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Life Arts    H2'ed 1/7/13

Civil Rights Lawyer Jon Loevy Plays to Win

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My guest today is civil rights attorney, Jon Loevy. Welcome to OpEdNews, Jon.  People are pretty cynical these days, especially where lawyers are concerned. Yet, you and your firm, Loevy & Loevy, enthusiastically seek justice for clients who have had their civil rights violated.  How did you decide to focus on that area of law?

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Like many progressives, I've always been interested in the protection of our constitutional rights, and my law degree has given me the opportunity to fight to defend our civil rights in court.  I originally started out of law school at a large law firm, but quickly went out on my own.  Since then, I have been lucky enough to find a career that has been satisfying and rewarding, and has given me the opportunity to work with other progressive lawyers fighting the same fights.

Your father was closely involved with labor unions for many years. Do you think that played a part in raising your social consciousness?

Definitely.  I strongly believe that values are transmitted within families.  I've always looked up to my father as someone who stood up for working people trying to get a fairer slice of the pie that they helped to create.  With his talents and education, my dad could have pursued a career earning a lot more money, but the choice he made was to use his abilities to advance the rights of working people.  Underlying all of that was a respect for all people, regardless of social status or racial differences or things like that.  Those were lessons and values that became a part of me, and I hope they become part of my own children.

Your kids can definitely see your values reflected in your work. Speaking of families, Loevy & Loevy started out as a solo practice. Then, you were joined by both your father and your wife. Was it hard to make the transition? And what's that been like, working with your family in something that you set up yourself? Has there been much jockeying and adjusting?

My wife has since retired from the practice of law.  When we formed our law firm, she agreed to do the parts of litigation that she enjoyed, and leave the rest to me.  We quickly realized that there was nothing about litigation that she liked, so that was that.  Since then, working with my father and my cousin, Mike Kanovitz, has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.  We are truly a "family firm," and the journey has been far more enjoyable because we've been able to share it together.  I am also proud to say that we have proved that families can work together smoothly.  The entire operation functions very well.  Beyond that, it helps a lot that the firm itself is made up of so many special and wonderful lawyers and support people.  Not to sound too corny, but the "family" that drives the firm is not limited to just the people related to each other.

Nice. Can you give our readers  a sense  of the kinds of cases your firm handles?

We represent people whose constitutional rights have been violated.  Some have been wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit.  Others were shot (and/or killed) by the police without justification.  We recently challenged an unconstitutional city ordinance that infringed on free speech.  We represent an American contractor suing the Secretary of Defense for causing him to be subjected to "terrorist treatment" in Iraq, Many of our clients allege police misconduct, including excessive force or unlawful searches.  We also represent victims of discrimination.  Additionally, lately we have concentrated a lot of efforts representing people who "blow the whistle" on companies that are cheating the government.  The law permits a "bounty" for whistleblowers who expose fraud and help the government avoid getting ripped off.

So much abuse, so little time.  You have the best of both worlds - doing well by doing good. It must be incredibly gratifying.  But it wasn't a foregone conclusion, by any means. In fact, it usually doesn't work that way and lawyers have to make a choice, often early on in their careers. Were you initially concerned about your ability to make a living while doing good?  Did you ever waver?

There are not a lot of other firms like ours.  Not to suggest that we are the only one, but the reality is that there are very few, especially firms of this size.  That is because the economics are challenging.  Our firm has almost no paying clients.  Our ability to continue the fight is dependent on our ability to win consistently.   When we do get big financial recoveries, those results have to cross-subsidize our other work, much of which is motivated by justice rather than economics.  All of that means we have to be very, very good at what we do.  The other side usually wins these fights just by showing up: the judges and juries are inclined to see things through the eyes of the police and the government.  Our clients tend to be powerless, and sometimes relatively unsympathetic.  Often, we are doing battle against armies of lawyers on the other side, outnumbering us by a lot.  Our lawyers have to fight ten times harder, and be ten times more creative.

