When Michelle Wimes was in her teens, she was exactly the kind of person you’d predict would become a lawyer.
“I was one of these people who always stood up and spoke up for other people,” said Wimes, who has spent her career as an attorney — both in practice and in leadership roles — doing just that.
Wimes graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1988, then moved to Spain to complete graduate studies in history, art history, and literature. She also taught there for two years before returning to the United States to attend Tulane University, where she earned her law degree in 1994.
Wimes intended to become a public defender, but a stint in the immigration-law clinic at Tulane spurred her to revise that plan.
Her first job was with Blackwell Sanders, working in immigration and later in the firm’s Associate, Labor & Employment and Education Law Practice Group. After four and a half years there, a recruiter from Shook, Hardy & Bacon called her, looking for an attorney who could speak Spanish.
Wimes spent five years at Shook before moving to Spencer Fane Britt & Browne, where she advised school districts on student discipline, constitutional, personnel and other policy issues. She also established its first firm-wide diversity committee.
Drawing on her experience as a woman of color who found success in a leadership role, she mentored young attorneys and developed programs with bar associations and other organizations to address diversity and discrimination issues. As she became more deeply entrenched in that work, however, she said her passion shifted from practicing law to improving the legal practice itself.
“I felt like I had a body of knowledge [on how] to be successful,” Wimes said.
Wimes returned to Shook in 2008 as its Director of Strategic Initiatives, guiding the firm’s national and international diversity efforts. She said she is proud of the firm’s progress and the programs it implemented during her time there.
When Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart offered her the chance to design her own position, however, Wimes seized the opportunity for a role that would combine professional development with diversity and inclusion issues. She said she wanted to ensure that diversity hires at the firm didn’t stall out and that they would become successful attorneys, on track for leadership and advancement.
As Ogletree Deakins’ Director of Professional Development and Inclusion and later as its Chief Diversity and Professional Development Officer, Wimes has developed a program that provides incoming attorneys with guidelines, a common language and a roadmap to succeed. She notes that they may not have grown up with attorneys in their families or known other attorneys to model in their own careers.
“You have to demystify what it takes to be successful,” Wimes said.
Since Wimes has taken the lead of Ogletree Deakins’ diversity efforts, the firm has achieved a perfect score on the national Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index for three years in a row. It also has obtained gold-standard certification from the international Women in Law Empowerment Forum.
Still, there is progress to be made, Wimes said. She wants to see more diversity in numbers of equity partnerships and more women in leadership roles.
“My goal is to work myself out of a job,” Wimes said.