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Where People Make the Difference

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Written by H.K. Wilson
Posted Nov 18, 2020

For more than 50 years, clients from individuals to large corporations have looked to the attorneys of Messerli Kramer P.A. for comprehensive and reliable legal advice. With distinguished lawyers in three complementary divisions, Messerli Kramer is known throughout the region for delivering pragmatic solutions and winning results.

Diversity and inclusion are central to Messerli Kramer’s success, as it strives to create a firm community that reflects the makeup and values of the client community it serves. Messerli Kramer describes its ideal as one in which “all individuals are respected, treated fairly, provided a work-life harmony, and have the opportunity to excel in their chosen careers.”

Several of Messerli Kramer’s outstanding women in law sat down with Attorney at Law Magazine to share what drew them to the firm and why they stay. They all agreed on one thing: what makes Messerli Kramer extraordinary is its people.

Attorney Nancy Haas is a member of Messerli Kramer’s Board of Directors. Drawing upon her extensive background in government relations, Haas delivers strategic advice to industries involved with state and municipal governments and provides comprehensive assistance with administrative rules and general counsel on the political process. Haas has received numerous honors for her outstanding legal contributions in Minnesota. She was named Lobbyist of the Year (team) in 2014 by “Politics in Minnesota” and the “St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report.” In 2013, she received the “Minnesota Lawyer” Attorney of the Year Award for her groundbreaking work to bring marriage equality to Minnesota. Haas works in the firm’s St. Paul office, just one block from the state capitol.

At a turning point in her career, Haas was approached by Messerli Kramer’s lobby team and asked if she would consider joining the firm as a contract lobbyist. “I made my decision based on the people. I had had a great experience working with them when I was a member of the legislative staff, and I knew that they were incredibly well respected there and good at their jobs. You want the professionals you work with every day to be people you enjoy, trust and respect. The people here deliver on all of that. The firm also does high caliber work and has the clients I like to work with. It’s been 15 years since I made the decision to come here, and it was clearly the right one.”

Michelle Jester is certified as a Real Property Law Specialist by the Real Property Section of the Minnesota State Bar Association. She is a member of Messerli Kramer’s Board of Directors and is chair of the Banking & Finance group. She delivers experience-based legal advice and creative solutions in transactional and financial real estate matters. Jester was recognized as Attorney of the Year by “Minnesota Lawyer” and has twice been named one of the Top Women in Finance by “Finance and Commerce.” Jester practices in the Minneapolis office, which houses the firm’s core business (i.e. corporate, real estate, banking, litigation) and family law practices.

Jester joined the firm’s Credit Collections group in 1996 and later transferred to the Real Estate group.

“Moving across divisions is more of a transfer than across a department. I had the full support of the firm, and Paul Anderson taught me all the nuts and bolts about real estate relationships and having someone who believes in you really matter. Much like Nancy, I really made the decision to stay here because of the people, the collegiality of the environment, plus the diversity of the firm. It’s amazing having three separate divisions, yet the ability to focus in your area and practice, and have support from other areas and practice groups.”

Jillian Walker is a shareholder in the Consumer Collections and Creditors’ Remedies group and is a member of Messerli Kramer’s Diversity and Inclusion committee. Walker is licensed in four states — Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin — and her practice concentrates in the collection of consumer debt, replevins and federal litigation defense. Walker works with a large staff in the Plymouth office and its satellites in Milwaukee and Omaha. She is known for fostering positive relationships between staff and attorneys, and helping to create a work environment that inspires collaboration and excellence.

After graduating from William Mitchell College of Law, Walker took the bar in Wisconsin and planned to return to Madison to practice. That decision serendipitously led her to Messerli Kramer. “The firm was in search of an attorney with a Wisconsin bar license and found me. At the time, I reached out to my father — who is a judge and knew the firm — for his thoughts about it and the people here. He had nothing but good things to say about his interactions. That was in 2008. I have great rapport not only with people in my division, but with other relationships I have created across divisions and through mentorship from other women across divisions.”

Over the years, firm policies have continued to evolve in favor of a more diverse workplace, creating greater opportunities for women and a more inclusive ethos. When Haas first joined Messerli Kramer, there were a total of seven lobbyists, and she was the second woman in the role. “Turning the corner into 2021, we will have six: three men and three women. I know firsthand that seeing women in places of leadership is important to women who are making the decision to work here. It’s an important component of feeling that it’s a welcoming environment, and there are opportunities to grow and prosper. I think we have been very intentional, from a leadership perspective at the board, about the implementation of our diversity and inclusion policy — recognizing it’s a first step. There’s still a lot of work to do, and we’re committed to doing it. We’re looking at recruitment, retention, and the pro bono work we do and how it assists in that effort.”

On Messerli Kramer’s six-member board, three seats are held by women. When the firm consolidated its corporate real estate and banking sections into one group, it also reduced the number of practice chairs to one. “I was asked to lead the consolidated group at the time,” says Jester. “I think having women in managing leadership roles is very forward thinking. Women bring different perspectives and look at things differently.”

Haas has been chair of her practice group for five years and is currently transitioning the role to another woman, Katy Sen. “She will be the first non-attorney chair of that group,” says Haas. “None of this was controversial. Everyone sees and values her leadership skills.”

According to Haas, she’s also been supported in developing new skills. Nine years ago, when she proposed going through a 10-week program to become a licensed police officer, the firm stood behind her decision. “It’s been an advantage for the firm and my ability to go after new clients, since I now have the ability to assist and protect them in different ways. I’m a licensed police officer for the Minnesota State Fair. Their busy times are summer and fall when the legislature is not in session. I’m surprised by how many clients enjoy that side of my work, and it’s been an additional marketing opportunity.”

When asked what advice they would give to young women in the law, all three attorneys offered some sage counsel.

Haas: “Be yourself and have confidence in your gut instinct and what you believe. And don’t be afraid to share it with others or to challenge the status quo in a respectful way. Not everyone has to think or do things the same way. Have pride in the way you do things differently.”

Jester: “When you’re younger, you’re hesitant to do many things. Push yourself to go beyond your boundaries. Align yourself with somebody who knows how, and have them help you and coach you from the back. Align yourself with a team who know how to do things you don’t. You might also bring a special skillset.”

Walker: “Be open-minded. You can control your path, and it can change along the way. Opportunities that unfold could lay out a very different plan that you began with. It could be a 180-degree turn from what you thought when you entered the law school campus on day one.”

Sylvia Mankarious is manager of the Minneapolis office and, as part of her role, she manages staff recruiting at all levels. Mankarious is also a woman of color and co-chair of Messerli Kramer’s Diversity and Inclusion committee. “With the recent death of George Floyd, we wrote and posted a statement that is bold, and the board was very supportive of it. I think it’s indicative of where we’re headed. The work we’re doing is of such critical importance. There are still a lot of obstacles we face and that we have to overcome to keep moving forward. It’s so important to me as part of this community and as a person of color to know I have the firm’s support.”

As the events of 2020 have shined a spotlight on the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, the social leadership provided by law firms like Messerli Kramer has never been more important. “This is an incredibly important conversation and journey, one we are serious about supporting,” Haas says. “I’m so proud of the firm we are. I think it’s a really great place to work, and it’s because of our people. We are where we are because we have a partnership. Whatever the work is, this is a great place to be and be supported. There’s clearly more work to do, and I’m so glad to get to do it with Michelle, Jill and the other leaders of the firm.”

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