The life and legal concerns of an in-house counsel are always changing, as Brian E. Gardner, executive vice president and general counsel of Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, knows well.
“The typical day is always atypical,” he said.
Gardner’s career, different than what he originally envisioned for himself, left him well-prepared for such a role. A native of Story County, Iowa, near Ames, Gardner’s plan in attending the University of Iowa College of Law was to practice locally.
“I had really never thought about leaving Iowa or practicing in a large firm,” he said. “I thought I would probably settle into a one- or two-person practice and stay close to my family in central Iowa.”
But a friend who had clerked for a large firm encouraged Gardner to seek a similar experience. He saw a law school posting for a clerkship at the Kansas City firm of Morrison & Hecker and, not wanting to leave the Midwest, gave it a try.
“I signed up for an interview, and one thing led to another,” he said.
The clerkship turned into an associate position after he graduated in 1978. He went back briefly to Iowa in 1980 to join a small law firm, but he returned to Morrison & Hecker about a year later to help open the firm’s Overland Park office. He eventually rose to become the firm’s managing partner.
In 2002, Gardner helped oversee the merger with Stinson, Mag & Fizzell, and he was front and center at the famous coin toss that determined the new name of the firm would be Stinson Morrison Hecker. (In 2014, another merger with a Minneapolis-based firm changed the named to today’s Stinson Leonard Street.) Gardner initially served as co-chairman of the new firm, but in late 2003 the position with Hallmark came along. Gardner said it was too good to pass up.
“It was the opportunity to be a part of a company that I think has one of the best reputations in the country for not only treasuring and valuing its employees and contributing to the community but also has a business that is devoted to enriching people’s lives,” he said. “To participate in that sort of a company was extremely appealing to me.”
Between serving as managing partner of a large firm and working for a three-attorney operation in a small town, Gardner’s varied background has proved to be a good fit.
“It was an earlier day when I got the benefit of being able to have a whole cross section of matters to handle,” Gardner said. “That was really a good training ground for what I came into in terms what you see in the in-house practice. We cover a whole waterfront of issues.”