Friends, colleagues and legal adversaries know better than to underestimate Ferne Wolf, a leader in plaintiff’s employment and discrimination law in Missouri and Illinois.
So do the judges on the Missouri Supreme Court, where she’s successfully argued some of the state’s most significant cases on gender discrimination.
In Wolf’s case, legal expertise and life experience overlap.
“As a lawyer, she personally encountered all of the prejudice and discrimination suffered by women entering the profession in the ’70’s and not only excelled personally but made it her mission to represent women in all trades and work situations who were being made the victims of unlawful discrimination. To this day, the most significant Missouri Supreme Court cases dealing with gender discrimination were brought and argued by Ferne Wolf,” her nominator wrote.
Even after successfully practicing law for more than 40 years, Wolf said she still sometimes gets judged by her appearance or gender, having recently been mistaken for a court reporter.
And as an early-career trial attorney for the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission in both Washington and St. Louis, Wolf spent time in federal courtrooms where judges “would not acknowledge my existence” or try to intimidate her by calling the assembled lawyers “gentlemen.”
Wolf traces her employment-law roots to her first job with the late St. Louis attorney Louis Gilden, who at the time had recently successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas v. Green, a seminal employment-discrimination case.
The Illinois native taught at both St. Louis Community College and Saint Louis University School of Law as an adjunct professor before spending nearly a decade in commercial litigation and employment law at the predecessor of the firm now known as Korein Tillery.
In 1999, Wolf teamed with former prosecutor Eric D. Sowers to form Sowers & Wolf, rebranding as Silverstein Wolf earlier this year after her long-time partner’s retirement.
A long-distance runner who left high school early to go college at 16, Wolf said she has no plans to slow down.
Wolf’s fingerprints can be found on landmark cases such as Hill v. Ford Motor Co., which reduced the burden on Missouri plaintiffs to prove discrimination cases under the state’s Human Rights Act, and the recent Missouri Supreme Court decision, Lampley v. Missouri Commission on Human Rights, which recognized sex stereotyping as a form of discrimination under the Human Rights Act.
Then there’s the case she calls her “clear No. 1:” Doe v. City of Belleville, in which twin teenage brothers claimed they had been sexually harassed by male co-workers while cutting cemetery grass.
“They were being picked on because they didn’t meet a stereotype of masculinity, since one of the brothers wore an earring,” she said.
Wolf’s battles against gender discrimination included discrimination in her own family. Growing up on Chicago’s north side, family expectations were that that “boys were going to be lawyers, and girls were going to be teachers.” It took a University of Illinois guidance counselor to convince her otherwise.
As for the boy who was going to be a lawyer? That would be her older brother, a Chicago broadcast journalist who does indeed practice law now — but only after Wolf got there first.