New Faces in Kansas City’s Law Firm Leadership

Prominent firms provide strong evidence that diversity focus is achieving long-desired goals.

In 2015, Mandy Ketchum was named managing partner at Dysart Taylor Cotter McMonigle & Montemore in Kansas City, one of the region’s 50 largest law firms. The significance of that went beyond merely having a woman in the top executive’s role. For one thing, it meant that Trina Ricketts wouldn’t be on her own in a list of female leadership at area firms.

Two years earlier, Ricketts had been named managing partner for the Kansas City office of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart.

But even then, stepping over the shards of a glass ceiling wasn’t foremost on Ricketts’ mind. “I’m not sure I thought about it from that perspective—I felt privileged to be selected by the partners and to be asked to step in, so I was focusing on the firm,” says Ricketts, who now co-chairs the national firm’s family-business resource group. “Only as I continued in that role was I better able to see there weren’t very many other women in similar roles.”

Since she and Ketchum first accepted those leadership duties, the region has seen a pronounced shift the composition of its leadership ranks. Years of talking about diversity, it seems, are finally giving way to implementation of it.

“I definitely see it,” says Ketchum. “Every time another woman is named managing partner, I get a few emails from people commenting on it. Back when I was named managing partner, there was some news around it, but I hoped to get to the point where it wasn’t a newsworthy event. I think were inching closer to that.”

And the pace is picking up. In 2016, Karrie Clinkinbeard as-sumed Kansas City office oversight for St. Louis-based Arm-strong Teasdale, and a year later, Kristie Orme became president at McDowell, Rice, Smith & Buchanan. Also in 2017, the law firm with more lawyers than any other in the region, Shook, Hardy & Bacon, named Madeleine McDonough its incoming chair.

Champions of diversity cheer developments like those, arguing persuasively that they are long overdue. But the challenges to seeing more of them in leadership roles will be difficult to overcome, for various reasons.

For one, even though they have closed the gap on law-school enrollment over the years, the numbers of women earning their JD still lag those of men. And in the work force, men still account for slightly more than three in five lawyers.

Some stubborn social factors also contribute to the disparities.

“It’s not just law—other industries that are somewhat similar have taken longer for women to rise,” said Ricketts. “I don’t know why that is, but it probably depends on who is taking care of the families. As pay equity increases and opportunities increase, care-giving roles are more equitably divided.”

But working on behalf of women who aspire to law firm leadership is a client base more finely attuned to diversity considerations, she said. “Companies who use firms’ services are demanding diversity.”

And as more women advance to lead companies in other sectors, the trend will continue, she believes. But “it’s not just a women’s issue to solve; this is an industry issue to solve. I’m super impressed that we are increasing those numbers, and everybody in the legal industry is becoming more thoughtful in who we are choosing as le-aders. We’re really making sure that we’re looking closely.”

Like law firms nationally, those in the Kansas City region still have a thorny diversity issue with minority representation in the leadership ranks. Compounding that challenge was last year’s change at Husch Blackwell, where Maurice Watson relinquished the ranks of chairman after six years. The ranks of African-American leadership were bolstered, though, when Wesley Fields was named managing partner for the Kansas City office of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner following last year’s merger, succeeding Perry Brandt.

Those and other moves have reshaped the leadership ranks at regional firms since the start of 2018. Among some of the most notable:

  • At Polsinelli PC, the retirement of longtime chair Russell Welsh opened the door for Chase Simmons to become chairman and CEO. The firm also created the roles of co-managing partners at its flagship Kan-sas City office, designating Mary Jane Judy and Greg Kratofil for those duties.
  • Lathrop Gage turned to Cameron Garrison last year to succeed Mark Bluhm as managing partner for the firm while Bluhm retained his role as chairman.
  • The world’s largest law firm, Dentons, turned to Lisa Krigsten to oversee the Kansas City office after John Snyder was designated to chair the firm’s national real-estate practice.
  • At McAnany, Van Cleave and Phillips, longtime president Fred Greenbaum turned those duties over to Byron Bowles.
  • And earlier this year, Kyle Russell became man-aging partner at Jackson Lewis after Brian Christensen moved to take the reins at the firm’s Milwaukee office.

All come into leadership roles at a crucial time for U.S. law firms. For all firms, Krigsten said, “one of the biggest chal-lenges—and opportunities—is the increasing speed of innovation. Everything from our technology, to the global nature of the economy, to our clients’ legal risks are radically different than they were the day many of us became lawyers.”

Clients, she said, are continually innovating in their own industries, and they rightly expect their lawyers to keep pace. “For that reason, I am focused on how we continue to deliver high quality legal work using innovation to create even better client value,” Krigsten said.

Polsinelli’s Mary Jane Judy pointed to the effects of an increasingly global economy. “The ability to work from wherever and whenever creates both opportunities and challenges for law firms, especially firms like ours that have lawyers in so many time zones spread out over 22 offices,” she said. “We work daily to ensure that our lawyers are working together across offices and making sure that our younger lawyers are being given the best training, albeit sometimes “remotely” by someone who isn’t necessarily down the hall.”

At Lathrop Gage, Garrison noted that “premier client service must always be the top priority for any law firm, so continually evolving our service model to meet the modern client’s needs will always be our top priority.” By always listening to and striving to understand clients, he said, “we believe we will continue to effectively meet this challenge.”

No matter the challenge, they are confident that the work that preceded these moves has positioned them for success.

“Throughout my career, I’ve had a front row seat to a diversity of leadership styles,” said Krigsten, who spent nearly a decade with the Department of Justice in Washington, serving under four different attorneys general.

“My time at the DOJ was almost like a graduate-level leadership course,” she said. “Some of what I witnessed up close and behind closed doors was truly great, and some of it, quite honestly, was not. Those lessons, both the good and the bad, inform nearly every leadership decision I make in my current role.”

Being a “lifer” at Polsinelli, Judy said, would be an advantage; both she and Kratofil have spent their careers at the firm on its rise to AmLaw 100 status, with nearly 900 lawyers in those 22 offices.

With a small, but significant dent made in the gender disparity in leadership roles, Ketchum is optimistic that the trend will continue to reshape the ranks of law-firm leadership here and nationally. “We’re inching closer; I would love to be at 50-50, but even if we were able to get to a third of leadership roles going to women, it would be good,” she said. “The attention to the issue is good, because it means more people are aware this is an issue. But it shouldn’t be.”