One thing that is noteworthy about our firm is that the lawyers who work here have top-notch credentials.  For the most part, these are people who went to the best schools and got the best grades.  Many had prestigious judicial clerkships.  The point is, these lawyers could have any legal job that they want, but they work here because they believe in the progressive values, and they enjoy being part of the "lefty" community within our firm.  That choice is more unusual than you might think.  Most graduates of the most competitive law schools reflexively go to work at the high-paying corporate law firms.  Lawyers who make other choices are actually quite rare.

But to answer your question more directly, we have never wavered.

Good! Despite the challenges, you've had some incredible successes, with unprecedented judgments and jury verdicts.  How do you do it?

One thing that distinguishes our firm is that we try not to fit the stereotype of ineffective idealists.  We play to win.  Many of the lawyers at the firm (myself included) got our training at firms where the battles involved huge sums of money, fought by "Type A" lawyers who did not want to lose.  For their corporate clients, those lawyers put an unbelievable amount of time and effort and thought into every letter, every sentence of every brief.  Everything always had to be perfect.  We've tried to bring that level of intensity and excellence to civil rights cases.  That has been our formula.

Does that  help you snag the best of the best? Not to mention, bringing you to the attention of lots of potential clients with legitimate complaints.

Previously, you'd asked about why lawyers choose us: On the one hand, the cases we do are super interesting.  The bane of the existence of big firm lawyers is that most cases are painfully boring.  It's hard to get excited about helping one corporation lose/win money from another corporation, and the justice side of it all is neutral -- if you are lucky.  Our cases are all very exciting and have been hand-picked so that we are on the side of justice.  Working for a case and client in which you believe cannot be underestimated.  When things run the other way, lawyers burn out very quickly.

Also, the lawyers at our firm get a lot of hands on experience of the sort they would be hard-pressed to get elsewhere.  We like to keep a lot of balls in the air, and that means that lawyers (including young lawyers) are responsible for a lot of things at the same time.  Lawyers at our firm run their own cases, including taking depositions, writing briefs, arguing in court, and participating in trials.  The contrast to big firm life is stark.  At big firms, young lawyers do not get a chance to actually litigate.  Instead, they work on small pieces of gargantuan cases, and rarely get to see the forest for the trees.  Here, lawyers sink or swim on their own, shaping their own cases.

Finally, the reason that I believe lawyers are most inclined to want to join the firm is the wonderful atmosphere that has developed.  There are a lot of progressive people all pulling in the same direction.  We spend a lot of time together, and like each other very much.  As far as I'm concerned, it is more than anyone could ever hope for in a job setting.

Agreed. Can you walk us through one to give us a taste of what it's like to be in the thick of things at Loevy & Loevy?

Just today, I got an email from a member of the firm who pointed out that the case he was working on made him feel like he was stepping into a John Grisham novel.  Myself, I've stopped reading those books because our cases are more interesting than the fiction. For wrongful conviction cases, for example, the wrong guy is doing time for the crime.  We have to go out into the world and find the witnesses and prove what really happened.  If you start from the premise that the wrong guy was convicted, then by definition, something went terribly wrong.  Our job is to prove it, which sometimes means solving the murder, and then proving how our guy got framed.  

Different lawyers have different strengths.  Some are capable of going out talking to witnesses, helping to find the truth and shape the case.  Others write really good legal briefs, researching and synthesizing complex legal questions.  Others like to go to court to argue motions or do the jury trials, which involve putting the story together like a creative play, all choreographed to be persuasive.  Some lawyers like to do all of the above.  The lawyers in our firm gravitate toward their strengths.

It must be incredibly exciting to find the evidence that exonerates your client. You're right - it is better than Grisham! Outside the firm, your firm is involved in a project at the University of Chicago Law School. How does that fit into the picture, Jon?

The project at the University of Chicago works on behalf of wrongfully convicted individuals seeking to prove their innocence.  Winning these cases in one of the hardest things to do in the legal world.  The extent to which judges and prosecutors fight to protect the finality of convictions -- even those that are blatantly wrongful -- is both unbelievably strong, and heartbreaking.  We fight hard in the other direction, enlisting law students in a legal clinic setting.  We teach the law students how to litigate, and they do some of the investigation and legal work.

