How has your practice evolved over the last few years?
Quite a bit. From 1996 to 2017, I was a partner at Sidley Austin LLP in Chicago. I was Co-Chair of Sidley’s White Collar Practice from 2010 to 2017, and Head of Litigation in Sidley’s Chicago Office from 2014 to 2017.
While at Sidley, my practice had two areas of focus. First, I represented institutional clients in circumstances where the client discovered actual or alleged internal wrongdoing. I led and conducted confidential internal investigations for those clients, who often were the subject or target of government investigations.
Second, I represented individual clients in grand jury investigations and/or pending criminal matters. Such clients included former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.
I started at Legal Aid Chicago in October 2017. Although my focus continues to be on litigation, our work is quite different here than it was for me at Sidley. We advocate for people who’re living in poverty or otherwise vulnerable, securing their rights to economic stability, affordable housing, personal safety, fair working conditions and basic healthcare. We represent people who’re at a crossroads in their lives, but who don’t have the resources to hire a lawyer to advocate for them.
Unlike Sidley, Legal Aid Chicago is a not-for-profit organization and we don’t charge for our services. Instead, we rely upon charitable contributions and grants for funding.
From your perspective, how can lawyers adapt to the changing legal profession?
The practice of law has been constantly evolving since I became a lawyer in 1986. At that time, we did our research using hard-copy library books and had secretaries who typed our pleadings with typewriters and used white-out to correct typos.
Today, every litigation matter requires expertise in the discovery and analysis of electronic data. So, the profession is constantly changing, and we’re all constantly adapting to those changes.
But, even though the mechanics and specialized areas of the practice of law are changing, the qualities of successful lawyers are the same: good judgment, strong writing skills, intense focus and, most importantly, credibility.
Throughout your practice, you’ll invariably be working with or against many of the same people and appearing before the same judges. If your reputation (for candor or otherwise) is damaged, that damage can spread quickly and will take years to repair.
On the other hand, if you develop a reputation of being honorable and a straight shooter, that reputation will ultimately be your strongest asset as you become a more seasoned practitioner.
Why is civility important to the practice of law?
Civility in the practice of law is part of the unseen but essential social fabric that knits our society together. Civility in our practice means that each of us as lawyers brings honesty and integrity to our individual practices, which collectively builds a legal system where the outcomes are accepted, honored and respected as having been achieved in a just system.
This means that every day we all agree to follow the rules, discharge our ethical obligations, and treat clients and opposing counsel as we would want to be treated. It means that we don’t practice with an attitude of win at all costs. We instead practice with an attitude of participating vigorously in an adversarial system where we assume, know and expect that everyone is playing not just by the rules, but by the spirit of the rules as well.
Civility for me is like beauty—difficult to describe but easy to identify when you look at the ways in which lawyers practice. Lawyers who embody civility over time are universally recognized as, and respected for, having that quality. In so doing, they become some of the most well-respected and effective advocates.
There are dozens of examples of these heroes in the Chicago bar, but for me they include Judge Ann Claire Williams, Jeff Stone, Ron Safer and Bill Conlon. Each have mentored me at various stages of my career, and I’ve looked up to each as a model of how to practice during those stages. Today that person is Alabama lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who has dedicated his career as an advocate for the poor, incarcerated and condemned.
What advice do you have for young lawyers?
Find a hero and model yourself after that person. Then, as your career evolves, continue to be on the lookout for new heroes—new examples of who and what you want to be and become. Treat this exercise as a lifelong one, an evergreen process you’re constantly updating. Think of it as akin to updating your web bio regularly, but much more important and a lot more fun.
What do you do in your free time?
My number one priority is time with my family—my wife, my four children and their spouses/significant others, my grandchild, my parents, and my three brothers and their families. Number two is exercise in various forms—running, working out, biking, hiking or practicing yoga. And number three is spending time at our cottage in Union Pier, Michigan. I hate to shop—except at REI or a hardware store.
Our Lawyer Spotlight recognizes attorneys throughout Illinois who are admired for their professionalism and civility. Check out more interviews with attorneys like John Gallo here.