February 26, 2024

The human element: A people-first approach to labor and employment law – Kerri Reisdorff | Shareholder at Ogletree Deakins

For our 15th episode President & CCO Ethan Whitehill chats with Kerri Reisdorff, Shareholder at Ogletree Deakins, who explains how companies can leverage compliance for a competitive edge, and how Law and Order and a Midwest upbringing inspired her tenacious work ethic.

Ethan Whitehill: Hi, everyone. I’m Ethan Whitehill, president and chief creative officer of Crux, the “un-agency.” This is “To the Point,” our monthly podcast for thought-provoking conversations that get to the crux of it all to help businesses elevate their brands and amplify their missions. Today’s guest is Kerri Reisdorff. Kerri is a shareholder with Ogletree Deakins, a leading global labor and employment law firm. Since graduating from law school, Kerri has devoted her legal practice to defending management and labor and employment matters. She advises and defends clients in all aspects of the employer-employee relationship, including compliance with non-discrimination statutes, the Family and Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, Title VII and state and local employment statutes. On top of that, Kerri provides preventive training and counseling for senior leaders, supervisors, and employees on a whole host of employment law-related topics. For the past 7 years, Kerri has been recognized as a leader in her field in labor and employment by Chambers USA, and has been recognized in Best Lawyers in America since 2021. 

The Kansas City Business Journal named her a 2014 NextGen Leader, and she completed 5 years of service as the chair of Ogletree’s Women’s Business Resource Group for attorneys. She’s a proud graduate of the Chamber Centurion Leadership Program where she was elected to the steering committee and served as the 2013- 2014 past president of the Centurion’s Alumni Association’s Board of Directors. She previously served on the executive board of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Kansas City and is a current board member and patron of Studios Inc., a Kansas City Arts incubator, as well as Kansas City Repertory Theater. That’s a long list.  

Kerri Reisdorff: Yes! 

Ethan Whitehill: And I’m gonna come back to that, but first, Kerri, welcome.  

Kerri Reisdorff: Thank you.  

Ethan Whitehill: It’s great to have you on the podcast. And I’ll start here. You have quite an impressive resume and it’s clear you’ve worked incredibly hard to get where you are today. To what or to whom do you credit your drive and determination?  

Kerri Reisdorff: Well, to the whom, I certainly have to credit my family, my parents, and my siblings, but more focused on the what, and I credit that to growing up, being raised in a eat what you kill environment. Not literally, but figuratively.  

Ethan Whitehill: Raised by wolves? 

Kerri Reisdorff: Yeah, exactly. So, I have four siblings and my parents didn’t have a lot left over for non-essentials. And so, if I wanted a new tennis racket, if I wanted gas in my car, I wanted a new sweater, I had to go out and earn the money to pay for it. And that continued through college and law school. And then, it carried on into the legal profession. One of the first mentor’s I had was with a firm that I joined about a year-and-a-half out of law school. And on my first day he said to me, this partner, he said, “Kerri, I’ll keep you busy for a couple years. You can work on my clients, but after that you’ve gotta feed yourself.” 

And at the time, I 100% thought that he was serious. And I soon learned that of course that wasn’t true. So very young in my career, I was focused on how I’m going to develop business to feed myself–meaning to have enough work on my plate–to keep me busy and justify my employment at a firm. That worked out well. And, by the time I was 5-6 years out of law school, I had a good size book of business of work that I had originated. 

Ethan Whitehill: I’m always curious what gets people into their career to begin with. And law is definitely a calling I think for many. What attracted you to the law? 

Kerri Reisdorff: My parents love to take credit for it because they say that I had a very innate sense of fairness. And growing up with a sibling who was one year older. If he got the opportunity to do something and I didn’t get that opportunity, or I was asked to do a chore and he wasn’t, oh gosh, I would argue to the hilt on why that was fair or unfair. More candidly, I grew up very shy and that shyness continued. I mean, you could argue it still continues to this day. It certainly continued through undergrad. And so, the idea of going to law school and becoming a litigator, that didn’t seem like a natural fit or maybe even a smart choice. But ultimately, I was drawn to law school because I’ve really craved the intellectual challenges and the exercise that law provides. I’ve always been intrigued by justice and shows like Law and Order, (sings show intro). I love that stuff. And so ultimately, I was able to put my shyness and fear of being out there in public, and in front of people, aside in order to focus on the law. 

Ethan Whitehill: And you chose to specialize in employment law?  

Kerri Reisdorff: Yeah.  

Ethan Whitehill: Which is somewhat of a hot topic today. Why is that? 