What a great way to learn the ropes! Undoubtedly difficult and frustrating, too.  Have the students prevailed in any of the cases they've taken on?

We've had multiple victories, which are incredibly gratifying.  When students help to walk a free man out of prison, it is an experience like no other.  People say that this vindicates their decision to go to law school.

I bet! I'd like to know more about you, Jon, if you don't mind. Your practice sounds very intense. How do you blow off steam?

I hang out with my family, and read a lot.

I understand that you were quite a debater back in high school. Has that been an asset in your career? Would you care to share the story of the lucky jacket?

For me, high school debate was a big part of my legal training.  Debate forces kids to train their minds to be advocates.  For people who want to be lawyers, I cannot recommend it enough.  As for the lucky jacket, my friend's dad (Sam Harris) gave me a lucky tux jacket, and when I wore it to debate tournaments, I never lost.

After graduating from Columbia Law School and clerking for Judge Milton Shadur of the Northern District of Illinois for one year, you took the following year off. What did you do? Were you afraid that you might be derailing your career? If not, why not?

I spent that year backpacking around the world.  I had some security that it would not derail my career because the law firm that offered me a job was graciously willing to allow me to start a year later (which was not as common then as it apparently is now).  To be honest, however, I wasn't really thinking about my career at the time I decided to do it.  

Where did you go during that year off, Jon? Did your experience change how you view life, the law, yourself?

I backpacked around Asia, Mexico and Central America, and several other places.  Though I was a solo traveller, I made a lot of friends on the road and then travelled around with many different people for different parts of the trip.  In response to your question, the experience definitely helped shape me as a person in many ways, mostly for the better, and I recommend it.  Americans don't do as much of this kind of travelling as Europeans, Austrailians and others do, and I think many Americans would be surprised at just how possible and easy it is to backback around, including in third world countries.  And this was before the internet was widespread (!) and I can only imagine everything is even easier now.

Travel definitely makes us less insular. A few years ago, your firm won what I believe was the largest settlement ever awarded. Do you think that sends any kind of message to potential wrongdoers in positions of power?

We've been fortunate to get a number of large verdicts and settlements, many against the City of Chicago.  Under Mayor Daley's administration, my distinct impression was that the city lawyers and politicians did not genuinely care about the financial drain from all the police misconduct lawsuits.  I'm sure the bills were annoying, but it all just seemed to be a cost of doing business to them.  The point is, no one was willing to spend any of the political capital necessary to address the underlying problem.  Besides, there are some very entrenched interests benefiting from the situation in terms of the outside defense law firms that earn millions and millions of dollars to defend these lawsuits.

One would hope that eventually, the Emanuel administration will say: enough.  It is not desirable that the taxpayers have to keep paying these settlements and judgments and law firm bills, and it would make more sense to do something to actually solve the problem.  Ideally, there would be a lot less police misconduct, and our law firm would have to go and concentrate on something else.

On that subject, however, I wanted to make one more point.  Although the City spends millions of dollars in connection with police misconduct lawsuits every year, it would unfair to hold that against all police officers.  In my experience, the majority of police officers in this City (and elsewhere) are dedicated to enforcing the law, and work very hard at a difficult job.  There are obviously some officers who do not live up to that standard, but most do serve honorably and ethically.  The problem, in my opinion, is that these many honorable police officers are pretty much unwilling to actually do anything when fellow officers don't do what they are supposed to do.  If Chief McCarthy (who seems like a good leader) could fix that, it would go a long way to solving the problem, in my opinion.

Time will tell. What haven't we touched on yet that you'd like to talk about before we wrap this up?

You are a good interviewer, and covered all of the topics that I can think of.  Thanks for doing it.

Why, thank you! It was a pleasure talking with you, Jon. Good luck to Loevy & Loevy.  It's nice to know you're out there, watching our collective back.

Loevy & Loevy homepage

About Jon Loevy (from the firm website )

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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