1 VOLUME 30 NUMBER10 October 2007 $ Settlement Survey The Corboy Alumni Thomas A. Demetrio, Philip H. Corboy, Todd A. Smith, Robert A. Clifford Power, Rogers & Smith $ Corboy & Demetrio $57.65 Burke, Mahoney & Wise $43.19 CliffordLaw Offices $39.84
2 b y B o b Y a t e s Martin: Phil never encouraged anybody to stay. You d learn your craft and go on to something bigger and better. Thomas A. Demetrio started working for Philip H. Corboy s firm in Thirty-four years later, he s still there, now a name partner in Corboy & Demetrio the first of Corboy s proteges to become a partner but neither the first nor the last to learn the practice of law from the man who, along with his own mentor, James Dooley, essentially created the plaintiffs personal injury bar in Chicago. When Corboy joined Dooley as an associate in 1950, personal injury law was considered the realm of ambulance chasers and a few trial lawyers like Dooley, who were focused on excellence in the art of trying cases. And for two years, Corboy studied Dooley. It was an interesting apprenticeship, Corboy said. He did not come and say, Here s how you do this. He would say, Do this, and I would find out that he had done it and, more often than not, I copied what he had done, and I caught on to the way he did it. I liked the way I got started, he said. And I did for them what Mr. Dooley did for me. Them are the dozens of lawyers most of whom still practice on the plaintiffs side who graduated from Corboy College, a boot camp of sorts for young lawyers who spent anywhere from two to a dozen or so years with Corboy, then went out on their own. By Corboy s own count, more than 70 lawyers passed Corboy College: Chicago s trial lawyers alma mater Pfaff: You learned that you have to have complete mastery of every fact of the case and what you have to do to prevail, complete mastery of procedure, and knowledge of human nature. through his firm; by Chicago Lawyer s unofficial count, there are currently more than 40 firms in the Chicago area with Corboy alumni in them. If you were to extend the family tree to lawyers indirectly connected to Corboy through his alumni, there would be dozens more. Phil never encouraged anybody to stay, said Kevin T. Martin, now of counsel at Swanson, Martin & Bell. You d learn your craft and go on to something bigger and better. That meant spawning rivalries, because most people ended up doing plaintiff s work, but Phil didn t care. A look at the plaintiffs firms that top the list of this year s Chicago Lawyer Settlement Survey shows a bit of the legacy. Besides Corboy & Demetrio, a number of the firms on this list have direct or indirect connections to Corboy College. They include: Power, Rogers & Smith: Todd A. Smith who spent 13 years with Corboy, and Joseph A. Power, Jr., who was mentored by John Hayes, Corboy's first hire (in 1959); Robert A. Clifford, of Clifford Law Offices, who was with Corboy for 10 years; and the three name partners in
3 D a v i d D u r o c h i k (From left to right) Robert A. Clifford, of Clifford Law Offices, started with Corboy as a law clerk in 1974, and left to form his own firm in 1984; Philip H. Corboy; Thomas A. Demetrio started with Corboy in 1973 and became his first partner in 1982, and the firm changed its name to Corboy & Demetrio; Todd A. Smith worked with Corboy from 1980 to 1993, when he left to form Power, Rogers & Smith. Burke, Mahoney & Wise practiced at Corboy & Demetrio and left in 2002 in a bitter split. This is no small thing not just because of the numbers but because of the style of practicing law that Phil Corboy passed on. At 4:30 every day, Demetrio said, all the lawyers gathered and discussed the day s events, so everybody could learn from some experience some lawyer had, and to discuss what everybody was doing the next day. Corboy led all those discussions. If a deposition was continued, you were crossexamined as to why. One time a lawyer said that a motion was continued for 28 days. Why 28 days? And the lawyer said, I don t know. It s knee-jerk, 28 days became sort of the number the culture accepted. He was the opposite, Demetrio said. Everything should have been done yesterday. You ve got to go, go, go, and not dilly-dally. So you were subjected on a day-to-day basis to the Corboy way of doing things. The Corboy way There was one way to prepare a case and that was the right way to prepare a case, said Martin. If it took five bucks to pursue a claim, then five bucks was spent. Any avenue that would pursue your client s interest should be explored. He taught me that there were no limits on preparation, said Paul Episcope, the principal at Paul B. Episcope, Ltd. Leave no stone unturned. He d travel all over the country to find witnesses. He was a hands-on lawyer. Phil never missed a detail, said Bruce Pfaff, now a partner at Pfaff & Gill. Check this, check this, and check the other thing. You d