One afternoon in October, partway through telling the tale of the winding murder case that changed her life, Jill Harper stated, in near disbelief, “My story’s just so crazy.”
The case that jump-started her career involved a murder in Lake of the Ozarks, where a woman was accused of killing her father, who later died in the hospital, and his girlfriend. Stories of the murders circulated the state and were even featured in People magazine. Harper’s story, however, was just beginning. It was 2012, and she was a second-year law student and a clerk at the Columbia law firm Harper, Evans, Wade & Netemeyer. Her clients, a man and woman accused of forging a power-of-attorney health care document, were allegedly responsible for the father’s death in the hospital. When Harper found a crucial document in the victim’s medical records that exonerated them, she earned the respect and admiration of the firm’s founder, Milt Harper, a longtime Columbia lawyer and former associate circuit judge.
Long story short, she got on Milt’s good side; she got a job with the firm; she married Milt’s son, Joe; she made partner by 29 years old; and she helped earn a $45 million verdict for a client, one of the largest awarded in Missouri in 2017. She pointed out that both serendipity and ambition led her to this downtown Columbia law office.
In a sense, maybe she was lucky that her high school boyfriend got into trouble, hired Milt Harper for representation, called him “the best attorney that ever lived” and made her believe it, too. And that time in college she broke her elbow as a waitress — OK, that was unlucky — that spawned a fascination of workers’ compensation law, which she now practices.
Then there was her work trip to Las Vegas with Milt and his wife, Deanna, when she was a law student. The wine was flowing at dinner, and Harper mentioned to Deanna that her 6-foot-7-inch son seemed like a suitable boyfriend for her. Milt was away from the table, and when Deanna mentioned it to him later that night in their Bellagio hotel room, he responded, “I think that’s a great idea.” Within two years, Harper shared the family name.
Harper did always have that “bulldog” attitude, she says — unabashed, bold and passionate. At 4 years old, she went door-to-door in her hometown of Centralia, trying to sell family recipes. And that workers’ compensation for her broken elbow? She got the insurance company to raise its offer by five times the original amount.
“She’s no-nonsense,” Deanna says. Harper goes a step further: “I am one of the most aggressive females I know and probably more than a lot of males, too. I probably overshare. I am straight to the point.”
It’s a natural disposition, but the “good ol’ boy system” of attorneys, Harper notes, certainly emboldens her. She was “thrown into the fire” early on, her legal partner, Ron Netemeyer, says. He compared her to a young NFL quarterback, forced to start her rookie year at the firm with big cases and big sums. “Jill was in it right away,” he says.
Netemeyer passed down advice when he could, but Harper has always possessed the traits of a thorough lawyer — deep research skills, compassion, the ability to frame a case. Storytelling, after all, is central to practicing law. A good lawyer, Netemeyer says, “knows how to go in and tell the story of their client and capture the jury’s attention and hopefully their compassion.” He adds, “I think Jill has that.”
It’s the stories of Harper’s own life, and her elaborate telling of them, that illustrate her talent and power. “You wanted to know what kind of lawyer I am?” she asks. “Here’s a good example.” It was a few years ago. She was 12 weeks pregnant with her first child. She was wearing, for the first time, maternity clothing in depositions. Harper was the only woman in a room full of 15 lawyers yelling questions over one another, debating whether a witness could testify. Ten minutes passed.
Harper then took control. “I figure out the judge’s phone number, call him, put it on speaker,” she says. “‘Judge, Jill Harper here. Hello. I’ve got 15 people in this room. Here’s what’s going on. We need you to make a ruling.’” The judge immediately ruled in Harper’s favor.
In her fourth-floor office, she arrives at the moral of her career: “Ron is not a pushover. He expects me not to be a pushover. So I haven’t been.”
She leans back and reminds herself of the coincidences that led her to where she sits. “I’m such a firm believer in everything happens for a reason,” she says. “I really got a lot of opportunities to make a name for myself here. And I ran with it.”