Rooted in law
Vol. 78, No. 4 / July - August 2022
Hannah Kiddoo Frevert and Nicole Roberts-Hillen
Hannah Kiddoo Frevert is editor of the Journal and assistant director of communications at The Missouri Bar. Nicole Roberts-Hillen is assistant editor of the Journal and communications coordinator at The Missouri Bar.
Parents and children. Spouses. Siblings. These are just some of the family dynamics you’ll see in Missouri’s many law firms. Whether a passion for law is passed down through nature or nurture, there’s no mistaking the impact lawyers can have on the generations that follow them.
Leaving a legacy
Carla Fields Johnson, Wesley Fields, and Denise Fields always knew their father, Taylor Fields, was an outstanding lawyer. But when the three decided to follow in their dad’s footsteps and enter the legal field, the pride they felt only continued to grow.
“As much as I admired him for the lawyer he was,” Denise says, “I had that much more admiration for him when I started working for him.”
Taylor was a well-known Kansas City lawyer who founded Fields & Brown, where he focused on employment law and labor relations for more than 30 years. He graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law and was admitted to The Missouri Bar in 1971. For his commitment to and strides in the legal profession, he was recognized by several local bar associations and inducted into the National Bar Association Hall of Fame. Taylor passed away on July 28, 2021, at 77 years old.
Taylor’s children emulated his career path. Carla was admitted to The Missouri Bar in 1995, Wesley in 1998, and Denise in 2007. Carla and Denise worked with their father at Fields & Brown, where Carla is now partner and Denise is senior associate. Wesley has been at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner for nearly 25 years and is currently managing partner of the Kansas City office.
“I’m proud of the fact that we are a family of lawyers, but I’m also proud of his legacy, not only to us but to the Kansas City community and the bar association,” Wesley says.
The Fields siblings focus on various practice areas – Carla enjoys education, insurance practice, and workers’ compensation defense; Wesley focuses on banking and health care legal work; Denise pursues labor and employment, insurance practice, and education litigation.
While each ultimately pursued law, they said it wasn’t because their dad pressured them into the profession. Denise jokes that the only pressure they felt was for one of them to attend University of Missouri, where Taylor received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Denise fulfilled that hope, graduating from Mizzou with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
Instead of encouraging them to become lawyers, Taylor led by example – showing his three children why being a lawyer is fulfilling. Carla, Wesley, and Denise recall being awestruck by their dad’s involvement in the community, as well as his speaking and writing skills.
Despite being the youngest, Denise was the first to know her career path.
“I remember being in elementary school and knowing I wanted to be a lawyer, and I never wavered from it,” she says.
Wesley, on the other hand, initially planned to pursue a medical degree – before realizing the operating room wasn’t a right fit for him. The idea of becoming a lawyer didn’t come to fruition until he was in college and started taking classes that were in line with the concepts taught in law school.
Carla says she never seriously considered a career outside of law. After attending law school, she immediately joined Taylor at Fields & Brown and remembers having a difficult time working with her father at first – finding a balance between being his daughter and his employee. Overtime, the two were able to separate work from home, she says.
It created a great experience since she felt like she could learn without pressure or fear of failure, she adds.
“As a young lawyer, you’re going to make mistakes and there’s always a fear of the repercussions of making decisions that may not be the right decision, but I never had to deal with that,” she says. “I wasn’t going to be ridiculed or treated in a way that wasn’t helpful to my growth.”
“It was very important to him that we grew as lawyers,” Carla adds, fighting back tears.
One valuable lesson Wesley says he learned from his dad was the importance of nurturing and growing relationships with clients and other lawyers. But he can also recall some more humorous lessons. On one of Wesley’s first days at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, he arrived at the office at 7:30 a.m. and was eagerly looking for work assignments. He remembers calling Taylor and being surprised that his father wasn’t in the office that early.
“Dad laughed and said, ‘You have a long way to go,’” Wesley says with a smile. “Now (25 years later), I can’t think of too many days when I’ve gotten to the office that early.”
Denise joined Fields & Brown several years after graduating law school and remembers key moments, like when she tried a case with her dad and watched him argue before the Supreme Court of Missouri.
“Those are things that you just don’t normally get to experience with your dad,” she says, wiping away tears. “I really do feel like my dad was the smartest person I know.”
