Longtime resident Donald J. Sher didn't ever intend to become an attorney. But in the last 60 years, he has provided volunteer legal assistance in hundreds of cases and successfully run a firm of his own.
"I didn't think I was going to be a lawyer, so I started fooling around with science stuff and didn't do very good," said Sher, 85.
His father, Louis B. Sher, was a lawyer. But as an undergraduate at Washington University, Sher initially tried his hand at chemistry.
A test put things in perspective. He took it as part of a psychology class in his second or third year at college, Sher said. The results indicated a single field that would fit him well: law.
He graduated in 1947 with a bachelor's in liberal arts and in 1949 with his law degree.
The family business
From there, Sher went into practice with his father. Over time, Sher took on additional responsibilities until the company became his own.
"I was pretty much on my own maybe after 10 or 12 years," Sher said.
His father eventually retired, though the two worked together in some capacity until his father's death in the 1980s.
Sher worked out of the Arcade Building in downtown St. Louis city. While he ran a general practice, he knew more about landlord-tenant disputes than any other area of law. He primarily represented landlords.
He later turned the practice over to his son, Edward, and to Edward's law partner. The firm operates today as on Carondelet Avenue in downtown Clayton.
A passion for volunteerism
Donald Sher said he began volunteering part time for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri in the 1960s or 1970s. The organization provides legal assistance to low-income clients.
He worked on landlord cases.
Then about 15 years ago, as Sher was preparing to retire, he ran into a Legal Services representative who told him the organization needed volunteers.
"I knew what they did," Sher said.
Since that time, he's been volunteering full time. He works in the family and elderly divisions.
"I do it whenever they want me, and I still go to court for them," Sher said. He handles a "potpourri" of cases—those involving adult guardianship, marriage dissolution and real estate, among others.
Jason Dodson, managing attorney of the family law unit at Legal Services, estimates Sher has volunteered for more than 1,000 cases.
"He's devoted himself to service," Dodson said. Sher can juggle numerous cases and has earned the respect of people in the legal community, including judges, because of his reputation.
"He's able to empower clients," Dodson said. "He's obviously an excellent voice for them in the courtroom."
In early January, Sher was working on a case he described as involving fraud on marital rights. A man was being threatened with having to leave his property. His wife, before her death, had deeded the land to a daughter from a previous marriage without his signature. The daughter wanted to claim the property.
Another time, Sher helped a woman regain her house after she had lost it.
It's an example of the complicated cases he often handles—those that are "obtuse and arcane and obscure," as Sher described them.
Stan Platke is manager of the elder law project at Legal Services. He said Sher has been a tremendous help, both in applying his legal acumen and in sharing his vast amount of experience.
"He's a great resource in terms of batting things back and forth, and he's so willing to do it," Platke said.
'They need you'
Sher volunteers in part because he knows the clients he is serving stand to benefit.
"They need you," he said.
He also enjoys getting to from Washington University and Saint Louis University who come to Legal Services.
"I always say that I like the students because I can con them," Sher said. "They think I know something."
He loves their enthusiasm.
He's also hopeful that more practicing and retired attorneys will consider volunteering their services. For Sher, it has been a wonderful experience.
"It's such a need," he said. "You can't fill all the requests that we get."
Dan Glazier, executive director of Legal Services, has known Sher his entire legal career.
"He's just a joy and a treasure to have here," Glazier said. He described him as a mensch, a Yiddish expression that refers to someone who does the right thing.
"Don is just a shining example of someone who is committed to making a difference," Glazier said.
Life at home
Sher and his wife, Shirley "Lulubell" Sher, have been married for 52 years. Before moving to Clayton, they lived in University City.
The couple have three children. Edward is in St. Louis; Elizabeth (also an attorney) is in Portland, OR; and Alice is in Charlottesville, VA. All of them graduated from Clayton schools.
They also have four grandchildren.
Sher also volunteers by working with young students through Clayton-based . He describes it as a great organization that does wonderful work.
While Sher doesn't think he can keep working as a legal volunteer for another 20 years, he plans to do so for as long as he can.
"Right now, I seem to be able to still think clearly and can contribute," Sher said.
Jim Guest, director of the volunteer lawyers program at Legal Services, describes Sher as a tireless worker.
"In a time when our resources are just really being stretched, the importance of volunteer lawyers is just going to grow," Guest said. "And Don is just an amazing example of the type of effect one person can have."