There is a particular satisfaction that comes from taking a risk and seeing it succeed. When the founders of Sapientia Law Group came together seven years ago, they envisioned a diverse and inclusive workplace, where the traditions of white shoe hierarchies and rigid social norms would be a thing of the past. What began as something of an experiment in practice has proven a groundbreaking model for success. With a firm structure that eschews partner and associate designations and embraces flexible work hours, a collaborative team environment and a focus on perpetual growth, this varied group of talented attorneys and support professionals is proving that there is wisdom in thinking differently.
On September 24, 2018, the attorneys at Sapientia were recognized for their unprecedented achievements when the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF) named Sapientia “MVP Law Firm of the Year.” This preeminent distinction is clear evidence that Sapientia’s model is not only working, but is setting a new standard that other firms will be mirroring.
Sonia Miller-Van Oort, the firm’s co-founder and president, is an accomplished commercial litigator. Among her many achievements and honors, Miller-Van Oort served as president of the Minnesota State Bar Association for the 2017-2018 term. She also has the distinction of being the state’s first Hispanic bar president. She directs Sapientia’s vision, growth and branding, while managing a robust caseload.
“Our concept is to work as one team of attorneys and not be hierarchical in nature as a traditional law firm,” she said. “We’ve accomplished an atmosphere where everyone has a seat at the table. We’re not vertical between people, titles or years of experience. Everyone is acknowledged for the unique perspective they bring, and it allows us to work side-by-side in a more collaborative culture.”
We’ve accomplished an atmosphere where everyone has a seat at the table. We’re not vertical between people, titles or years of experience.”
Sarah Oquist, also a firm founder, is Sapientia’s COO. Her comprehensive business and legal experience includes big firm legal practice, in-house corporate counsel, and roles as a CEO and board member of various corporate entities. She is also a certified executive coach who brings a sophisticated outlook on business matters to the firm and her clients.
In order to achieve their goal of perpetual improvement, Sapientia’s attorneys engage in regular 360 peer reviews. While Oquist says this process felt particularly uncomfortable in the beginning, the group has become more cohesive as a result of being authentic with one another. It has also bolstered their courage to reach out to clients for feedback. “When I make those calls, I start from a place of knowing that everybody can do something better. When clients tell us a way in which we can improve, and we have the opportunity to take on another matter and do it better, they know we care about what they said. It’s really connected us with our clients.”
Robin Wolpert is an accomplished business litigator, white collar criminal defense attorney and appellate practitioner who is a former prosecutor and in-house counsel at 3M. She is chair of the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board, 2016-2017 past president of the Minnesota State Bar Association and passionate about public service. Joining Sapientia nearly three years ago has allowed her to serve diverse clients and businesses and also contribute to the profession and community.
“When I’m working to get the best outcome for my clients, I know I have a team in this firm whose talent I can leverage to help my clients reach a better result,” Wolpert commented. “The group is always wiser than the individual, and we bring that power to our clients. I also value the freedom I have to work with organizations that serve diverse individuals and those that give back to the profession. I’m thrilled to have the kind of support that allows me to be everything I can be as a lawyer.”
Amy Gernon’s broad legal experience spans defense, plaintiff and administrative law. She spent half of her 15-year legal career clerking for federal judges, and the other half as a trial attorney litigating a variety of commercial and intellectual property disputes. She has also served as in-house counsel. She came to Sapientia last year, and the firm gives her a flexible forum in which to use her strengths as researcher, writer and strategist.
Gernon shared, “I see women leaving the legal space in greater numbers than men, oft en with kids, and it bothers me that the legal workforce is losing great people. As a professional, I’m totally committed, and I want to be in the law, but I needed the flexibility at this point in my career to work on my terms. Here, it’s nice that people recognize everybody has different goals in the law. I’m not considered less of a lawyer because I work a flexible schedule. I am able to do the kind of work I do here because we are so collaborative. Any model that allows people to stay in the law at different stages of their life and career is living up to the ideal of diversity.”
Sapientia has also pioneered advances in alternative fee arrangements, another element that lends itself to greater collaboration among attorneys and more cohesive client relationships. Approximately 55 percent of the firm’s revenue comes from alternative fee arrangements, a high percentage for a firm that focuses on business litigation, consultancy and transactional representation.
Another of the firm’s ingenious creations is its Innovation Advisory Board, a group of business and community leaders both in and outside the law, who come together to share best practices. Miller-Van Oort said, “It gives us a unique touchpoint outside the law to share information and look for feedback.”
As the conversation about diversity and inclusion has recently reached a crescendo in our society, Sapientia continues to examine its own policies and actions to ensure that it remains a place of diversity and inclusion for all. Oquist said, “Sometimes when people hear we are women-owned, they think we are all women attorneys. But that wouldn’t be very diverse. We want to be mindful and respectful of everyone’s feelings and perspectives, including our white, male colleagues. We’re not leaving them out of the conversation.”