Kerri Reisdorff: Well, it’s focused on labor and employment. It was, you know, one of those things that you work for a general practice firm and you try a whole lot of things–construction law, environmental law, business law and all of that. And ultimately, I was drawn to employment law because of the emotion, the story. And as litigators, our job is to sit and take a set of facts. We don’t develop the facts generally, right? We take a set of facts that’s already there and we decide how to tell that story. And employment law, I’m sorry, and no offense to the business litigators out there, but you know, litigating on whether company a breached an agreement failed to deliver 10 widgets isn’t quite as interesting as a harassment case. A discrimination case where you’ve got all those emotions, personalities, everything that comes into play there. 

Ethan Whitehill: It’s a human element.  

Kerri Reisdorff: Yeah. And the other thing that drew me to employment law, and it’s a big part of my practice today, is that I saw early on that in the employment field, even as a litigator, you could build a significant portion of your practice on the proactive side, helping companies, managers, leaders, stay compliant with the laws. And there are plenty of litigators who would be 100% happy litigating 24/7 and only doing that. I have a basically a 50-50 split where 50% of my time is in the courtroom. I’m in front of judges. I’m in front of agencies and advocating on behalf of clients. The other 50% I’m helping clients not get in those positions. Whether it’s through just gut checks, advice, counseling, training, senior leaders– all of those things I put into that bucket. 

Ethan Whitehill: I have to imagine there’s some psychology involved in that. 

Kerri Reisdorff: Yes. There’s a lot, right? I mean, and when we’re bringing on, or we’re interviewing potential attorneys to join our firm, one of the things I talk to them about is how employment law is different. If someone says you breached that contract, you know, that’s a little bit personal, right? But if you are accused as a supervisor, as a leader, as a manager of making an employment decision based on somebody’s gender, their race, because they took time off for a medical condition, that goes to somebody’s integrity…to their core. And so, I always tell young attorneys in this field that ultimately, we are defending, somebody’s integrity. 

Ethan Whitehill: And I have a feeling your job has gotten more complicated over the years.  

Kerrie Reisdorff: Yes.  

Ethan Whitehill: And, the industry has evolved. What are some of the trends in employment law, particularly post covid, that you’ve noticed? 

Kerri Reisdorff: With respect to employment law, I’ll nuance it a little bit. I’ll first talk about the legal industry. The legal industry has, when companies are hiring outside counsel, they become much, they were always sophisticated, right? But much more focused on getting the best lawyer. They expect you to be the expert in the field, but you have to be able to deliver efficient, timely, and practical legal advice. And, relationships just aren’t gonna cut it anymore. So, no matter how much you like this attorney, or how much you want to give business to this person, they have to have the resources, and they have to consistently deliver on that. I’m actually a member of Ogletree’s Innovation Council. And firms like Ogletree, for years, have been focused on– and one of their strategic initiatives is–innovation. Right? Our clients expect to go to our website, and to go to a client portal and have information at their fingertips and not have to go through the attorney they work with to get that information, or complimentary information. 

Kerri Reisdorff: So, you’ve got that. And the same thing as Ogletree has a thousand lawyers. Our clients…and if they got a bill from me or from Ogletree, and they were billed for research, they should question why they were billed for research. I can guarantee you on almost any legal issue that’s ever crossed my desk in 25 years, other lawyers within Ogletree have handled that. So, how do you harness all of that knowledge and not have it where you send out an email to a thousand lawyers saying, “Hey, has anybody had this issue? Can you send me your briefs?” So, you have to invest in that infrastructure.  

Ethan Whitehill: Who needs AI when you have a thousand attorneys? 

Kerri Reisdorff: Seriously. Yes. I mean, so how can I find out who in the firm has had that exact same issue in terms of our client and what’s new? What I’ve seen in trends in employment law, which covid certainly impacted, was when I first started practicing in the ‘90s, and a company had a facility here in Kansas or Missouri, all their employees worked in Kansas or Missouri. Right? And then as years kind of crept on, you know, maybe they had remote sales folks at different locations across the US and then maybe they bought another facility in another state. Fast forward to today, and of course with covid, so many more employers are open to hiring remote employees even in key leadership positions these days. So, as a labor and employment firm assisting and defending companies, we have to have a multi-jurisdictional base, right? Footprint. Experts. And as a lawyer, my office is in Kansas City, but most of the clients I work with–their headquarters are not in Kansas City. But, I have to work at a firm that’s able to provide multi-jurisdictional assistance and advice. 

