One of Dorothy White-Coleman’s proudest accomplishments is graduating from law school, especially because most of her closest friends advised her not to go.
“They were immediately concerned about me when I was accepted into law school and said, ‘Why would you give up a good job and benefits?’ They said, ‘You’re smart but not that smart.’ ‘Stay where you are,’ they told me. I’m glad I didn’t listen to their advice,” she said, laughing.
White-Coleman had been employed as a social worker for the state and then as a social worker for children in foster and adoptive placements. She remembers these were the only jobs she could get at the time with a political science degree. The work spurred her to apply for law school because she kept running into legal obstacles.
“Social workers do the same things that lawyers do as far as trying to help people. The job made me want to reform the juvenile court system. It was hard to get the kids through the adoptive process, and it made me understand that there are always two sides to the picture,” she said.
After graduating from Saint Louis University School of Law with honors in 1981, White-Coleman clerked for Judge Floyd Gibson of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. She became a defense litigator at Husch Blackwell and a partner at Peoples, Hale & Coleman before starting White, Ovletrea & Watson, an all-female African American law firm. She lists this as a second career highlight.
“Our dream was to start a boutique African American law firm for patent, trademark and business litigation at a time when there was nothing in St. Louis quite like that,” she said.
“I’m really proud of it because together the three of us did things we didn’t think we could do. We grew to eight lawyers and three legal assistants, and we serviced major legal corporations, practicing in areas that other African American firms did not,” she said.
Her practice at her current firm, White Coleman & Associates, includes business and commercial litigation, contracts, franchise law and trademark and copyright infringement. It’s a long way from social work, but she continues to work with the younger generation through an ongoing role with the St. Louis Internship Program. She said she always will be involved in mentoring because she lacked role models in her youth.
“I became interested in law by watching Perry Mason. I didn’t think about him as a Caucasian man because I just loved the way he did his job with professionalism and with the goal of revealing the truth. I didn’t have any African American role models, so to the extent I can open my firm and expose young people to the practice, I will always do it,” she said.
“What I like about my job is what I like about the practice of law. I’m never bored, and I never remember watching the clock. Every day is something different even though we are often servicing the same clients,” she said.
“I love being a student of the law,” she added. “I’ve been practicing for more than 30 years, but I’ll never know everything.”