Since Taylor’s passing, Carla says she sees constant reminders of him around the office, and now better understands why he did certain managerial things. She praises her dad for navigating the legal industry and managing a law office, especially considering what the landscape of the legal industry looked like in the 1970s and 1980s.
When Taylor entered the legal profession in 1971, there were few Black lawyers and even fewer Black-owned law firms. Having institutional clients as a Black-owned law firm was almost unheard of, Wesley says, but his father saw the value and focused on that when founding Fields & Brown in 1987.
Taylor was a well-known civil rights trailblazer in the Kansas City area. He volunteered on the UMKC Alumni Association Board of Directors to help increase the number of minorities attending law school. He served on numerous community boards – including as chairman of the Black Archives of Mid-America Board of Directors – and founded Harmony in Grandview, an organization dedicated to promoting racial and ethnic harmony.
“Where I am today, my sisters are today, other African-American lawyers are today in terms of the client mix that we have, that to me is what stands out more than anything – the evolution of the practice of law for an African-American lawyer in Kansas City,” Wesley says, adding he is proud of his dad’s impact on the legal community and was excited about the future of the profession. - NRH
Scott Pettit remembers feeling excited and overwhelmed when he first joined his father, Walter Pettit Jr., at the family business, Pettit Law Firm, in 1985. He took note of that feeling when his son, James Pettit, joined the firm 28 years later. Scott made it his goal to work closely with James his first few years until James felt comfortable in the legal profession. Sitting in the meeting room at Pettit Law Firm nearly a decade later, Scott praised his son for his talent and professionalism.
“I’m not worried at all about you handling all of these cases. You’re doing a great job,” Scott says to James, who smiles and nods his appreciation.
The moment is the epitome of Pettit Law Firm’s 65-year-old foundation – trust, communication, and a welcoming family atmosphere.
In 1957, Walter moved to Aurora to join forces with litigation lawyer J. Hal Moore and started practicing law in the small town. Over the next six decades, Walter grew the law firm – now known as Pettit Law Firm. During that time, he has mentored countless lawyers, including his son and grandson.
Scott and James joined Pettit Law Firm shortly after graduating from law schools in 1985 and 2013. The firm has grown to also include one associate attorney and five support staff members, one of those employees being Scott’s wife.
“I always tell people I wasn’t smart enough to get a job outside of family, but I also wasn’t dumb enough to either,” James says with a laugh. “I really enjoy working where we are and it’s a lot of fun.”
While James has only officially been with the firm for about nine years, he jokes that he’s worked there for 25 years, having grown up living a few houses down from the office.
“I walked across the neighbors’ backyards daily to steal snacks out of the breakroom for a long time,” he says. “I remember at a young age changing trash bags, doing literally [every] job in the business, all the way now to an attorney.”
From an early age, James heard community members compliment his dad and grandfather, and the pride he felt for his family. The pride flourished into a desire to become a lawyer.
“Seeing the number of people you can help and the real impact you can have on people on a daily and consistent basis pays dividends for good feelings,” James says, as Scott nods in agreement.
Unlike James, the legal profession wasn’t as set in stone for Scott. He initially wanted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and enter the banking industry. After some encouragement from Walter, Scott took tests for two graduate school fields – banking and law. Achieving higher scores on the LSAT, Scott’s future career in the legal profession was sealed.
Since Scott joined 37 years ago, the law firm has evolved dramatically as each lawyer focuses on different areas of law. In his early years at the law firm, Scott worked on probate, estate planning, real estate, and domestic issues. He now practices in employment, workers compensation, and personal injury. After Walter semi-retired a couple of years ago, James started taking on his areas of practice, like probate and estate planning. He also does juvenile work, business transactions, real estate, and civil litigation.
Even in semi-retirement, Walter routinely offers guidance to James and Scott from the comforts of his home or during family dinners. And the only distance between Scott and James is a short walk down the hallway, making brainstorming or advice sessions common.
Gaining that institutional knowledge from lawyers, let alone family members, is invaluable, James and Scott say.
“It’s just been a really good nurturing environment for me for the 37 years I’ve been doing it,” Scott adds, noting he strives to continue to foster that encouragement for his son and other staff.