check and you d think of two additional things, and Phil would think of 20 additional things. It was peeling an onion, a never-ending onion, Pfaff said. You learned that you have to have complete mastery of every fact of the case and what you have to do to prevail, complete mastery of procedure, and knowledge of human nature. Demetrio traces Corboy s understanding of the importance of preparation to his time with Dooley. Dooley was not an imposing presence, he said. If you looked at him, you wouldn t say, That s a great trial lawyer. But he was the most prepared lawyer in the courtroom. Preparation is the one trait all great trial lawyers have. The greatest experience any lawyer had in this office was working up and helping Corboy at trial, because that s where you learned how all the preparation comes together, how it fits into the ultimate goal of succeeding, prevailing, and that s what these great lawyers did, Demetrio said. Corboy himself describes the process of learning, or his method of teaching, as osmosis, which sounds a lot more
4 Kevin T. Martin passive than anything connected to Corboy. If a record was not in a file, you would hear about it, Demetrio said, in very strong terms, believe me. It was more than osmosis, it was a trial by fire experience. Excellence in everything What Corboy has, and what he transmitted on a deep level to those around him was what Martin, and others, call a passion for excellence. Excellence in every facet of what you do as a lawyer. Often enough, that passion would shoot out as anger He could rant and rave and scream with the best of them, Episcope said but if a young lawyer could deal with that, and understand what Corboy was getting at, the reward was an understanding of what greatness required. He had no tolerance for sloppiness, Martin said. When you went in to talk about the case it took one or two experiences you better know that file right-handed, left-handed, and upside down. Two cars collided at State and Madison What does this guy say? What does that guy say? What about this? What about this? What about this? Ten questions later, he would know the file, Martin said. If a file as presented was missing something, you would know that in short order. He could take one no-answer, but two noanswers, that was it. Bruce Pfaff What you learned overall was that there was only a way to do it measure twice, cut once. If you kind of do things half-assed, it will come back to bite you, and Phil wouldn t tolerate that. I was in many sessions where I would be examined about whether I d done this or done that, said Todd Smith. It wasn t classic Socratic, but the questions made you realize what had to be done. He would probe on and on. You would get these questions in every case and in that way you would certainly realize the things you needed to do. And you d better get them done soon. Nancy Lyon, a senior vice president at Northern Trust, started working as a law clerk for Corboy the Tuesday after the crash of American Airlines Flight 191 at O Hare Airport in May She was immediately put to work organizing the files in what grew to a representation of 30 or 40 families. I learned to be accountable, to be prepared, to treat clients with respect, and to return every phone call from a client that day, every day, Lyon said. Outlawyer your opponent, have a sense of humor, be honest, and be the best. He expected you to do the things he himself had done never something he hadn t done, she said. You d think, I m ready this time, but there was always something that he wanted or knew, and he d try to Terrence J. Lavin guide you to it, and if you didn t get it, he d send you back to figure it out. He would say, Don t blame me, you ll lose. You needed to be responsible, she said. He wanted the truth. If you made a mistake, he wanted accountability; he expected you to learn from that. If you said, Well, the secretary didn t give me the file. Nope, if I wanted to talk to the secretary, I d talk to her. Phil was tenacious about dotting the I s and crossing the T s in every aspect of preparing the case, Smith said. It s not enough to go to a deposition prepared to ask questions. You need to call the witness ahead of time, if that s legitimate. You should get some understanding of where the witness is coming from, his biases, his prejudices. If you have a way of understanding what that witness is about you might be able to pull out of him answers that are more objective. He insisted on visiting the scene of the occurrence before a deposition, Smith said. I remember every intersection collision I worked on. You had to get the record of the timing of the light sequencing, you had to get an understanding of the intersection maybe the witness misunderstood what was at the intersection. On and on. If you had a slip-and-fall, Smith said, you were out taking a look at the scene, getting photos of the scene, canvassing the area for witnesses
5 maybe the defect had been there a long time people complain to the city about their sidewalk being bad. You have to cover that base. That was something he was extremely good at. Corboy, the son of a Chicago police officer, found that he was especially good at representing people who were hurt. I worked for one large law firm, but I had no interest in it, he said. The people that I ended up representing needed me a lot more than corporate America needed me. They had a need for a lawyer who will go all out. I found out the opportunity to help people is something that I caught on to. I loved working with him, Episcope said. This guy would get up in the morning and eat, drink, and smoke challenges. He was born to fight on behalf of the little people, and fight to the death. There was nothing that frightened him he could look danger right in the eye. He had nerves of steel. Nothing escaped his vision nothing went beyond him. He could see through the trees and around the corner. He had a gift. One of the things Corboy had a gift for was work. And if you worked for him, that was a gift that you needed, and if you didn t have it, you needed to acquire it soon. But and this comes through time and again in interviews with the Corboy alumni it wasn t madness, it was passion, and it was, at times, something to behold. He found his niche, Martin said. He found exactly what his internal metronome was beating to. He found what he needed to do, what he wanted to do. It was never a chore, it was always a thrill. We had a lot of fun, he said. A day would start at 7:30 or 8, and at 9:30 to 10 p.m., I would think it was 5 p.m. I was a legal junkie in those days that s the way practice was. There was so much going on, you felt you were on the inside of something. Some things in history you d want to change. I wouldn t change a second of that time, not a second. It was fun, it was alive. I can tell you we worked six, seven days a week, he said. I d get Nancy Lyon a phone call at 11:30 at night, What about this witness? I ve got three kids in diapers, and he wanted to know about a witness. On the other hand, time flew. I m loving it. I m deeply into what I m doing. I don t think I would have had the same passion for it without him I m a sheep, he s leading the way. Whenever he thought of something on a case, he d make a note and assign someone to work on it, said Terrence J. Lavin, of Lavin Law Offices. One time he was getting ready for trial I d been working every day from September 1 through New Year s Day excluding Thanksgiving Day and Christmas, Lavin said. And on the morning of New Year s Day, he calls me and says, Where are you? He woke me up. I was pissed to be called into the office this was the year the Illini were in the Rose Bowl but when I get there, he says, I have a feeling that Bill Johnson is going to come close to admitting liability in his opening statement. I want you to prepare a motion for directed verdict based on the statements that Johnson might make. I know there s a case in the 40s, Peterson v. General Rug, on directed verdict based on opening statement. The trial was two months away. I m dumbstruck. You already know what he s going to say, you re already that much in the game? Answer: yes and yes. It was 100 Patricia A. Bobb percent commitment. Two months later, the comments he thought Bill Johnson might make he did make. The judge says, Mr. Corboy call your first witness. And Corboy said, We have a motion for directed verdict based on opening statement, and handed the court a written motion based on statements made a minute earlier. What it comes down to, eventually, is simply this: Phil Corboy was the best trial lawyer any of these lawyers say they ve ever seen. The attention to detail, the preparation, and the creativity combined with a passion for his clients that led to a commanding courtroom presence. When Phil Corboy stands in the well of a courtroom, that is his courtroom, Lavin said. He respects the judge, the jury, the opposing counsel but he occupies it with his presence, his credibility, his mistakefree performance, and his passion for his clients. A lot of people take little bits from this lawyer or that lawyer. Corboy originated all of it. He found ways to articulate damages to a jury. He had one case where he represented a young man, 19 or 20, who was brain-damaged, Lavin said. If you looked at him, you could tell. If you talked to him, you could tell. And Corboy said to the jury, There s a lot of talk about everybody wanting to be different. It s not true. We all want to be the same. He s different. We don t like people who
