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Rasmussen Dickey Moore attorney Justin Ijei, winner of the 2021 Missouri Lawyers Media Diversity and Inclusion Award.

A big congratulations to RDM attorney Justin Ijei! Justin won the 2021 Missouri Lawyers Media Diversity and Inclusion Award for his work leading Rasmussen Dickey Moore’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee and for promoting diversity within the legal practice.

With Justin at the helm, RDM has taken great strides to bring diversity and inclusion to the forefront at our firm. “I’m proud that my firm has made diversity, equity, and inclusion a priority for the firm,” says Justin. RDM aims to be a leader in addressing diversity challenges among small and mid-sized firms.

Having been the beneficiary of great mentorship early in his career, Justin aims to guide RDM’s team of young and diverse associates to success in the legal profession. Beyond supporting fellow attorneys from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, Justin also hopes to promote awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion within the field of law. “Having only diverse hiring practices is not enough.” Professional development and education, along with equitable career advancement opportunities, are key to building practices that reflect the clients and communities they serve.

Justin joined Rasmussen Dickey Moore in 2014, becoming a full partner in 2020. He has delivered outstanding results for RDM clients, including a Missouri Top Defense Verdict and other trial wins.

A graduate of St. Louis University School of Law and the University of Illinois, Justin was part of an Illini football team that went to the Rose Bowl, then a Dean’s Scholar at SLU Law. He has previously been named to the National Black Lawyers’ Top 40 Under 40.

Justin will receive the Missouri Lawyers Media Diversity and Inclusion Award at a virtual ceremony on March 25th. We congratulate and thank Justin for his commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion both at RDM and in the legal practice as a whole. Congratulations, Justin!

The venus symbol, celebrating women in law on International Women's Day 2021.

On International Women’s Day, Rasmussen Dickey Moore associate Holli Dobler and member Dyanna Ballou sat down to talk about what it’s like to be women in the legal industry, particularly at small or mid-sized firms.

Last month, RDM attorneys Justin Ijei and Nathan Lindsey looked at the challenges of diversity, equity, and inclusion that small and mid-sized firms face. These challenges include recruiting, retaining, and promoting women attorneys more effectively and equitably.

While the number of women lawyers has steadily increased over the years, women still only account for about a third of all practicing attorneys. Among younger lawyers, gender parity is catching up. But as age increases, women attorneys find themselves far less represented, and the earnings gap between men and women widens. Furthermore, women only account for 19.5 percent of equity partners at the big law firms, and the income disparities between men and women at large firms is stark.

Dyanna Ballou has extensive experience as a first chair trial attorney, in addition to having served as our firm’s CEO and currently serving as our CFO. Previously, Dyanna was a partner at one of the largest firms in Kansas City and has witnessed firsthand the differences in terms of diversity and firm culture in general.

Holli Dobler just recently joined the RDM team, and although she brought with her significant skill and several years of experience, she is among the younger attorneys at RDM and in the legal profession. Like Dyanna, Holli also came from a larger firm.

With their years of experience and unique perspectives, Holli and Dyanna have some suggestions for women seeking a foothold in the legal industry. While the legal industry is still dominated by men, especially in the upper echelons of the profession, women have new opportunities to make their mark on the legal world.

Be Confident

Dyanna has seen many women attorneys quit or move on from trial work over the years. “I think that often the underlying reason is a lack of confidence.” In fact, she believes she was less successful early on in her career because of her own lack of confidence. “It took going through some personal struggles outside of my legal career to make me more resilient and ultimately a better lawyer when I re-entered the legal practice.”

It’s also important for women to surround themselves with other attorneys who will make sure to support their peers and younger attorneys. A healthy firm culture will recognize the good work being done and help their attorneys, in particular women, to develop the confidence they need to have a successful legal career. Likewise, it’s important to make sure you’re also supportive of your colleagues.

“One of the ways I have found success in building my confidence over the years is by forming relationships with senior associates and junior partners as well as my peers,” Holli says. Get to know everyone on your teams to take advantage of their varying levels of experience with both clients and other attorneys. “I received invaluable insight about client, partner and judge idiosyncrasies that empowered me and provided the confidence needed to speak up.”

Be Authentic

“Don’t try to model yourself after other trial attorneys,” says Dyanna. “Find what works for you and how best to present yourself.” Authenticity goes hand in hand with confidence.

