Senior Vice President, General Counsel
JE Dunn Construction
When Tom Whittaker first showed up for classes at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law in 1989, just days after he quit a job in construction, he felt like a fish out of water.
“I think I had jeans and boots on, because that’s what I owned at the time,” he said. “I looked around at my classmates, thinking, ‘I don’t fit in here. What have I done? I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life.’”
Little did his classmates realize how deep Whittaker’s legal pedigree ran. He is the grandson of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Whittaker, who served on the court from 1957 to 1962 and is the only Missourian ever to do so.
But Whittaker said he never wanted his grandfather’s lofty position to define him, and he doubts his grandfather would disagree. Instead, Tom Whittaker quite literally wanted to build something for himself.
“I had a great respect for what he accomplished, but was bashful about ever raising it,” Whittaker said. “I didn’t hide from it of course, but I also didn’t want that to be how I introduced myself or how people associated me with the law.”
Whittaker graduated from Kansas State University in 1987 with a degree in construction science, then spent two years as a carpenter before becoming an assistant superintendent on construction sites. Though the construction company was based in Wichita, Kansas, he never set foot there. Instead, he moved around the country to work on projects. That kind of physical work was very fulfilling, he said.
“It’s walking away from something that’s very tangible and seeing the accomplishment of your labors,” he said.
After law school, Whittaker worked for three years for Brown & James, a job he credits not only for teaching him the ropes of litigation but also that an outside counsel hired by a company is there to play a support role for a very limited purpose.
“Their business isn’t this lawsuit,” Whittaker said of a client company. “Their business is trying to get rid of this lawsuit so they can get back to their core business.”
Then in 1994 he landed a job that in retrospect seemed tailor-made for him: in-house counsel for JE Dunn Construction. He began as one of two lawyers on staff of what was then a relatively modest-sized Midwestern general contractor. Today, the company has $3.6 billion in revenue and 20 offices across the country.
Whittaker leads a team of 20 lawyers who tend to its legal needs. He said other lawyers on the company’s staff also have that same blend of hands-on experience and legal acumen.
“That’s just the perfect background to be able to come into a large company like JE Dunn and know the vocabulary, understand the issues, relate to the people you’re trying to help with whatever problem they have, and be that much more efficient in delivering legal work,” he said.
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