“When you grow up without any money, you want to be a professional,” said Wolff, a native of Rochester, Minnesota. “I didn’t have lawyers in my family, and I didn’t know any. I just knew I wanted to be able to chart my own credentials and course.”
Wolff would amass other credentials in the next six decades — judicial clerk, legal-aid attorney, professor, dean and author, with stints in between as political advisor and Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice. The common thread linking each step: his long-standing belief in the value of public service.
“I was fortunate enough to get a clerkship after law school with [U.S. District Judge Miles W. Lord for the District of Minnesota], who had been in politics. He was a close friend of Hubert Humphrey, [and] he gave Walter Mondale his first job in politics,” Wolff said. “There was a sense of public-service advocacy in the air.”
Wolff spent a year with Lord and another as a staff attorney with Legal Assistance of Ramsey County in Saint Paul, Minnesota. More legal-aid work followed in Denver and Rapid City, South Dakota, while his wife completed medical-residency programs. In 1975, his wife’s pediatrics residency at Washington University brought them to St. Louis, where Wolff became an assistant professor at Saint Louis University School of Law.
Wolff became a professor in 1980 and held secondary appointments at SLU in the Schools of Medicine and Public Health. He also practiced full-time with a firm specializing in litigation while on leave in 1981-82.
After unsuccessfully running for state Attorney General, Wolff joined Mel Carnahan’s gubernatorial campaign as research director in 1992. When Carnahan won the office, Wolff served as his transition director and later chief counsel. In 1994, he returned to the law school — though he remained as special counsel in Carnahan’s administration to work with lawmakers, officials and leaders in St. Louis and Kansas City on school desegregation. In 1998, he was appointed to the Supreme Court, where he served as chief justice from 2005 to 2007.
While on the court, Wolff chaired the Sentencing Advisory Commission from 2004 to 2011 and worked to bring about judicial pay raises in 2006. Known for self-deprecating wit and clear, concise prose, Wolff wrote opinions that, among others, established the right to a jury trial in employment-discrimination cases and upheld the right to collective bargaining for public employees.
“The Supreme Court of Missouri is a terrific institution, and I very much enjoyed my time there,” he said. “I liked using words and writing, and this had a literary aspect to it.”
Wolff retired from the court in August 2011 and returned to SLU Law to teach. In 2013, after two previous deans left amid controversies, Wolff became dean, overseeing the law school’s move to its present location downtown. “I was the only guy standing around who looked like he needed something to do,” he joked.
Before stepping down as dean in 2017, Wolff was credited with helping to stabilize enrollment, increase alumni engagement and increase national rankings in such key metrics as bar passage and employment. At age 73, he still teaches, practices law, performs consulting work and serves as an advisor or board member with law-related and community organizations. Among his many professional honors: Missouri Lawyers Media’s Lawyer of the Year Award in 2007 and Influential Lawyer Award in 2014.
“I’m happy to be not in charge of things now,” he said. “Politics can be frustrating and exhilarating, and so is public service. At various points along the way, there’s a lot of it that can be painful, but you just keep going, and other things will be very rewarding. I think I enjoyed them all.”