I developed a curiosity for the law when I was in high school. I remember having classes where we held mock debates and trials. I personally loved making arguments and enjoyed the process of crafting a counterpoint to address the opposing arguments.
As I continued my education, I grew interested in the idea of being in a courtroom. To me it was important that I understood my rights — knowing when these rights are violated and most importantly, learning how I could enforce them.
My undergraduate studies were in economics and political science. Political science was incredibly valuable for me in the sense that I learned what goes on in the municipal arena and how government works, even before I attended law school.
Tell me about your legal career after attending law school.
After attending John Marshall Law School. I clerked at a law firm and worked in the research department at the Illinois Supreme Court. I felt that it would serve as a great opportunity to see everything – criminal law, torts, divorce, and more – and ultimately help me decide what practice area I wanted to enter as an attorney.
In that role, I had access to full trial transcripts. I would read these trial transcripts daily. I learned what really went on in the courtroom. I learned how objections were made and that there are times when there is no need to object because your witness is prepared for the question and will deliver favorable testimony in response.
At the time, I thought there would be a downside to living in Springfield – but I was wrong. I loved it. I loved the people, and I loved the work. Going into that building every day and the grandeur of it was just incredible. I actually got married there. Judge Seymour Simon married my wife and I in that building.
Knowing, however that I did want to join a firm in my career, I made a point to read the petitions when they came in from different firms and the types of cases they worked on. From those petitions, I actually made a list of firms that I thought were quality. They wrote their briefs well. They did the kind of work I wanted to do. So, when the time was right, I went ahead and applied at these law offices.
And that was when I applied to O’Reilly Cunningham, where I met the infamous Roger O’Reilly.
Tell Me about Roger O’Reilly.
Before I joined the firm, I knew that he was a good lawyer with a good reputation. He also tried the kinds of cases that I wanted to do. So, I knew I had to apply to his firm. To my surprise, he actually hired me, and I worked exclusively for him for 7 years.
Roger let me do a lot of things as a new lawyer that most lawyers in leadership may not be so willing to do. There were a lot of people at the firm, at least 20, who would help me. He wasn’t worried that I would mess up. He was very trusting.
At O’Reilly Cunningham, we saw many product liability, auto, medical malpractice, defamation, and premises liability cases. As soon as I was hired, Roger would let me try these kinds of cases.
Over time, I started to take on municipal and police liability cases. In fact, I would say that they comprised about 60% of my caseload. And that was where I met Laura Scarry, my colleague and partner at the firm we started today.
Tell me about some of your other mentors.
Larry Mancini, Ted Duncan, and Patty Argentati were instrumental to my success as a lawyer. I learned a lot from each of them — from learning how to take a deposition and to how to try a case. They inspired our team to support one another at the firm.
Everyone was very collegial. There were no pretenses or walls. Everyone was just warm and friendly. Whenever new folks had questions, we knew it was our obligation to teach them.
In fact, I remember developing a long outline that we would share with new attorneys who were brought on. It laid out how we did things in the office — (the case comes in and the first thing first we do this. Then we serve discovery. Then we answer the complaint, and we might do a motion.)
I added on to it over the years as new people came in, because it can be lonely and frightening when you first come on board as a new attorney.
Why is mentoring so important?
I always feel for people in smaller firms and all the solo practitioners out on their own. They don’t have that same exposure that I did when I started my career. Many of them don’t have someone one door over that they can turn to – to ask questions.
That’s why the Commission’s mentoring program is so valuable. A mentor is a great thing to have. I went to a mentoring orientation out in DuPage recently, and I was so impressed with all the mentors. It’s so selfless.
What advice would you give to these new attorneys?
When you’re new, on your first day, you will often get tapped right away. Some will hand you a file and tell you to go to a motion tomorrow or to go a status.
We’ve evolved to the point where that person will have to give you a memo telling you what’s going on. But before that, I’d bring the file home with me at night and read the whole thing. From here, I would go and in and try to understand how the whole thing works – how litigation works – where do you start? Where are you going? How do you communicate with the client? What to communicate? What’s important?
So, my best advice to new attorneys would be to read files. Read opinions. Stay up on the case law. Write. Anytime you see something well written – make note of it. Note the terminology and key phrases and try to incorporate them into your vocabulary in the courtroom.
Why is civility so important?
The job is hard enough. No matter what you are doing – someone is always on the other side trying to counter what you are working on. They are anticipating what you are going to do.
If it’s naturally adversarial, it’s easy to carry that over into the relationship between us lawyers. The problem with that is that the whole relationship breaks down when we do.
You have to communicate with opposing counsel. There will always be instances where you need an extension or a favor from somebody. If you can extend that over early to someone else, it won’t be forgotten.
We aren’t enemies. Long after the clients are gone, we will see each other again. As a lawyer, you want to be known as someone who is reliable and understanding.
One of my mentors, Ted Duncan, always used to tell me. “Sure, you have to be tough, but more than tough you need to be resilient. You need to be able to get up after you’ve lost or embarrassed versus being mean or petty trying to hurt someone in the process.”
Earlier in my career, I think many of us used to think that the incivility was just a part of being a lawyer. The attitude back then was whatever way I can get inside of your head and get an edge on you then I am going to do that.
However, today, I don’t see that kind of behavior anymore.
James DeAno has served on the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism since 2017. Since joining the Commission, James DeAno has been actively involved in the Commission’s Education Committee.