Ethan Whitehill: So, what’s a common misstep related to that then? So, if somebody just assumes, oh, well, you know, I did this with employee A, but employee B could be out of state and maybe it’s a different case. 

Kerri Reisdorff: So that actually is a great question, and it leads to one of the other developments. When I started practicing, employers generally had to worry about federal law. Like federal law set the expectations and the laws in terms of what employers had to follow in the workplace. Over particularly in the last 10 years, and minimum wage was one of the primary catalysts of this, was you started seeing state legislation. So, you saw states, I’ve lost track, but I think there’s 38 states that have a higher minimum wage than the federal law. That was not the case 20 years ago, 25 years ago. You also have a lot of states offering protected or paid leave for employees in particular circumstances. In Missouri here, for example, Missouri has a law that requires employers to provide certain time off and other benefits to an employee who is a victim of domestic abuse. So, if you are a company whose office and headquarters is in, let’s say Kentucky, and you have a remote employee in Missouri, you have to know about those state laws, and stay up to speed on those state laws, so You can make sure that you follow those laws for the employee where they reside. Particularly with remote employees. 

Ethan Whitehill: That makes sense. And switching gears a little bit on that line of thought. At Crux, we think a lot about internal communications, employer branding, things like that. And, we also hear that we’re in a war for talent often. How can organizations leverage compliance to make themselves a top tier employer of choice? So, you mentioned compliance training and things like that previously. How can that be a competitive advantage? 

Kerri Reisdorff: So, I would say culture, right? In 2017, I was asked to present at a national construction conference. And one of the other panelists, he was asked a question about how Me Too was impacting the construction industry. And he answered the question, and no offense to him at all, but he answered it that, you know, we have to shield our female employees from kind of that boorish, vulgar behavior that can sometimes be present in the construction industry. Well, ultimately the next question came to me and I found a way to kind of maneuver into that. And I made the statement that, listen, what my practice has told me is that every employee wants a fun and friendly work environment, but they want it respectful. They want it professional. They don’t want profanity–those sorts of things in the workplace. And I’m not joking, the room applauded. 

Kerri Reisdorff: And I don’t get applause a lot for, you know, providing legal advice on a panel, right? So, I kind of fast forward that into, so you have to have a culture that encourages people to say knock it off when someone crosses the line and for senior leaders to take steps to stop it when someone crosses the line. One of the best stories that I have is, a few years ago I had done senior leader training for a company in the financial services industry and outside legal counsel. You know, we don’t get called for good news if it’s like calling the help desk and letting them know that you had no computer issues with a software upgrade. Like, you know, you don’t call outside counsel to say something good happened. But in this event, in this situation, the general counsel called me and said, “Kerri, I have to pass this on because we are crediting it to the training and he discussion you had with our senior leadership.  

Kerri Reisdorff: And the story was that every Tuesday, I think it was Tuesday mornings, there was a meeting with the analysts and the portfolio managers. And the purpose of the meeting was for the analysts, who do the research and you know, track the trends, all of that to present their information to the portfolio managers, so that informs their investment decision strategies. All of that. And so, the portfolio managers are the most senior folks in the room. And during one of those meetings, the first two analysts happened to be males. They gave their 15-minute presentations and the third analyst happened to be a female. And almost immediately, two of the portfolio managers grabbed their phones and you could tell that they were texting back and forth, and they were smiling and even audibly laughing. And you know, at worst it was disruptive and unprofessional towards the analyst who was presenting. 

Kerri Reisdorff: At worst, it was everybody inferred that they might have been texting about her. And ultimately, one of the other portfolio managers politely interrupted the analyst and said, “can you hang on a minute?” And he invited his two colleagues out into the hallway. A couple minutes go by and the portfolio manager that had interrupted the meeting came back in, but the other two did not come back in. And those two did not attend any of those other weekly meetings for a month. And they had to do their own research, get the information. And they had to do their own research and get the information on their own.  

Ethan Whitehill: Yeah. 

Kerri Reisdorff: Now, how did that get to legal? To the general counsel? That story spread like wildfire within the organization. And it wasn’t the portfolio manager who called out his peers who were spreading that information. It was the analysts that were in the meeting and they spread that information to their colleagues. And that is the best example of how you can enforce that culture that you want of people feeling comfortable within the organization, to raise a concern, raise an issue, and ask somebody to knock it off. 

Ethan Whitehill: That’s a great example.  

Kerri Reisdorff: Yeah, I love that example. 

