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ICON Awards 2020: Jerry M. Hunter, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner

Jerry Hunter recalls a police officer showing up at his childhood home in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in search of a relative.  Hunter, then a freshman in high school, politely asked if the law enforcement officer had a warrant.

Jerry M. Hunter“He did not like hearing that from a young black teenager,” Hunter recalled of the encounter more than 50 years ago. “He said, ‘Okay, instead, I’ll just take you down then.’”

The young man spent the night in jail before the charges were dismissed.

Despite that unpleasant introduction to the law — as well as his initial inclination to become a math teacher — Hunter went on to pursue a career in the legal field.

The first in his family to go to college and the youngest of 11 children, the Washington University in St. Louis graduate nurtured a lifelong interest in civics and government. He was offered a summer internship with the National Labor Relations Board, which eventually led to a permanent position. Later, structural changes at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission led to a need for trial lawyers in St. Louis, and Hunter joined the EEOC where he dealt with age discrimination, equal pay and Title VII claims.

After a stint as corporate in-house counsel for a Fortune 500 company in the mid-1980s, Hunter was appointed by then-Gov. John Ashcroft to head the state’s Department of Labor. Later, a presidential appointment took him back to the NLRB, where he served as general counsel overseeing about 1,800 employees.

Although it was his favorite job, Hunter said the position was a busy one that — between personnel, disciplinary, budgetary and other logistical issues — encompassed far more than just the practice of law.

“Sometimes, I would have to do my legal work at night,” Hunter said. “Most of my daytime hours at the office a lot of times were taken up with administrative work.”

In 1994, he joined his current firm, where as a partner he helps clients to navigate the complexities of labor and employment law. He uses his vast experience to advise on everything from preventative labor relations and supervisory training to labor arbitrations and handling charges filed with the NLRB, the EEOC and other agencies. He also sometimes serves as an outside investigator in matters involving racial or sexual harassment.

“I enjoy it because there are always new and fresh issues — novel issues — that arise in the practice of labor and employment law, things you can’t foresee that may arise at some point in the future,” he said, noting that current events since the onset of COVID-19 have brought up a range of new questions and intricacies.

But through all of his career changes, Hunter, a father of two, noted that he’s remembered the values his mother taught him back in Pine Bluff — namely, to accord respect to everyone and treat others the way he’d want to be treated.

“I try to always be open to listening to individuals I worked with and dealt with and learn from each of those experiences, from my first job up until today,” he said.