As a young attorney, Holli was expected to wear skirt suits and a wedding ring. “I was encouraged to present myself so that I fit a certain mold when in front of a judge or jury so that my appearance would fit the expectation in their mind of what a trial attorney is supposed to be.” However, in recent years, these traditional norms have started to break down. Judges and jurors look for attorneys they can believe in and trust, and the easiest way to be believable is to be your authentic self.

Women are frequently told how to present themselves, especially with respect to jury trials. But one of the best female trial attorneys Dyanna knows goes against all the rules regarding what to wear and how to look. Her authenticity and resulting confidence present as strength in court and lead to successful outcomes for her clients.

At trial, some language or strategies that have been in practice for years have only been put in play by male attorneys. “Unfortunately, what worked for men won’t always work for women,” says Holli. “There are some lines that were written by older, male partners that I simply can’t deliver and appear authentic.” Recognizing those differences and finding your own voice is a struggle given the lack of female trial attorneys to look to for guidance. However, as more female trial attorneys continue to chart the path and take on leadership and partner roles, that issue will become obsolete.  

Be Prepared

When women find themselves in group meetings or on calls with other attorneys or clients, make sure to come prepared to add something to the meeting. Don’t accept a passive role, or you’ll find yourself left out from future opportunities. Be assertive and bring confidence to the table.

“When I’m well prepared, and I know that what I have to say can potentially add value to the conversation, I’ll find a way to make myself heard,” Holli says. Follow up an in-person meeting with an email or stick around after a meeting when there is a different setting to share your thoughts. “If what I had to say did in fact add value or showed potential, it was rare that at a future meeting I would find myself being talked over or ignored.”

Recognize Your Value as a Female Attorney

Clients seek diversity when they’re searching for attorneys. “This is one of the best times to be a female trial attorney,” Dyanna says. More clients are setting diversity goals for law firms to ensure that their legal work is done by diverse attorneys. This presents an opportunity for diverse attorneys to take on new responsibilities. 

Additionally, many clients and other attorneys feel that women are more approachable and easier to work with. With women finding themselves in more prominent positions in the corporate world, they often want to see themselves represented when their business seeks counsel. Women attorneys offer a different perspective to their clients and their work.

Actively Pursue a Mentor

A trusted an effective mentor is invaluable for women attorneys, particularly younger women in the field. “But don’t expect a mentor to just fall in your lap.” Dyanna insists that young attorneys bring their best at all times, showing initiative and excitement for the work. When an attorney shows her potential, opportunities follow.

All of Dyanna’s mentors have been men. And all of them, including RDM founding member Kurt Rasmussen, gave her opportunities that drastically changed the trajectory of her career. “I approached Kurt shortly after starting with the firm, and I asked if he needed assistance with his upcoming trial.” Dyanna assisted with trial prep work and ultimately found herself putting on witnesses at that trial. After her success at that trial, Dyanna and the client developed a relationship that brought significant new business to RDM.

Holli considers herself fortunate to have had a strong, female, trial attorney mentor at her first job. Her mentor was also the managing partner at the firm. “She gave me several opportunities that allowed me to prove my abilities to her and ultimately, when we had a very high-profile case with the firm in which the client requested a female associate, I was asked to join the team.”

Like Dyanna, Holli also had several male attorneys that served as great mentors and provided opportunities, including trial work and client exposure, early in her career. “Without their mentorship and guidance, I would not have had the depth of experience and confidence at such an early point in my career.”

Dyanna has repeatedly advocated for younger women attorneys who need alternative work schedules because of family responsibilities. “As the mother of two (now adult) children, I understand the difficulty of balancing a family with the demands of a legal career.” She understands the pressure women feel to do it all in a way that most male colleagues cannot comprehend.

While women of course still face challenges in the legal profession and in business in general, there are growing opportunities for women to demonstrate their skills and growing demand by clients for across-the-board diversity. Women attorneys will only become more prominent in the field. Women who succeed in the profession empower those who come after them and help to ensure equitable opportunities now and in the future.

Statue of Thurgood Marshall in Annapolis Square.

To celebrate Black History Month, we’ve studied freedom suits and the Dred Scott case at St. Louis’ Old Courthouse and examined diversity issues among small and mid-sized firms. Today, RDM attorney and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee chair Justin Ijei reflects on the life and achievements of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first Black man to serve in the position.

Although Thurgood Marshall is well known as being the first Black Supreme Court Justice, Marshall was a stellar attorney whose work became a pillar for the civil rights movement. In fact, Marshall argued 32 cases in front of the Supreme Court, the most anyone has argued in history. Of those 32, his clients prevailed in 29.

