Sonni Fort Nolan advanced her career by starting a new one.
In 2003, after four years at what was then Husch & Eppenberger, Nolan decided she needed a change if she was ever going to build a client base.
“I wasn’t from this area,” said the Kansas City native who had come to St. Louis to attend the Washington University School of Law. “I’m a minority female. I don’t come from money or law or connections of any sort, and I was looking around at people who had all those things, and they weren’t getting their own clients.”
So Nolan made the leap into the world of in-house counsel, first with the Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. (now known as RockTenn) and later with Express Scripts. It exposed her not just to the labor, employment and litigation needs of a private company; it also gave her an intimate understanding of how, and why, businesses make the strategic choices they do.
“I kind of know how the sausage is made,” Nolan said. Clients, she added, “know I get it. I’m not giving them legal advice from on high.”
In 2014, Nolan returned to her old firm, now known as Husch Blackwell, as a senior counsel. Her working knowledge of the business world quickly earned her enough clients that she made partner. And as of this year, her book of business that once seemed so elusive was large enough that she was made an equity partner at Husch.
“I really credit my in-house time,” she said. “Thinking like a business person who also tries cases has really served me well.”
Nolan notes that a lot has changed during her 20-year career, both in the number of women in leadership roles and the financial calculus that businesses use when deciding how to address legal matters.
“There are a lot more women making decisions on both sides of the equation, and more clients are looking for practical, real-world advice,” she said.
Some of Nolan’s business experience is nuts and bolts.
“When I went in-house, I didn’t know what an EBITA was,” she said. (That would be Earnings Before Interest, Taxes and Amortization, a standard measurement of a company’s operational profitability.) “It was like getting a business degree in the law.”
But Nolan’s truly profitable knowledge comes from simply having empathy for the pressures that businesses face day after day. She has been in the shoes of a human resources professional dealing with allegations of misconduct by an employee.
“It can get uncomfortable when you’re investigating your co-worker for sexual harassment and then you’re supposed to work with this person after looking through all their emails,” she said.
Now, on the outside looking in, she counsels other attorneys to show a little patience when a corporate client can’t respond immediately. As important as that lawsuit might be, it’s just one of innumerable things the company is juggling.
“We’re their last priority,” she said. “We work for them.”
And Nolan knows that, while she’s paid to give advice, not to be overly cautious.
“Any successful business is taking enormous risks every single day, and they expect their lawyers to help them manage those risks and be willing to take risks with them,” she said.
Outside of her legal career, Nolan is a member of the board of directors for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri.