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30 Tough Lawyers: You Want Them for You, Not Against You

Chicago Magazine
March, 2002
by James Ylisela, Jr.

One targeted a man running for governor. Another used images of Smurfs to humiliate his client's accusers. Still another dismantled experts testifying for Vice-President Gore with the Presidency on the line. These three are among the toughest lawyers in Chicago – a select collection of legal talent who have won hundreds of millions of dollars in judgments, sprung countless people accused of crimes, put away crooks and murderers, and litigated some of the most pressing issues of the day.

When we set out to find the toughest lawyers in town, we were looking for men and women who were smart, innovative, skilled, and relentless advocates for their clients. After talking to scores of lawyers, we came away with a few other ideas about what it means to be tough. One element is preparation. Many of our sources told us that what often passes for toughness is an almost obsessive knowledge of the facts and arguments – a level of command that could overwhelm an opponent. Another element was focus -the ability to zero in on the key issues and not be diverted, in court or in negotiations.

One thing that doesn’t make a tough lawyer, our sources said, is a mean streak. Being harsh and cold is almost always counter-productive. "You won’t get anywhere if you’re a bully or a jerk," says Jerold Solovy, the litigation veteran from Jenner & Block.

We came away with a few other observations about toughness. Most of the men and women on our list make a good buck, though a few of them get by in cramped offices, their desks and floors piled high with legal files and transcripts. For these lawyers, the toughness often comes from fighting for the same principles for decades.

Some of the lawyers on our list hardly know what it means to lose. Other fail more often than they succeed, taking on cases that are difficult, if not impossible, to win. For example, three of our lawyers – Ed Genson, Terry Gillespie, and Bill Hooks – defended former U.S. representative Mel Reynolds in his various criminal trials. All three lost. And then there’s Dan Webb, arguably one of the top trial lawyers in the country, who also holds the distinction of having lost the largest punitive damage verdict in U.S. history, the $145-billion judgment against Philip Morris. All four men say they’d do it again.

In compiling our list, we talked to lawyers and judges, as well as journalists, professors, and other observers of Chicago’s legal scene. We tilted towards litigators and people who end up in court, because that’s were toughness usually is most readily apparent.

Any collection of this sort is bound to be somewhat arbitrary, and in Chicago any list of 30 names could be supplanted by another. An alternative list might include people such as Fred H. Bartlit, a legendary litigator who has mentored some of the best lawyers in town, including two profiled here: Emily Nicklin and Philip Beck. New U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald comes to town with a reputation as a topflight prosecutor. Another tough lawyer, Susan Getzendanner, has been doing and saying pretty much what she pleases since her days on the federal bench. "I try to dominate the courtroom, and some people don’t like that," she says. And few lawyers have been tougher than former Illinois Appellate Court justice R. Eugene Pincham.

But we think the men and women listed below (In no particular order) make up an all-star team of the fiercest legal talent in town. And if you don’t believe us, just try crossing one of them in court.

Eunice Ward, 55
Nottage and Ward

Eunice Ward is sassy and likable. And if you let that fool you, she'll probably get the better of you in court. Ward and her partner, Rosaire Nottage, have built a reputation for toughness in a contentious area of law long dominated by men.

Divorce cases often come down to imbalances of power, and Ward represents clients on both sides. "A woman, who is often in a power deficit, comes in here and says, 'He'll give me half. Isn't that good?' And I say, 'He's not giving you anything. It's already yours.'" Her male clients want to know how much they will have to give up. With men, "you have to be able to say, 'That's not going to fly. You’re in a legally dishonest position,'" Ward says.

The partners represented Seattle Supersonics star Gary Payton in negotiations over child support payments. Other big cases? "'Big' is a male judgment," Ward says. "Everyone's divorce is big because it's all they have."

In a divorce, "the legal fight is the overlay for the psychological battle," Ward says, and the road to a settlement is almost always bumpy. "I'm like the racehorse with blinders. I'm very focused. I have little patience. My tactic is to have my eye on the prize and go for it."

Copyright 2002 Chicago Magazine

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