Willie J. Epps, Jr. has had an impressive career, but a chance meeting during high school with Walter Gellhorn — the St. Louis native, civil-rights leader and legal scholar — is the milestone that remains with him often.
Epps said he was honored that such an important man would take the time to suggest he attend Amherst College — Gelhorn’s own undergraduate alma mater — though the school wasn’t even on his radar at the time.
“That one act of kindness was one that sticks out,” Epps said, noting that he, in turn, takes as much time as he can to provide guidance for young people because of the potential impact on their lives. “I was blessed by mentors who opened my eyes to opportunities.”
Education was important in his family. The son of parents with doctoral degrees, Epps was born in rural Mississippi but moved to North St. Louis County as a fifth-grader. After Amherst and graduation from Harvard Law School, he worked in the U.S. Air Force as a Judge Advocate in courts martial during the late 1990s.
That led to an appointment as an assistant special counsel in the investigation headed by former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth to examine the disastrous 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Epps went on to spend several years in solo practice before joining Charter Communications, where he became chief compliance officer. He also spent time as a partner at both Shook, Hardy & Bacon and Dowd Bennett before joining Edward Jones in 2014, where he became associate general counsel and head of litigation. In 2017, he was appointed to the bench.
Epps said there initially were no attorneys among his relatives. Today, however, cousins on both sides of his family have earned law degrees, as did his sister — whom he calls “the smart, more talented lawyer.”
“I think at an early age, my parents exposed me to some of the civil-rights lawyers who helped reshape America and make a huge difference throughout the country,” said Epps whose grandparents were active in the civil-rights movement. “Reading their stories and following their careers as a very young person let me know I wanted to be a lawyer.”
Epps stressed the rewarding nature of pro bono activities throughout his career, which he called “the best work I’ve done as a lawyer.”
“I’ve made lifelong friends doing that kind of work — work that I was not required to do, work that sometimes took away from my billable-hour requirements,” he said.
And he still mentors young people in the hope of helping them in the way that Gellhorn and others influenced him.
“You are just hearing about the different jobs that I’ve held. What you are not hearing about are all the stories behind why I got each of those jobs,” he said. “There’s always a name behind that story. I feel so blessed that God has placed the right people in my life at the right time to lead me to the most amazing experiences.”