Seventh in a series of articles from our fall Inclusion magazine, highlighting diversity in the area.
WATERLOO -- It may be one of the biggest emerging businesses along Waterloo’s East Fourth Street north of Walnut Street — traditionally known as “the north end.”
And it’s becoming a pathfinding “north star” as far as diversity in the local workforce.
Sayer Law Firm, located in a former Iowa Job Service office at 925 E. Fourth St., boasts a full parking lot and a growing workforce. Situated across from the Canadian National Railway yard, the law firm is one of Waterloo’s newer emerging businesses.
Sayer is an offshoot of the Waterloo law firm of Dunakey & Klatt in downtown Waterloo, later known as the Klatt law firm (Klatt, Augustine, Treinen & Rastede), of which attorney Brian Sayer was a part. The operation first located at 925 E. Fourth in 2013 and became a separate entity earlier this year.
The East Fourth Street location employs between 60 and 70 people at the Waterloo location, with satellite locations in multiple cities and states.
“We began by specializing in real estate,” Janelle Ewing of the firm said, “including foreclosure and contract forfeiture, some collections. But we are now working on a push to broaden into all sorts of general practice sorts of law, especially estate planning and probate, family law and other litigated tasks.”
Along with that, “We decided pretty on when we got over here that we wanted an inclusive atmosphere,” Ewing said. “First of all, because it’s the right thing to do. And second, because our clients understand it’s the right thing to do and they push for it. Our clients do a lot of government contracts. They want to show their clients, their vendors, like us, have a culture of inclusiveness and development.
“Already we were strong in that we had a large number of female employees here. And then, we have so many different types of work to do in the building, we realized that it’s good to have a variety of different types of workers.”
Stacey Balk of the firm said she had discussions with representatives of The Inclusion Connection, a Waverly-based nonprofit organization supporting adults of diverse abilities desiring inclusive work opportunities
Through that contact the organization hired three autistic workers with varying degrees of ability. They “all do very well in the roles that they’re in,” Balk said.
“We have a culture here of inclusion,” Ewing said. “We just have a lot of people raised to be inclusive and accepting. We just have a really good crew of people here that understands everybody gets to be themselves.”
That’s because of the backgrounds they bring to the firm. “I am a former high school band director,” said Ewing, a 1995 West High School graduate who previously taught in Sugar Land, Texas. “And we have another lawyer who is a former orchestra director — both in the public education. We have a lot of parents here who have children with special needs. We have a lot of people working with us as legal assistance who have backgrounds in the arts, theater and music – probably have a lot exposure to different world views and different types of people.
“When we all realized we all felt this way, it was really easy to move forward and start acting on that — making sure the culture is one of inclusion, non-bullying and development.
“I still get to teach a lot here,” Ewing said. “Because the people that get these jobs many have never been in a office setting before. Many, it’s their first job out of high school or college. They don’t know anything about law or legal assistancy or real estate or the mortgage industry. They have to be taught from the ground up.”
The firm’s management team has been working for more than a year developing uniform educational materials for new hires.
The firm is hiring, filling positions being vacated by workers returning to school.
The basic qualities the firm is looking for are “attitude, openness and fitting into the culture,” Ewing said, as well as responsibility, timeliness and some computer training. “People say it all the time in all disciplines and it holds true here: I’d rather have a low- to medium-talented person with a good work ethic than a lazy talented person.”
The firm’s hiring and commitment to inclusion earned the firm from the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance & Chamber earlier this year. In applying for that award, the firm looked in depth at the diversity of its workforce.
“We discovered that we had people from all over the world,” Ewing said. “We counted a significant number of languages. We do have a couple of multi-linguals on staff now. We counted all the major religions; all kinds of backgrounds. We have people who worked their way up. We have millennials who are being exposed to the world for the first time. We have single parents and young people,” as well as members farm families supplementing their incomes. “All coming together to make this work."
The firm anticipates being at its present location well into the future, Ewing said. “We’ll always have our base in Waterloo. We will always be hiring in Waterloo,” she said. “I grew up here, and I do not subscribe to the incorrect myth that Waterloo is a bad place to be. I’ve been all around the country. I’ve seen all kinds of cities. And I’m really proud of my town.
"I’m really proud of the development that’s happened since I got back here in 2011," she said. "I’m proud of the opportunities that are popping up here and the hard work that people like (JSA Development principal) Jim Walsh and Mayor (Quentin) Hart are doing. I want to be a part of that. I want to be a part of showing the world that Waterloo’s a great place to live and work. And I’m really passionate about that.”