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Thomas A. Mickes – Mickes O’Toole

In Tom Mickes’ telling, he “backed in” to education law.

After earning his undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri in 1968, he began working in St. Louis-area schools, including Duchesne High School and the districts of Ferguson-Florissant and Meramec Valley. He taught physical education and biology; he coached football and track, too. Upon moving up the ranks to principal and superintendent, he interacted with attorneys representing his school district. That’s when he realized that “somebody with a practical knowledge of day-to-day education could combine that with legal training to be of service.”

Thus he enrolled at Saint Louis University, where he earned his law degree in 1979 and his Ph.D in education administration in 1983.

Thomas A. Mickes

Thomas A. Mickes

When Mickes arrived at Peper, Martin, Jensen, Maichel and Hetlage, he recalled, “there was no such thing as ‘school law.’” Yet name partner Bob Hetlage was willing to let him build such a practice from inside the labor and employment group — a key endorsement early in his career.

It was “lonesome” work, he said, so sometimes on the occasion of a Missouri School Board Association meeting, Mickes and another school attorney outside the firm would talk shop over lunch and a beer. In the mid- to late 1980s, they formalized this network as the Council of School Attorneys. It now has almost 100 members.

Mickes spent his first 21 years as a lawyer at Peper Martin.  After stints at a few other firms, he co-founded Mickes O’Toole in 2008. There, he serves as lead counsel for the firm’s representation of a self-insured pool of 470 school districts in litigation of employment, civil rights and constitutional claims.

He also represents some 250 school districts all across Missouri. Matters include real estate, public financing, bond issues, lease purchases, employment litigation and disciplinary actions against students or teachers. He also must handle hot-button matters involving free speech, religion, LGBT rights and cyber-bullying.

“All of society’s problems in short order are visited upon the public schools,” Mickes observed.

In the summers, Mickes and his firm put on a summer school-law program in which they visit and speak to 700-800 school officials in St. Louis, Kansas City, the Ozarks, Springfield and Cape Girardeau. The firm also puts out a policy manual for school boards with advice on conducting meetings, student immunizations, athletics, attendance and other areas.

Some of the younger attorneys at his firm, Mickes boasted, have been with him for almost 20 years.

“It’s a joy to see how good they’ve gotten,” he said. “It’s like they’re my own kids.” Mickes and his wife, whom he credits in large measure for his success, do indeed have their own children, and now several grandchildren.

When not in the office, Mickes likes working bird dogs — not for competition but just for the joy of it. He also owns horses at the Oaklawn racetrack in Hot Springs, Arkansas. He has volunteered in a hospice program as well.

After 40 years as a lawyer, he said he still believes in public education as a foundation of American society, and he insists that “you’ll never find a more dedicated group of people who care more about kids than school teachers and school-board members.”

Concluded Mickes: “It’s the greatest blessing in the world to do what I get to do.”