Julianne Story can argue with the best of them, as her courtroom record makes clear. But the Husch Blackwell partner believes that “being a good listener” is the foundation of her client service that aims to provide more comprehensive and valuable solutions for businesses. Story, a member of Lawdragon’s Most Powerful Employment Lawyers guide, earned her law degree at the University of Kansas School of Law and practices out of the firm’s Kansas City office. Her acclaimed practice has focused on representing employers in the healthcare, life sciences and education fields. Story also is a member of Husch Blackwell’s Executive Board.
Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the mix of work you do within the employment area?
Julianne Story: My practice is very much a hybrid between litigation and counseling. On the litigation side of my practice, I handle all types of kinds of disputes connected to the employment relationship – individual discrimination and harassment claims, breach of contract actions, and class/collective action wage and hour lawsuits. The scope of my counseling work is similar, and for me the variety of issues is what keeps it interesting.
LD: How did you develop a focus on healthcare, life sciences and education clients? Does this client pool have certain employment counseling needs that are unique to it in some ways?
JS: Husch Blackwell, my law firm, is organized in a unique way. While we maintain our expertise within our practice areas across the firm, we are also organized by industry groups. This isn’t just a market-facing or marketing approach – it’s the way our entire law firm, front to back, is arranged. This structure encourages greater engagement with our clients and a deeper understanding of their specific business challenges.
I have long-standing clients in the healthcare industry, and over the years, I’ve gained a great deal of insight into how employment disputes transpire within the healthcare industry; therefore, it made a lot of sense for me to focus on healthcare, especially when you consider the explosive growth and change the industry has experienced. There are new corporate structures that house everything from clinical care to research and diagnostics, and my clients are facing employment challenges that are new to them.
LD: What are some of the trends you are seeing in your practice?
JS: There has been a recent spike in activity in terms of sexual harassment, with the number of claims as well as in terms of clients who want to make sure their compliance programs are effective and sound from a legal and practical standpoint. Many clients are revisiting their policies and procedures in light of the #MeToo movement, and these efforts span everything from basic employee handbook provisions to developing training programs aimed at every level of leadership within an organization.
Also, within the healthcare industry specifically, there is an ongoing process of consolidation occurring that presents unique issues relating to employment. More and more, healthcare organizations span multiple operations. Under the same corporate umbrella you might have a specialty physician group, a teaching hospital, or an ambulance service, and each of these operations have their own employment law issues. It can be difficult for clients to manage it all, particularly when they are unfamiliar with a particular type of operation.
LD: Can you describe a recent case you’ve worked on?
JS: Most recently, I defended a large health system in a lawsuit in which the director-level plaintiff alleged a number claims under state and federal law including gender, race, and national origin discrimination and retaliation. We prevailed on most claims at the summary judgment stage, but we tried the seven remaining claims to a federal jury, obtaining a full defense verdict after a week-long trial.
LD: What were the key challenges of the case?
JS: Taking any case to trial presents risk, but in employment cases, there is particular concern because most jurors can relate to having or losing a job. In addition, Missouri is among several states that tend to be plaintiff-friendly with many high-dollar verdicts from courts in this area, so putting a case before a jury can be a risky proposition. Importantly, we were able to knock out the state claims under the Missouri Human Rights Act on summary judgment.
LD: What is the impact on the client or the industry from this matter?
JS: First and foremost, I think it shows that our client is willing to fight baseless claims, and it demonstrates that the procedures they have in place to address employee under-performance are sound. Businesses go to a lot of expense and effort to design these procedures and to train their people in using them. This verdict provides validation that the effort is worth it.
LD: How has your practice changed since the early part of your career?
JS: Certainly, the context in the legal profession has changed. When I began practicing law, most of the other lawyers and judges were men. Now, there are female judges, female opposing counsel, female colleagues, and female clients. There is a lot of work to do still, but I’d like to think that I’ve played a constructive role in helping other women lawyers to advance.
LD: Do you have a philosophy of client service? What does it take to successfully handle sensitive matters for employers?
JS: My approach to client service is premised on being a good listener. Lawyers like to talk, and there’s a time and place for that, but listening to the client ensures that what you have to say is relevant. Counseling a client often touches on things more complex and subtle than merely providing a letter-of-the-law opinion. There are business objectives at play, and sometimes, there are organizational goals at stake. Listening – and asking the right questions – makes you a better business partner and it ultimately will help provide a more comprehensive and valuable solution to the client’s problem.
LD: How would you describe your style as a trial lawyer?
JS: My individual style relies on being genuine, on being myself. I am courteous and polite, but also firm and direct. I am confident, but not a showboat. I am mindful that ultimately this isn’t about me – it’s about my clients and showing how they did the right thing. So I aim to be forthright, clear, and credible.
LD: Are you involved in any public interest or community activities that are special to you?
JS: I’m involved with the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, an organization with a long history in Kansas City. In addition to presenting the well-known Alvin Ailey dance company, KCFAA teaches critical life skills and arts appreciation to underserved youth using dance as the medium of communication. KCFAA also uses dance to bridge community and racial divides and to promote the values crucial to building the kind of civic culture that embraces diversity and inclusion. It is a wonderful organization.