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LEADERSHIP IN LAW 2019: Terry W. Dawson

Partner, Barnes & Thornburg LLP, Indianapolis; Southern Illinois University School of Law, 1990

May 1, 2019

Before he became a renowned labor and employment attorney, Terry Dawson was a radio disc jockey and announcer, a vocation he’s still connected to through his current work. You might see him on TV or hear him on the radio talking about labor issues from local unions to National Football League negotiations. Clients and colleagues stress his creative approach to solving problems, as well as his humble but skillful and collegial representation in sometimes difficult situations.

dawsonlil2019-15col.jpg (Photo courtesy of Barnes & Thornburg LLP)

What are some of your favorite memories from your pre-law radio career?

Too many to count: Emceeing concerts, having my news copy set on fire by a coworker mid-broadcast, interviewing recording artists and athletes, the challenge of creating an interesting show every day, and once accidentally locking myself out of the radio station mid-record. Fortunately, someone heard me pounding on the door and let me in just as the record was ending. I still occasionally awaken in a panic that a song is ending and I can’t find another one to play.

When did you first decide you would become a lawyer, and what motivated you?

I worked at a couple of places where I thought things needed to change, which piqued my interest in labor and employment law. I also took a constitutional law class in college and thought it was fascinating. The opportunity for creativity involved in broadcasting and the law both intrigued me.

What do you most enjoy doing when you’re not in the office?

I still love playing basketball (although I should give it up while my Achilles tendons remain intact). Otherwise, I’m often listening to a record on a turntable at home. 

What drew you to labor and employment law?

Everyone has experienced workplace challenges and difficulties. I was drawn to the opportunity to work through difficult problems in a collaborative manner rather than a destructive approach. If people are working hard toward that goal on both sides, surprising things can happen.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of your practice?

There’s nothing like working in close tandem with a client to help guide them down a difficult path. It’s very satisfying to understand the business issue and bring practical and legal experience to bear to help overcome the obstacle. My favorite compliment I’ve been given is, “You don’t act like a lawyer.” The other very rewarding aspect has been “fingerprinting” those who have come behind me. It’s been deeply gratifying to help mentor others, see them grow, and then become great lawyers, colleagues and partners. You’re not doing your job if you don’t bring others along with you.

How does negotiating sports contracts or other high-profile matters differ from other labor matters?

Actually, it’s not much different. While the issues may differ or may get more attention, any negotiation involves understanding the problem from both sides’ perspective and trying to find a place where interests intersect.

Who is someone who inspired or mentored you, and what did you learn from them?

Bob Bellamy was a leader in our department when I started and instrumental in my development. His style was completely different than mine, but he gave me a lot of responsibility, opportunities and trust early in my career. Bob taught me to take your work — rather than yourself — seriously. He also taught me that if the only thing in your life is the law that you’re not living life the right way.

What was your most memorable job before becoming an attorney?

Sports play-by-play for a college in downstate Illinois, a morning disc jockey for numerous years and a press secretary for a congressional candidate in southern Illinois where no Republican had won the district since Eisenhower. Despite our best efforts, we remained faithful to that tradition.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Worrying is a waste of time and doesn’t change anything. Do what’s in your control and let go of the rest.

If you could change one law, what would that be?

Ban the designated hitter in baseball. If you’re going to let Manny Ramirez or Dave Kingman hit, you’ve got to live with their defense. And while we’re at it, dump the Euro step in basketball. 

What’s something about you not many people know?  

I like making sinful desserts: creme brulee, white chocolate bread pudding and any other that automatically expands your waistline.

What’s your advice to a younger person who’s thinking about a legal career?  

If there’s a particular area of the law that fascinates you, specialize in it. You’ll have all the motivation you need to spend lots of time working and learning about it, and you’ll likely become the person others turn to for advice and help.•

Read more Leadership in Law profiles.

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