Earlier this year, St. Louis firm Mickes O’Toole took on a new designation: On Jan. 1, the firm became a minority-owned law firm.
Managing Partner Vincent D. Reese said he believes the firm, which has 20 attorneys, is the largest minority-owned law firm in the state.
In recent years, he said, the firm intentionally has sought to grow its headcount through diversifying its practice areas as well as diversifying its personnel.
Today, 70 percent of the firm’s attorneys are either women or people of color — both of which have been historically underrepresented in law firms. At the level of partner, 70 percent of the partners also are members of underrepresented groups.
Additionally, 67 percent of the firm’s executive committee members are African American, and firm-wide, 78 percent of all staff members are women or people of color.
Reese said the firm has been able to diversify its leadership ranks by removing barriers for women and minorities to rise up in the firm.
“We try to make the firm more welcoming, more hospitable and supporting of female and minority attorneys,” Reese said. “If you do that, you create more momentum, and the momentum feeds into itself.”
Reese said one reason women and minority attorneys often leave firms is a lack of mentors who can help them to advance in their careers. He said one benefit to more diversity is that it enables more mentorship opportunities for those attorneys.
“We have a very good group of mentors — women and minority attorneys who have been very successful and are able to mentor and show the path forward for younger attorneys,” he said.
Reece said the firm also has worked to improve the work-life balance of its attorneys, which he said can also be a barrier for some.
“I think that ability to be more flexible and have more arrangements where you can retain top talent helps contribute to the overall healthiness of the firm,” he said. “It’s about keeping talent and maintaining diversity in your firm as well.”
Reese said the firm is hoping to make a business case to demonstrate why diversity is important. He noted that the legal environment is highly competitive, and successful firms attract attention from their peers.
“If one law firm does something and it’s successful, others will follow,” he said.
Natalie Hoernschemeyer, partner and chair of the firm’s education practice, has been at Mickes O’Toole since 2002. She has seen the firm’s evolution into a minority-owned firm firsthand.
“Through almost two decades we have grown in diversity, and with that, we have grown in . . . diversity in just how to practice and how we handle problems,” she said.
Having different viewpoints within the firm helps its attorneys to better serve their clients, Hoernschemeyer said.
“It challenges me and others that we don’t all come from the same path,” she said. “It makes for a better firm, better work environment and ultimately the service to the client is better.”
Hoernschemeyer said she’s also found another benefit of a diverse law firm; its attorneys are selfless in their work to promote their peers. She pointed to her firm’s commitment to elevating women to leadership roles.
“I was encouraged, and there weren’t pitfalls in my way because of who I was,” she said. “It was fully recognized and embraced — it’s the whole person.”
The firm’s commitment to work-life balance also helps the firm to retain diverse lawyers, she added.
“We respect the individual attorney and their professionalism and trust their ability to produce the highest quality of work,” she said — meaning that the firm’s attorneys are trusted to do the work they need to complete when they can, not necessarily just between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Hoernschemeyer said many women — and men — are raising families or are caregivers for their elder family members. She said the firm hires individuals and everything that comes with them — including their commitments outside the firm and their families.
“Law is hard enough,” she said. “We shouldn’t make it harder when people feel torn between being there for their family and being there for the firm and their clients.”