Continue reading Celebrating the Life of Thurgood Marshall
The Old Courthouse in Downtown St. Louis, with RDM's St. Louis office in the background.

The Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis is getting an update as part of a $380 million revitalization of the grounds of Gateway Arch National Park. An iconic element of the St. Louis skyline, the first iteration of the Old Courthouse was completed in 1828, with various upgrades and expansions occurring over the next decades. The distinct iron and copper dome was completed in 1864. 

While many in St. Louis might have intimate knowledge of the history of the Old Courthouse, most visitors to St. Louis and those living outside the region are likely unaware of why the courthouse is a historic federal building. Aside from its famous silhouette below the Gateway Arch, the Old Courthouse is best known for its role in the Dred Scott case, in which an enslaved Black man sued for his freedom. The case marked the end of an era in which hundreds of slaves sued for their freedom in St. Louis and stoked the tensions that led to the Civil War. 

Once Free, Always Free: The History of Freedom Suits in St. Louis 

In 1807, the Missouri Territory enabled a statute that permitted any person wrongly held in slavery to sue for their freedom. Such suits were referred to as “freedom suits.” Each suit required a charge of trespass of false imprisonment and witness testimony. The process was cumbersome, as the person who brought suit had the burden of proving that they were in fact free, and that their captor had inflicted physical abuse upon them. Furthermore, most would-be petitioners lacked the ability to read or write, not to mention the resources needed to seek counsel. Many cases were handled pro bono by abolitionist attorneys in the community. 

The Missouri Supreme Court interpreted the territorial statute in 1824 and formally established Missouri’s criteria for a freedom suit. The precedent, set in Winny v. Whitesides, was known as “once free, always free.” 

Winny was an enslaved woman owned by Phoebe Whitesides. Whitesides kept Winny as a slave while living in Illinois for a number of years. Winny won her case before the Circuit Court and prevailed again after Whitesides appealed the case to the Missouri Supreme Court. The Supreme Court heard that appeal at the Old Courthouse. On the appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed that a slave taken to a state or territory which had outlawed slavery, by virtue of being in a free land, became a free person. The freedom held even if a former slave returned to a slave state like Missouri. That freedom could not be revoked. 

The Winny v. Whitesides decision ushered in a “golden age” of freedom suits. Approximately 300 freedom suits were brought before the Circuit Court in St. Louis throughout the middle of the 19th century. More than half of the petitioners prevailed in their fight for freedom under the “once free, always free” doctrine. 

A bronze statue of Dred and Harriet Scott at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis.

The Dred Scott Freedom Suit 

The Old Courthouse was the site of the trial level freedom suits of Dred Scott and his wife Harriet in 1847 and 1850. When most hear Dred Scott, they jump to the infamous 1857 Supreme Court opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford that held, “it is too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted” the Declaration of Independence. The Supreme Court decided that Black people, whether free or enslaved, were not entitled to the privileges enshrined to American citizens in the Constitution. 

Victory in St. Louis

However, the road to the Supreme Court case was a complicated one. Spanning more than a decade of litigation, the Dred Scott case started in St. Louis at the Old Courthouse. The Scotts’ original petition for freedom claimed that they had resided in the free state of Illinois at Rock Island and in the free Wisconsin Territory at Fort Snelling. Because they had been voluntarily held by their owner in these locations where slavery was not permitted, they argued that they were entitled to freedom. The Missouri Circuit Court in St. Louis agreed in 1850. 

Appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court

The Scotts’ alleged owners appealed the case to the Missouri Supreme Court, and the parties again pleaded their cases at the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. The tides had shifted at the high court since the days of “once free, always free,” and the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the Scotts’ victory in the lower court. The court sought to strengthen its position on states’ rights, stating in 1852, “Times are not now as they were when the former decisions on this subject were made. Since then, not only individuals but States have been possessed with a dark and fell spirit in relation to slavery.” In other words, just because you were free in Illinois, you are not guaranteed freedom in Missouri. 

The Federal Suit

After the loss, the Scotts again sued for their liberty in 1853, but this time at the federal level. The federal court had jurisdiction as the Scotts’ so-called owner was residing in New York. However, the court instructed jurors to rely on Missouri law when determining whether or not the Scotts should be free. In light of the recent decision of the Missouri Supreme Court, the Scotts were again denied their freedom. They appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Decision

The Dred Scott opinion is remembered as one of the darkest moments of jurisprudence in our nation. The majority chose to ignore the expansive ideals of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and our nation in favor of an inhumane and antiquated interpretation of the founders’ intentions. 