6 are out of whack. Every time he comes downtown for his medical appointments, there will always be an empty seat on the train next to him. How do you evoke in the mind of a person who s a stranger to litigation, unfamiliar with the complexities of brain damage, how overwhelming a disability it is? Lavin said. Everybody would understand that. I wouldn t want to sit next to him. It was absolutely human behavior articulated in a way that left the listener off the hook, but at same time expressed very passionately the plight of his client. Corboy understood better than anybody that he could envelop himself in the experience of the plaintiff and then be able to communicate, to be a vessel for that information to the jury, Lavin said. An old expression of Corboy s was that going to trial was like taking a nice, warm bath. You soak it all up, and then let the waters go. He let the waters go by absorbing all the information, proving it through witnesses, and arguing to the jury. He s the best I ve ever seen. Become involved But Corboy s pursuit of excellence wasn t limited to the courtroom. Part of the drive that he and Dooley had was to raise the status of personal injury lawyers in the legal community. To that end, Corboy insisted that lawyers working for him become involved in bar activities, teaching, and writing. He sat me down, Lavin said, and put his resume in front of me, and said, To be a great lawyer you have to do everything on my resume. You have to try cases, be active in bar associations and rise to levels of leadership, contribute to legal scholarship by writing articles, teach, and give back to the community. He taught me that just getting and working on individual cases is not enough experience to become a great lawyer. [When he started], personal injury law was sort of the backwater end of practice, it didn t get much respect, but because of guys like him who elevated the nature of our practice, we got more and more familiar with people from the commercial litigation firms. It takes you outside the limited nature of your practice and exposes you to all facets of the legal community, said Lavin. That s why good trial lawyers have followed the Corboy model and have gotten involved in the CBA, the ABA, the ISBA. The graduates of Corboy College are littered on those lists. Here is an unofficial list: five alumni are currently in the Inner Circle of Advocates; eight have been president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association; four have been president of the Illinois State Bar Association; six have been president of the Chicago Bar Association; and one has been president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (now the American Association for Justice). His theory, Lavin said, came down to this: You have to do it all to be a fully rounded lawyer giving back in terms of participating, teaching, but above all, you have to be completely dedicated to your client. You have to be more prepared than any lawyer you face. And you have to realize that it might just be another case for the lawyer, but it may be the most important relationship the client will ever have. Todd Smith has been president of the ISBA and ATLA. I ve come to realize the value of how he handled himself and what he did as he was going through his career, Smith said. You practice, you lead the CBA, you stay active. I ve done that because I had a great mentor. I led the ISBA and ATLA and I ve been fortunate enough to be inducted into the Inner Circle of Advocates. That s the kind of thing you learn from Phil Corboy leadership of the bar, giving back to the profession. It helps you stay grounded in what s going on in the profession, Smith said. And as the years go on, the Corboy alumni, having had some time to reflect on the legacy that they carry, still see Corboy in the way they practice law, despite the passage of two and three decades. Everything that I do that s lawyer-related in terms of how I approach a case, mentor young lawyers arises from my experience with him, said Martin. I was the clay and he molded me shaped me, molded me, and pushed me out the door. By the time I walked to the defense side, I felt extremely confident that there wasn t any case, any situation I wouldn t be capable of handling. I got a superior post-graduate education at Corboy College. Patricia A. Bobb joined Corboy after learning the ropes as an assistant state s attorney. I think I learned how important it is to practice law in a way that is ethical and with some degree of excellence. A lot of the way I learned it is just by getting into the trenches and doing it. That s what he expected. I probably worked some part of seven days a week. He was a tough taskmaster who expected you to be the best and to represent that office accordingly. The longer I m in practice, this is my 35th year as a lawyer, every year I appreciate him more, not just for what he taught me and the lessons I learned. I know what a good and decent, generous man he is and has been and he is so loyal to his friends, his clients, and people who have touched his life. Reprinted with permission from Chicago Lawyer, October 2007.