Carol. R. M. Moss: The Journey from Paralegal to Partner — A Testament to Women on the Rise

By H.K. Wilson

Established in 1994, Hellmuth & Johnson is among Minnesota’s 15 largest law firms, with more than 60 Twin Cities lawyers delivering prudent counsel and formidable advocacy to clients in 30-plus legal practice areas spanning construction, finance, patent, trademark and copyright litigation, business, real estate and estate planning. The firm’s reputation for multidisciplinary excellence is manifest in transactional law, litigation and appeals representation delivered across multiple jurisdictions by attorneys whose top priority is to protect and advance their clients’ interests. Built on the belief that people are its greatest asset, the firm has become an increasingly diverse community, so that 40% of its attorneys are now female. The creative thinking derived from differing points of view makes Hellmuth & Johnson attorneys the strongest possible advocates.

Carol R. M. Moss is a partner in Hellmuth & Johnson’s litigation practice group. She is a fierce advocate and ethical problem solver for individuals, businesses and organizations facing a wide variety of legal issues. In recent years, Moss has expanded her practice to the cannabis sector, an emerging area of law she describes as a “fascinating jungle gym for the mind.”

Moss is both passionate about helping her clients succeed in business and eager to right wrongs for the disadvantaged. She furthers her commitment to each by serving as a board member of the National Association of Women Business Owners and as chair of the City of Robbinsdale Human Rights Commission, an organization dedicated to equal human rights and providing pro bono legal services to victims of domestic violence.

Moss’s journey in the law demonstrates the rise in opportunities for women in recent decades. She grew up in the small Minnesota town of Litchfield knowing that she wanted to become a lawyer. But when she was graduating from high school and told her guidance counselor that she wanted to pursue prelaw in college, he redirected her to a paralegal program. “I don’t know if it was a lack of confidence in me or if he thought it was just more realistic to work as a paralegal and not go to law school,” she says.

I always feel that we as women just get things done. I didn’t have a choice. I wasn’t going to drop out of school.

Moss completed a four-year paralegal program at Winona State University, which required an internship for graduation. She landed a position at a prominent Twin Cities litigation firm, where she began as a file clerk, worked her way up to paralegal and remained in the personal injury department for eight years.

“It’s not what I wanted to do,” Moss says. Despite the fact that she was now married with a toddler, she began law school at Hamline University School of Law. Along the way, she became pregnant with her second child, who arrived during finals week of her concluding semester of law school.

Moss interviewed at Hellmuth & Johnson just one week later. “My mom was downstairs in the car with my newborn. I timed the interview perfectly between feedings.”

Moss went on to study for the bar while caring for her newborn, and she remembers walking around the house reciting flashcards while comforting her infant. “I always feel that we as women just get things done,” she says. “I didn’t have a choice. I wasn’t going to drop out of school.”

Moss was hired at Hellmuth & Johnson and is now entering her 15th year with the firm. She has been a partner for more than five years. “One of the things that was very helpful when I started is that it was still a relatively new firm at the time, and the partners were not much older than me. They still had kids in school, so there was a lot of relatability.”

In an environment that Moss describes as less structured and more flexible than traditional firms, she says she found the support she needed to succeed as a junior attorney with a young family. “There were a few people in particular who really helped me. One was attorney Kathleen Loucks, who is not with the firm now. She had a few years of experience on me, and she was someone I went to for advice. Nancy Polomis has been a huge source of support, whether I needed it in my professional or in my personal life. The other was the head of our department, Robert Keena. He would say, ‘Why am I getting emails from you at 11:00 at night? Stop doing that. When you’re here, work hard. But when you’re home, you’re home. Don’t take the job home with you.’ That was amazing.”

She adds, “I also wouldn’t be here without my husband, Greg. He has never been anything but supportive of this profession, even when it has taken a lot of time and energy from the family.”

Looking back on her career, Moss observes, “I’ve never felt I like I couldn’t do anything because I was a woman, internally. Rob Keena sees people of different backgrounds as an asset because of the different perspectives we bring to disputes. Women bring a different type of presence to cases, and we tend to be able to reconcile things and bring down egos. Those skills help resolve cases.”

 

Moss and colleague Anne Regan cooperate in devising strategies for supporting women at the firm. “The firm wants women to succeed, to become partners and work their way up. Anne and I make ourselves available to women attorneys, whether to be a sounding board or just understand situations that may not be obvious to our male colleagues. We can also be a conduit between people having disputes. We want women to stay and succeed here.”

Having started her career as a file clerk and then a paralegal, Moss has special appreciation for the contributions of legal staff. “My assistant Amanda Kunkel and I have been together for nine years. She calls me her longest relationship. She also says she can speak ‘Carolese.’ She is a vital part of my practice, and I couldn’t have this success without her. At her annual review I was asked how likely I was to recommend her. I said zero, because I wouldn’t want to lose her. We laugh a lot too.”

With regard to the development of her cannabis practice, Moss says, “The firm never tries to limit its attorneys. They have encouraged the development of my own practice, including my cannabis practice. This firm is very purposeful in not having its attorneys become siloed in just one area. Developing new practices moves the whole firm forward.”

In an industry that has not been legal for long, Moss has found rewarding challenges in representing the many emerging businesses derived from cannabis. “A lot of different products are made from the cannabis plant. Many people don’t realize the difference is that marijuana has more than .3% THC and hemp has less than .3%. While we still don’t have recreational marijuana in our state, we have hemp and all the products that come from it. Working with entrepreneurs, many of whom are women, is inspiring. I’ve made so many friends in the industry, with clients who are growers, manufacturers and retailers.”

Moss expresses concern, however, regarding social equity relating to the cannabis industry. “I worry about people with criminal records or who are in prison for having produced something that may soon be legal. Their status can prevent them from getting a job or government aid. If we don’t keep issues of expungement of records and decriminalization at the forefront, these people could easily be left behind.”

Another disparity she sees is the disproportionate impact the War on Drugs has had on minority communities. “Studies show that enforcement has been lopsided against communities of color. When we start talking about legalization of cannabis and a very lucrative industry, how do we equalize opportunities for people who have not had access to business education, banks, accountants, and the legal support a business needs to succeed? We need to add support because the imbalance of criminal charges has left people out of this business community.”

Working in the cannabis industry was natural given Moss’s advocacy for entrepreneurs, especially women entrepreneurs. Moss serves on the board for National Association of Women Business Owners – Minnesota and finds it very fulfilling. “Women run their businesses differently than men. They are more likely to consider how a business decision affects their employees and their families. Small women business owners are more likely to be the sole supporter of their family. When you help them succeed, you help families succeed.”

Moss says she hopes that young women today would receive different career advice than she did when she was starting out. However, she has parlayed her early experience into a robust and meaningful career, made all the richer by her many perspectives on the law and the inclusive culture at Hellmuth & Johnson.

“I really did leave that day feeling like maybe being a lawyer was too much, like I didn’t know if I could do it. But I overcame it, and it all worked out for me. I don’t think being a lawyer is the restricted stereotype it used to be. I see so many opportunities for women in the law. And in Minnesota, we’re blessed with so many women on the bench and as leaders in the legal community.”

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8050 West 78th Street
Edina, MN 55439
(952) 941-4005
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