Ethan Whitehill:  Yeah. That’s terrific. Yeah. So, Crux works with a lot of fast growth entrepreneurial businesses. Thinking about other mistakes that you could potentially make. What are some of those common employment mistakes that small businesses should watch for during periods of high growth? 

Kerri Reisdorff: Ah, they’re moving so fast, right? And just recognizing what laws apply to you. Right? So, if you are an employer in Missouri and you have six or more employees anywhere in America, including at least one in Missouri, you’re covered by the Missouri Human Rights Act. If you have 15 or more employees anywhere in America, you’re covered by Title VII. And so those are sort of the first. If you employ more than one person and are engaged in interstate commerce, meaning you send an email outside of the state, you are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. And so, knowing what statutes you have to comply with, what laws you have to comply with, and then start with the infrastructure, right? I’m not one of those employment lawyers that thinks you have to have a 50-page handbook. In fact, when a client sends me a 50-page handbook, I’m like, I’m getting out my red pen, right?  

Ethan Whitehill: We might need to revisit our handbook. 

Kerri Reisdorff: Yes. But you should have 10 to 15 pages, right?  

Ethan Whitehill: Right. 

Kerri Reisdorff: And one of which is your harassment and discrimination policy. If you have a written compliant harassment and discrimination policy, that policy and the signed acknowledgement from your employee, can be the difference between getting a case dismissed at summary judgment, no liability.  

Ethan Whitehill: Mm-Hmm. 

Kerri Reisdorff: And not having it. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in liability–even for a small company. So little things like that. You gotta have the policies on the compliance side, the main things I see with small companies growing is misclassification. Classifying folks as exempt, not eligible for overtime when they should be classified as non-exempt eligible for overtime. Also, classifying folks as contractors when they’re more appropriately classified as employees. You also if you get to the 50-employee mark at a facility, including those that report into a facility, the Family Medical Leave Act. And that law, the FMLA, is the most difficult employment statute to comply with. And the idea that you can just give the leave and not send notices, that doesn’t work anymore. And so, as you’re getting closer to that 50-employee mark at a facility or reporting into a facility, taking the time to get the forms, you know, create the subject matter expert internally so they know what to do when someone needs leave for one of those qualifying events. 

Ethan Whitehill: I know Katie is taking note of that on our team because we’re very close to 50 today.  

Kerri Reisdorff: The other thing I would say for smaller employers as they’re growing is to think about EPLI insurance. That is insurance for certain employment disputes litigation. And so, if you get a claim, you have some insurance coverage to cover that. The legal fees alone can be quite significant. 

Ethan Whitehill: All such good advice. Outside of your everyday work at Ogletree, which obviously keeps you quite busy based on everything we’ve talked about, you also serve as chair of the firm’s women’s business resource group for attorneys. Talk to us about that group and why it’s so vital to the future of your industry. 

Kerri Reisdorff: I just turned over the chair reigns to two colleagues. They ended up breaking it up into co-chairs. And I was five years in that role. And I mean, I look at it as both a woman and as an equity shareholder. And, we have over 500 female attorneys. And if those female attorneys are happy and successful, we all win. Right? I mean, the bottom line of the company, our clients win, everybody wins. And when I look back on policies that, you know, as chair of OD WIN that OD WIN advocated for internally on behalf of the firm, those policies really went to benefit everybody. We wanted greater transparency in the elevation process to shareholder, greater transparency in the elevation from non-equity to equity and you know, professional development. And, you know, those professional development opportunities weren’t limited just to females or members of OD it went to benefit everybody. And I think that that’s the thing that I love about professional resource groups, including OD WIN within Ogletree. 

Ethan Whitehill: So, we talked a little bit earlier about your involvement with Centurions, Ronald McDonald House, Studios Inc., KC Rep. How do you have the time to do it all? Your plate is very full.  

Kerri Reisdorff: I always joke that I love Ogletree because they have the infrastructure behind me, right? I don’t have my own firm, I don’t have to send out bills myself. I don’t have to figure out, you know, how the computer turns on and if there’s an issue, someone else helps me with that. So, they help me focus on helping our clients. Ultimately, from very early on I knew that I wasn’t gonna be personally happy with just focusing on my professional development. I also knew that the skills I had as an employment lawyer could benefit small, not-for-profits and small civic organizations.  

Ethan Whitehill: Hugely.  

Kerri Reisdorff: Yes.  

Kerri Reisdorff: And I’m not saying that other board members that have different specialty and experience they don’t have that same ability to assist or help that agency. But absolutely, there’s not a nonprofit in this town or anywhere that doesn’t want an employment lawyer on their board to help with, you know, gut checks, help with compliance issues, help with reviewing their handbook, helping with that free of charge. 

