Cutler is coming off an extraordinary year. In September, she completed her one-year term as president of The Missouri Bar, marking the first time a woman of color led the organization. That same month saw the premier of “Couples Court with the Cutlers,” the syndicated television show in which she and her husband, Keith Cutler, dispense advice to troubled couples.
“This past 18 months has been a real rollercoaster, but not a scary one,” she said. “Just intense.”
It’s hard to think of two accomplishments further apart on the spectrum than the presidency of a statewide professional organization and a TV show with the motto, “Don’t cheat if you can’t take the heat!” But there is a theme.
As bar president, Cutler pioneered the Courageous Collaboration program to encourage law firms to talk about issues of race, gender, disability, age and sexual orientation. Both efforts have received accolades in their fields: Courageous Collaboration won a Partnership Award from the American Bar Association in 2017, while “Couples Court” recently earned a Daytime Emmy nomination.
Whether it’s about implicit bias in the workplace or possible infidelity in a relationship, Dana Tippin Cutler, Missouri Lawyers Weekly’s 2018 Woman of the Year, is the unchallenged champion of having tough but necessary conversations.
“If you’re creating places where people can have those conversations, big or small, then I just think your organization is going to be that much better,” she said.
Cutler’s outlook on the need for honest communication is a byproduct of her multi-decade relationship with Keith, who also is a partner at James W. Tippin & Associates, the small but wide-ranging Kansas City firm that Dana’s father founded. The Cutlers began dating in college in Atlanta 35 years ago and will have been married for 29 years on June 10.
Cutler is a little bemused that her long marriage has become one of her most marketable assets. But she notes that, between marriage, raising three now-grown sons and running a law firm, she and Keith have seen just about everything a couple can encounter. She recalls something her father told her when she got married: that the real joy was about 30 years out. As she and Keith approach that mark, that sentiment has started to make sense.
“What you feel 30 years out has its own intensity, but it’s a deep heat that is completely different from the hotness of a new relationship,” she said. “It’s like those coals where you let them turn ashy; that’s when it’s really hot, not when you’ve got fire shooting up. That’s when they tell you to cook.” She laughed. “Being from Kansas City, of course I would have a reference to a barbeque grill.”
The benefits of the low-and-slow approach rarely is apparent to the participants on her show. Most of those couples, she notes, have never been in a long-term relationship or known anyone who has. The show appears to owe its success partly to the Cutlers’ mediation skills and partly to their ability to set an example.
“It’s kind of, in its own quirky way, community service,” she said.
On an episode in February, they asked a couple to explain why they still wanted to be together, despite the man’s mysterious year-long absence during their second pregnancy. The woman, who seemed to genuinely love her mate, said she liked his goofy jokes.
“A good woman will laugh with you, not at you,” Keith said.
“Well, she’ll laugh at you sometimes,” Dana responded, to audience applause. “Mr. Cutler, you know, truth be told, you get a little corny too, and I laugh at those corny jokes in spite of me.”
“For the last 35 years,” he reminded her.
Saving a relationship before it breaks down entirely is somewhat akin to the practice of law, where Cutler notes that the job falls “somewhere in the middle between minimizing risks and cleanup.”
It was those same concerns that drove her to start Courageous Collaboration, a Missouri Bar initiative that encourages lawyers, law firms and courts to talk about the subtle misunderstandings and biases that cause problems across the board, from low partnership rates among minority lawyers to rampant substance-abuse issues among attorneys who feel pressured to perform. People spend too much time together at work, she said, without learning to show their co-workers a measure of grace.
“We’ve got to start having these kinds of conversations for the health of our profession, even if it’s painful,” she said.
Tricia Scaglia, president of the Association for Women Lawyers of Greater Kansas City and a member of The Missouri Bar Board of Governors, is a longtime fan of Cutler’s — in 2014, she seconded Cutler’s nomination for a leadership role the organization. Cutler has the perfect demeanor to succeed with a program like Courageous Collaboration that requires participants to talk about things they don’t want to talk about, she said.
“She’s so approachable,” Scaglia said. “She’s so human.”
Just as Cutler the TV judge is a model for those with poor relationship skills, Cutler the immediate past president of The Missouri Bar (“the best title ever,” she said) remains a model for the diversity its leadership team wants to see. She’s just the third African American lawyer ever to lead the organization, though she’s ambivalent about the historic significance of her term.
“Whether you’re a lawyer or a kid who wants to be a lawyer, to see people that look like you is important for them,” she said. “It was less important for me.”
Cutler said the bar’s board of governors is more diverse than ever and wants to be inclusive, but it needs the state’s diverse array of attorneys to respond. Perhaps it needs to hear the advice that Cutler once received from Leona Pouncey Thurman, the first African American woman to practice law in Kansas City, whom Cutler met as a child. She recalls the legendary lawyer’s raspy voice telling her: “You just go for what you want, little girl.”