James A. Polsinelli is “Mr. Polsinelli” in every sense of the nickname. Naturally, he prefers to be called Jim.
As the tiny firm he founded 46 years ago grew into one of the largest law firms in both Missouri and the country, Polsinelli’s surname became synonymous with that of the firm. He tries to take it in stride. Sometimes, when he sees the firm name on the side of the office building, he says, “The letters could be bigger.” He hopes people know he’s kidding.
Jim Polsinelli, 74, founded the firm along with two other lawyers and a bookkeeper in 1972 on Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza. A 1967 graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, he said he had a sense that some of the more established firms were taking their clients for granted, opening up opportunities.
“Our philosophy, and maybe it was a little trite, was quality work in a timely manner for a fair fee,” he said. “Those were the three stools that we tried to give to every client relationship.”
Polsinelli specializes in mergers and acquisitions and succession planning. Between his practice and his long residency in Kansas City, if you point to a building there’s a good chance that, even if he didn’t play a role in its development, he knows its history or remembers it being built.
He said he regarded cultivating the firm’s personnel as equally important to his law practice. For the first 25 years of the firm’s existence, Polsinelli participated in all hiring decisions, especially those of partners.
“The people were always the most important thing,” he said. “Whether I was right or wrong I don’t know, but my thought was, if we had the right people the clients would follow.”
The Polsinelli law firm now is the second largest by revenue in Missouri and has nearly 800 lawyers in offices across the country. It has some 350 lawyers in Missouri alone, more than any other in-state firm.
Polsinelli said he never expected the firm to grow that much. In the early days, he said, a firm bylaw capped growth at 25 lawyers.
“Obviously, we kind of blew through that. It was all clearly dictated by client needs,” he said.
Maintaining that culture has required firm leaders to travel frequently to the many offices and help model what lawyers should aspire to be.
“If you’re going to succeed here, you’re going to have to develop that DNA that the rest of us have,” he said.
The firm name could have gone in a different direction. In 2009, what was then Polsinelli Shalton Flanigan Suelthaus merged with Shughart Thomson & Kilroy, another large Kansas City firm, to create today’s giant. Rather than go with an unwieldy seven-name moniker, the firm was known for a time as Polsinelli Shughart, before dropping to just Polsinelli in 2013.
“I didn’t even participate in the discussion or vote or even go to the meeting. I said, ‘Well, if that’s what they want to do that’s fine, and if they want to do something else that’s fine, too.’ Turns out that what they wanted to do,” Polsinelli said. “I think it’s worked out pretty well. It just makes it easier to deal with. It’s not the most common name, so maybe it’s easier to remember.”