It was a college aptitude test that propelled Leonard Wagner, a self-described small-town Wisconsin boy, to embark on a long legal career in Kansas City culminating as in-house lawyer to one of the city’s most prominent employers.
Wagner, associate general counsel for Kansas City Southern, is originally from Wisconsin. He attended a high school seminary in Liberty, then went to Rockhurst College (now Rockhurst University) in Kansas City, where he took an aptitude/interest assessment at the career center.
“Out of three suggested careers (teacher, actor, lawyer), I thought my best chance for success would be as a lawyer,” Wagner said. “I also thought becoming a lawyer would offer me the most options for different kinds of careers in the future, and I think that has certainly been true.”
Wagner returned home to attend the University of Wisconsin for law school, where he earned his law degree in 1989. But Kansas City called again when Watson, Ess, Marshall & Enggas, where he had clerked during law school, offered him a position as an associate upon graduation.
“I’m a small-town boy and always thought Kansas City was just the right size city and still had lots of events, arts and opportunity,” Wagner said.
The Watson Ess firm closed in 1996, prompting Wagner to move to Armstrong Teasdale and then in 1999 to jump to Husch & Eppenberger, part of today’s Husch Blackwell. His 20-year career in private practice focused on litigation and appellate work in a wide variety of areas, including some cases where he defended crossing accident lawsuits for railroads. That breadth of experience prepared him well for his career with Kansas City Southern, where he started in early 2008.
“I liked the idea of not having to find my own clients or squabble with partners over credit for clients and billings,” he said. “However, I was also leery about taking a job as an in-house attorney. What I hoped for was to work for a solid company and to stay in Kansas City. When that opportunity came along at Kansas City Southern, I knew it was right for me, and I jumped at the chance.”
There was a bit of a learning curve, of course, as railroads face industry-specific issues. The Federal Employers’ Liability Act governs railroads’ liability for injuries to railroad employees, and federal law determines such things as the types of warnings installed at railroad crossings, which can pre-empt certain state law claims.
Railroads, of course, travel through multiple states, creating jurisdiction and venue challenges. There are Kansas City Southern lines in the United States, Mexico and Panama, although they are operated by separate but affiliated entities operating under different countries’ laws. That means Wagner wouldn’t necessarily be involved in a suit involving, say, its subsidiary in Mexico, Kansas City Southern de México, S.A. de C.V.
“Since I deal with litigation, the only real challenge for me is when someone tries to sue KCSM in the U.S., and when that happens, I work with the KCSM legal department in Mexico to assist them in defending the case,” he said.
Of course, the obvious question for anyone who has ever thrilled to the whistle of a train: Did Wagner become a lawyer for Kansas City Southern to live out a life-long love of railroads?
“No, I can’t say I was a railroad buff then,” he said, “but I love the history of this company and take every opportunity to soak it up!”