anything it makes it easier to reach the four corners of the U.S. When I say to Europeans I’m from Kansas City, I try to describe the U.S. as a dartboard and Kansas City as the bull’s-eye.”

Shen grew up far from that bull’s-eye, in Taiyuan, a city of about 4 million in China’s Shanxi Province, in the north-central part of the country. She began her legal education in Beijing, where she learned about UMKC through a summer law program at Peking University.

She learned about scholarships for foreign students and earned her law degree in Kansas City, where she has practiced ever since.

During her career, she considered options back in China or at big-city U.S. firms. But with the laid-back lifestyle and the thriving international community of Kansas City, she chose to stay and raise her family.

“After three years of legal education, I wasn’t ready to give up U.S. work and just do China work, but that seems to be the path if you choose a West or East Coast firm.”

At Husch Blackwell, Shen said, she’s able to handle several kinds of work instead of being pigeonholed. Her practice, she said, is equally divided between mergers and acquisitions, Asian cross-border transaction work and general corporate and contract work.

“I really fell in love with the Midwestern culture,” she said. “The simplicity of life, the ability to find a work-life balance in a legal career — that’s harder to find in bigger cities or going back to China.” MO

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