Ethan Whitehill: So yeah. And you know, it’s one of those things where it’s not a question of if it’ll happen, it’s when it’ll happen.  

Kerri Reisdorff: Yes.  

Ethan Whitehill: And you know, I’d love to think we live in a perfect world and everybody gets along, but there’s always those, those instances. 

Kerri Reisdorff: Absolutely. Yes. No one’s immune, no organization for-profit, not-for-profit. Any industry is not immune from having someone go to the EEOC or raise a concern about how they’re paid, when they’re paid, those sorts of things. 

Ethan Whitehill: So, you also have an interest in another company. You made an investment in Crux’s sister company, Crux-Xcelerate, and you serve on our advisory board at Crux. What drew you to invest and engage with us? 

Kerri Reisdorff: Ultimately Crux and Crux-X are in a professional services industry, right? I mean, that is what private law firms are into, right? And you see a need and you fill that need. And when Melea said that this was what she was gonna do with Crux initially, I thought that’s, that’s brilliant. That is absolutely a need for companies of, you know, small size, medium size, going through a certain change where they don’t need a full-time CMO, but they certainly need the services or the expertise that a CMO can provide. So that platform–Crux’s model– just absolutely made sense. And then of course you carry that forward to Crux X and the same things drive and the same need exists for sales support, right? So, it was a no-brainer to invest in Melea, yourself, the company, and then ultimately the privilege of serving on the advisory board as well. It’s been great. 

Ethan Whitehill: We absolutely appreciate your service and your insight that you give us. Fortunately, you know, we’ve had the benefit of your counsel and it’s been wonderful working with you. So, thank you for that.  

Kerri Reisdorff: Of course.  

Ethan Whitehill: Now I’m gonna do you, maybe the not so favorable favor, of asking you one of my mystery 20 questions here.  

Kerri Reisdorff: Hey, I’m ready. I think. 

Ethan Whitehill: Some of these are very, they’re very kind. Some are a little harder. So, we’ll see what we roll up here with my 20 side. Oh, I rolled a 20. Okay. This is fun. because this gets kind of back to your, your origin story here. What was your first job? 

Kerri Reisdorff: Oh, well gosh, I, I hate being the person that doesn’t answer the question or provides 17 answers to the question. My first paying job was I robed beans for a farm outside of Columbus, Nebraska. And that was hard work. I mean that. I, I wasn’t tall enough to do detasseling, which I thought was certainly unfair because you made more money doing detasseling. But my first job-job was that I sack groceries at Hy-Vee.  

Ethan Whitehill: Awesome. 

Kerri Reisdorff: They hired at 14. So, I was out there sacking groceries and putting groceries in cars.  

Ethan Whitehill: So, employment law, that’s legal. 14 is legal. Okay.  

Kerri Reisdorff: It was. Yes.  

Kerri Reisdorff: There’s rules, but I actually don’t remember if Nebraska had rules, but most states these days. 

Ethan Whitehill: Yeah. Being a farm state, it might have been a little different. 

Kerri Reisdorff: And that you can only work a certain number of hours and can only work up until a certain time of day. Those sorts of things.  

Ethan Whitehill: I’m sure it was all compliant.  

Kerri Reisdorff: Well, and I was driving to the job. 

Ethan Whitehill: I can’t even imagine a 14-year-old. Well, this has been amazing. Thank you for your time, Kerri. If somebody wants to connect with you and learn more, since you are a wealth of knowledge, how would they do that? 

Kerri Reisdorff: So best thing is email, Kerri.reisdorff@ogletree.com. I know that’s a lot of letters. If you just remember Kerri or Reisdorff, just go to www.ogletree.com. And by the way, the website is amazing resources, free of charge, blogs, articles, webinars, all these things that are, you know, open to the public. And certainly if you had an issue, you just go on there, type in what your issue is and hopefully get some free advice. 

Ethan Whitehill: That’s fantastic. Yeah. Thank you so much.  

Kerri Reisdorff: Happy to be here. 

Hosted by Ethan Whitehill

ethan-whitehill-cruxEthan has made a career out of building agencies and growing brands. He founded the firm Two West in 1997, running it as an independent shop for nearly 20 years before combining his firm with an AdAge Top 100 Agency, where he served as CMO. As an agency founder and entrepreneur, Ethan brings a business owner’s mindset to marketing, working on a host of diverse brands, from packaged goods and professional services to hospitality and healthcare.

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