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Missouri Lawyers Awards 2022: Julia Vander Weele

Spencer Fane

Leslie Greathouse was often at executive committee meetings in 2021 at the Kansas City-based law firm Spencer Fane when fellow attorney Julia Vander Weele was silent for much of the session, Greathouse said.

“She listens to all the points and thinks about it, and just about the point where you think she is not going to say anything, she says something pretty profound that really leads decisions,” said Greathouse, who serves as general counsel to the firm.

Vander Weele’s quiet leadership proved invaluable as the firm tried to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic and in helping other attorneys overcome hurdles related to gender or race.

“For many, many years, I was the only woman on the executive committee, and I have tried to use that platform to raise issues, to make my peers, my male peers, aware when I see implicit bias going on,” said Vander Weele, a partner who has worked at the firm for two decades.

In January 2021, she became the first managing partner of the Kansas City office. (It had been run by the chair of the entire firm, which has 23 offices around the country.)

In the new position, Vander Weele made an effort to get to know staff members with whom she had little interaction.

“I think lawyers by nature really tend to bury their heads in their work, and I had not done a really great job of making sure that I knew everyone’s name,” said Vander Weele. The managing partner role “has given me a really unique opportunity to get to know several of our staff a little bit better, which I really enjoy.”

Vander Weele also was a leader on the team that facilitated a merger with the Nashville-based law firm Bone McAllester Norton. Vander Weele made the case for why the merger would benefit her Spencer Fane peers.

“There are obviously always detractors and people who are scared of growth or nervous or don’t see what’s in it for them” and say things like “I don’t have clients in Nashville, so why would I want to add 40 new lawyers?” Vander Weele recalled. “I try to appeal to their sense of the firm versus any individual needs … It’s always about: how do we diversify the firm in the best way to ensure its long-term success, and that usually resonates with people.”

Vander Weele also applied her ability to read a room after trying events related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) emerged in 2021, said Greathouse, declining to provide specifics.

Vander Weele pushed for establishing on the executive committee a liaison position focused on DEI, who, for example, suggested retiring lawyers establish a succession plan “with a diverse group of attorneys in mind” so that it’s “not just an older white male choosing a younger white male to inherit all his clients,” Vander Weele said.

Vander Weele “made sure we put our ethics ahead of everything else, to be the cool-headed lawyer as opposed to the screaming hothead,” said Greathouse. “She has been truly dedicated and worked very hard at maintaining that in the last year.”

Missouri Lawyers Awards 2022