Creating and maintaining a family atmosphere isn’t always easy, but the Pettits have found a way to make it look effortless. The Pettits feel comfortable being transparent with each other about work or life issues and understand each other’s work ethic. They also know how to handle disagreements without it becoming personal. While it can be tempting to put disputes on an emotional level – especially when it comes to family – it’s important to remain level–headed and enter disagreements with an open mind and understanding, James says.
The key is constant communication and trust, James and Scott add.
“Mom and dad were really good about making sure we always knew we were on the same team, whether it was business or doing yard work,” James says. - NRH
Gary and Anita Robb have practiced law for three decades. As a husband-and-wife team, they’ve built up Robb & Robb, a Kansas City firm focusing on aviation law that’s nationally recognized and sought out by clients from across the country.
“For 36 years, I was able to share a passion and a journey with my wife, and law partner, and best friend, and I thought I had reached a pretty high level of contentment and gratitude and happiness,” Gary says. “But I had no idea.”
On March 16, 2020, just as a global pandemic was putting the world on pause, two more Robbs joined the team: Gary and Anita’s son, Andrew, and Andrew’s wife, Brittany – both direct from New York City.
While this might seem like a natural transition, it was all but expected. For starters, Gary and Anita never pressured Andrew to pursue a career in law.
“We never suggested, or implied, or hinted our kids should become lawyers,” Anita says.
And even once Andrew declared an interested in the profession, there was never a promise he’d be guaranteed a job at the family firm. When friends would see the Robbs out at dinner, they’d inquire as to when Andrew was coming home to take over. Those asking were met with a laugh and told that Andrew was heading to New York. And that’s exactly where he went, along with Brittany, after law school.
But as they settled in at larger firms in the Big Apple, they realized they were ready to return to their Missouri roots.
“It just didn’t fit with the people that we were,” Andrew says of the situation. And so, in the fall of 2019, they approached Gary and Anita about joining Robb & Robb, a proposal the founders welcomed with open arms.
Today, nearly three years later, Anita says she can’t imagine it any other way.
“Now that Brittany and Andrew have come along, we actually like to say we don’t know how we functioned for 36 years without them,” Anita says. “It’s really a mystery to us.”
There’s no average day or week at Robb & Robb, just the promise of high-stakes, complex litigation.
Many times, the Robbs are working with families facing major, life-changing tragedies spurred by aviation incidents. The Robbs believe that having the love of a family wrapped in their advocacy and practice allows them to better connect with and relate to clients.
“We are a family law firm that helps families. There is something really powerful in that,” Brittany says.
Despite being the only Robb not tied to the firm by blood, the bond Brittany shares with Gary and Anita is unmistakable, likely because the Robbs have known Brittany since she was 15, when she and Andrew first met during high school. And though some might guffaw at the thought of working with their spouse or extended family, all these years later, Brittany notes that she thinks of Gary and Anita as “in-loves” rather than “in-laws.”
Such a unique situation provides for unique client solutions. Because the Robbs spend so much time together, they note there’s really no separation between the personal and professional – and they wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Some of the best ideas come out of the more informal, personal interactions,” Brittany says.
While most families might chat about weather, sports, or politics at get-togethers, the Robb family often discusses work. That might mean forming strategy while strolling around the neighborhood or having a breakthrough idea over Sunday breakfast.
“We talk about our cases constantly.” Andrew says. “When you’re not tied to the billable hour, we end up talking about cases with a lot more freedom.”
For Gary and Anita, there’s a distinct joy in seeing Andrew and Brittany develop in the profession.
“What I have enjoyed as much as anything has been seeing their growth,” Gary says. “We’re astounded at what great lawyers they are becoming.”
“They are just as passionate and invested in it as we are,” Anita adds.
And viewing Gary and Anita through a professional lens has offered Andrew a new way of seeing his parents.
“Beyond just being a family law firm, we’re friends,” he says.
Of course, no family or firm is without its disagreements.
“We’re all very big personalities,” Anita says. But the Robbs actively work to share various approaches and information in a healthy way, and, ultimately, the different ways they approach work complement each other.
As Anita notes: “It doesn’t matter whose idea it is – it just matters that we get to the right place.” -HKF
1 Hannah Kiddoo Frevert is editor of the Journal and assistant director of communications at The Missouri Bar.
2 Nicole Roberts-Hillen is assistant editor of the Journal and communications coordinator at The Missouri Bar.