Local attorney named to ‘40 Under 40’ list

By Brian Koonz, MS '20 July 27, 2021

Bert McDowell sitting on his desk with his diplomas behind him

Before he was the skilled trial attorney with his own firm, Bert McDowell, JD ’13, was the boy in denim overalls smiling for his fifth-grade class picture.

His life’s ambition, neatly printed next to his photo, was a split decision: lawyer/basketball.

As it turned out, McDowell checked both boxes. Two years after being selected as national junior college player of the year at SUNY-Sullivan in upstate New York, he enrolled at the Quinnipiac University School of Law.

“I’ve always been blessed with a strong support system,” said McDowell, 33, the founder and principal at Bert McDowell Injury Law, LLC. “Everything that people have done for me, that motivates me the most.”

“I’ve always been blessed with a strong support system,” said McDowell, 33, the founder and principal at Bert McDowell Injury Law, LLC. “Everything that people have done for me, that motivates me the most.”

Bert McDowell as a child        Bert McDowell is shown in his fifth-grade class photo.

Earlier this year, McDowell was named to Connecticut Magazine’s “40 Under 40” list of the state’s brightest young professionals. The designation came after his third appearance on the Super Lawyers Rising Stars list.

McDowell also has been named to the “Top 40 Under 40” by The National Trial Lawyers and The National Black Lawyers.

But this climb wasn’t easy, especially for a Black law student searching for his place at a largely white institution. Looking back, McDowell credits professor of law emerita Toni Robinson for listening to him and acknowledging him.

And, most of all, seeing him.

As a daughter of the civil rights movement, Robinson followed the path of her activist parents to Quinnipiac. In McDowell, she saw a promising law student carrying much more than textbooks.

“I was able to openly speak with Professor Robinson about being uncomfortable sometimes in certain situations and certain circumstances,” McDowell said. “The whole Socratic method of being called on in class — and being the only person of color in class — [you get the] feeling, ‘You have to get this answer right for all the people who look like you.’”

Suddenly, every question was heavy with the burden of unjust expectations.

“You can’t get this wrong because, in your head, you have people thinking that you’re only here because of how you look. This is how it makes you feel,” McDowell recalled. “So just talking to Professor Robinson about this — with me understanding her upbringing — she just always believed in me and always supported me.”

For Robinson, the admiration is reciprocal and heartfelt. The bond between the two has lasted more than a decade now, from McDowell’s early plans to work in pro basketball as a sports agent or general manager, to hanging his own shingle with offices in Bridgeport, East Hartford and Meriden, Connecticut.

This sense of community and communion, years after students have graduated, empowers the School of Law and its alumni.

Thomas Houlihan, JD ’13, and Joshua Feldman, JD ’13, became McDowell’s closest friends in law school. They studied together. They shot hoops together. They represented Quinnipiac in a basketball tournament against other law schools in Springfield, Massachusetts. And crushed it.

But most of all, they cared for each other. They still do. Friendships, the currency exchanged with memories and hugs, have always mattered deeply to McDowell.

“He’s a very special young man,” Robinson added. “I remember having many conversations with him. He was a terrifically thoughtful, introspective person who was building a new world for himself.”

And others.

After working at several Connecticut firms, McDowell opened his own shop in December 2019 to better serve underrepresented clients. A few months later, the global pandemic nearly derailed his childhood blueprint.

But McDowell persevered once more. He turned to Zoom meetings, a new website and a robust social media presence. He even developed an animated alter ego to connect with clients: Picture Clark Kent unbuttoning his shirt to reveal the Superman “S” — only in this case, it’s McDowell opening his shirt to reveal “BM” across his chest.

“He’s incredibly driven,” said Robinson, who continues to teach part-time at the law school as part of a faculty that encourages every student. “But I also have to say, one of the privileges of teaching is forming relationships with special students. I’ve been very fortunate in that respect.”

McDowell was born in Hollis, Queens, the same neighborhood that groomed hip-hop legends Run-DMC. His mother, Doreth McDowell, stood tall as a New York City police officer and a role model for her children.

As a little boy, maybe 5 or 6 years old, McDowell watched the TV law drama “Matlock” with his grandfather, Bracy McDowell. The Matlock character, played by actor Andy Griffith, was undefeated over nine seasons. Each win planted another seed of ambition for that fifth-grade class picture.

In kindergarten, on his walk to the bus stop, McDowell and his grandmother, Veronica Sullivan, talked about how he was going to be a lawyer someday. More seeds planted, more dreams launched. These days, McDowell funds a $1,000 college scholarship in her name.

In May, McDowell returned to SUNY-Sullivan as its Commencement speaker. He spoke of education, commitment and the climb. Everyone’s path is different, McDowell told the 246 graduates, but the map is the same. There are no shortcuts.

Photo by Autumn Driscoll

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