Like more than a few of this year’s ICON Award winners —and lawyers of his generation, writ large —Jerry Dobson found himself drawn to the law as a vehicle for social change amid the upheaval of the Vietnam War and Watergate nearly a half-century ago.
A native of Louisville, Kentucky, and son of two social workers, Dobson came to St. Louis via Washington University, where he earned a B.A. in political science in 1974, followed by law school at George Washington University.
He spent the next three years in D.C. at a nonprofit representing low-income tenants fighting evictions before returning to St. Louis and a career as one of the city’s most prominent plaintiff’s attorneys in employment law.
“I saw my parents doing good things, and I was taught that’s what you should do as an adult,” said Dobson, who initially joined the firm of uncle Morris Levin, who represented several prominent labor unions.
Winning his first employment discrimination jury trial a decade later put Dobson on his way, he recalled. The case involved a female McDonnell Douglas employee fired for stopping home during lunch breaks on the way to remote site visits, and at the time was the largest single plaintiff verdict in an employment discrimination suit at the federal court’s St. Louis-based division.
“Even before the jury returned its verdict, I had decided this is what I should be doing,” he said. “I was hooked.”
Forty years after toiling in the trenches of D.C. housing courts, Dobson’s commitment to civil legal aid persists as a Legal Services of Eastern Missouri board member since 2015 (and board secretary since 2019). The father of two also spent 10 years on the board of New City School, three as president; six years on the board of Crossroads College Preparatory School; and four years as a Central Reform Congregation board member.
At 68, Dobson remains invigorated by his work, especially as the issues that first sparked his interest in the law persist — in particular, the recent reckoning over race relations, both historical and recent. That workload includes several pending 2020 suits by high-ranking St. Louis County Police officers suing the department for race discrimination.
Dobson, who was also named to Missouri Lawyer Weekly’s 2020 POWER List, called the latest recognition a tribute to his late parents, whose “sacrifices helped me get to where I was, and made me really want to pay it forward.” He also recognizes with gratitude the contributions of his partners, associates and staff who have been vital to his success.
“I’ve spent a lifetime trying to practice law the right way,” he said. “To be recognized by your peers for a sustained commitment to the legal profession is really gratifying.”