The opinion was delivered by Chief Justice Roger Taney, a slave owner and southern sympathizer who outspokenly supported the institution of slavery. At the time, the Supreme Court included four southern justices. Behind the scenes, President-elect James Buchanan pressured northern justices to join the majority, hoping to put an end to the slavery question. Ultimately the efforts resulted in a 7–2 ruling against the Scotts. The decision outraged the growing contingent of anti-slavery Americans and pushed the nation closer to civil war. 

The Old Courthouse’s Legacy in Civil Rights History 

As we have seen here, the Old Courthouse was the stage for early decisive victories for slaves seeking freedom. The Old Courthouse also served as a setting for decisions that reversed those victories and diminished the possibility for former slaves to be guaranteed liberty. Missouri was always viewed as a divided state, and the wild swings in the opinions of the courts over just a handful of decades puts those divisions into stark relief. Soon after the Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling against Dred and Harriet Scott, the state would send thousands of soldiers to serve both the Union and Confederate armies. 

While the Scotts did not ultimately prevail in their fight for freedom, their cases helped to fuel abolitionist movements and provided context to the struggle for Black freedom that has existed since the birth of our nation. A solid majority of the U.S. Supreme Court at the time of the Scott decision believed that the founding fathers saw Blacks as “so far below them in the scale of created beings” that the Constitution couldn’t possibly apply to Blacks enslaved or free. That such unconscionable beliefs were widely held, accepted, and enshrined into law shows the strength of the institutions which slaves, freed Blacks, and abolitionists had to push back against. While the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the fight for Black civil rights continues. The relentless spirit of Dred and Harriet Scott in their pursuit of liberty lives on. 

The Old Courthouse Today 

Gateway Arch National Park serves as a “memorial to Thomas Jefferson’s role in opening the West, to the pioneers who helped shape its history, and to Dred Scott who sued for his freedom in the Old Courthouse.” The park, previously known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, was renamed in 2018. As part of a massive project to update the park, a bridge and a small park space were built to provide a direct connection between the Arch and the Old Courthouse. 

The final piece of the update project, known as CityArchRiver, is a full renovation of the Old Courthouse. Beginning in late 2021, the renovation will include upgrades to mechanical systems and accessibility improvements along with new exhibit galleries. The new northeast gallery will focus entirely on the Dred Scott case. The northwest gallery will examine Black life in St. Louis during the time of slavery, and the battles for freedom which were frequently fought in the Old Courthouse’s courtrooms. 

A bronze statue of Dred and Harriet Scott stands in the southeast courtyard of the Old Courthouse. The statue was unveiled in 2012 and erected through the work of the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation

The Old Courthouse in Downtown St. Louis, with the Gateway Arch in the distance.
The Dred and Harriet Scott memorial statue, with Rasmussen Dickey Moore's St. Louis office in the background.

In the Shadow of the Old Courthouse 

Rasmussen Dickey Moore’s St. Louis office is located directly south of the historic Old Courthouse. The landmark serves as a daily reminder of the importance of the pursuit for justice: “Equality for all under the law without bias, or prejudice of any kind.” Moreover, we are reminded of the ongoing struggle for equality that Blacks and other minorities face both in the world at large and in the legal industry specifically. 

RDM is committed to facing these challenges and building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive firm culture where attorneys and staff of all backgrounds can succeed, and we strive to be leaders when it comes to addressing diversity issues in small and mid-sized law firms. The reflection of the Old Courthouse on the walls of our building is an admonishment to build a better future for our attorneys, staff, and clients. 

Insurers: don't issue claimants a blank check by opting out of defending your insured. Rasmussen Dickey Moore has extensive insurance law experience that can help you make the right decisions and lead you to the best outcomes.

On January 12th, 2021, the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court ruling against Liberty Insurance Corporation, finding it liable for the $7.5 million remaining balance of a wrongful death judgment. The case provides important lessons for insurers on how to avoid being bound to substantial judgments against their insureds, even where viable policy exclusions exist.

Based upon the current state of Missouri law, insurers in the state will continue to face almost unlimited liability in claims where they choose not to immediately address coverage issues. 

How can an insurer avoid the pitfalls found in this case and other complex claims? Rasmussen Dickey Moore has extensive insurance law experience, providing analysis of coverage issues and counseling insurers in litigation matters. RDM represents multiple national insurance providers. RDM takes sophisticated, strategic, innovative, and detail-oriented approaches to each of our clients’ cases.

Continue reading Could Coverage Denials Give Plaintiffs a Blank Check?