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ICON Awards 2021: Paul N. Venker, Baker Sterchi Cowden and Rice

Paul Venker acknowledges that it was a “counterintuitive move” to go to law school – particularly for someone who’d studied ancient history Paul Venkerand classical architecture and art during his time at Mizzou.

“I have to admit, it seemed an odd thing for me at the time,” said the 66-year-old St. Louis native who paid his way to a J.D. by painting houses. “I guess I’d say I was the reluctant lawyer because it seemed very far from what I was thinking I was going to do.”

But, after working on the state Supreme Court research staff and clerking for the chief justice, his time as a defense trial attorney at the forerunner of Sandberg Phoenix paid off. Just two years after joining the firm, he was arguing a case before the state’s highest court, and he’d made partner by 1987.

Subsequent to an in-house stint at Monsanto and a decade at Armstrong Teasdale, he was finally ready to co-found Williams, Venker and Sanders in 2001. Seventeen years later, the organization combined with Baker Sterchi.

“It’s been a smart move for us,” he said. “Change is always challenging but I think it was definitely the right thing to do. We’ve really had a great match culturally.”

Venker, a former president of the St. Louis Bar Foundation, has also been a part of some important cases. In 2016, he participated in the successful defense of the noneconomic damages cap on medical malpractice matters against a constitutional challenge and he successfully took a FELA case over jury instructions to the U.S. Supreme Court which granted relief without even an argument.

“I like the human nature in litigation,” said Venker, who will receive BAMSL’s Distinguished Lawyer Award this year. “For me, that’s such an important part. I think that comes out more in the employment discrimination cases. It is a lot about human dynamics, how people get along and how they don’t get along.”

Venker, who was named this year to the Appellate Attorneys POWER List by Missouri Lawyers Media, which also honored him with its Influential Advocates Appellate Award in 2017, said that coming from a family of six kids prepared him for legal life.

“We argued about everything, and we argued about nothing,” he noted. “You get used to that. I’ve got a passion for what I do and who I represent but I also think I’ve got a pretty slow fuse.”

Venker, a former member of the Missouri Bar’s board of governors, also chairs the Freedom Suits Memorial Steering Committee which aims to recognize the efforts of slaves who brought lawsuits for their freedom before the Civil War.

ICON Awards 2021