Walking to the pro bono beat

Neal Gerber Eisenberg partner Jonathan Quinn has found plenty of success in the courtroom. But he also finds great satisfaction in helping public-service organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and Equip for Equality
Neal Gerber Eisenberg partner Jonathan Quinn has found plenty of success in the courtroom. But he also finds great satisfaction in helping public-service organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and Equip for Equality  —Photo by Ralph Greenslade
August 2014
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By Dustin J. Seibert

As a partner at Neal Gerber Eisenberg, Jonathan Quinn has built a nearly three-decade career as a tenacious, respected trial lawyer.

From the beginning, the attorney with a middle-class upbringing has used his career to advocate for the voiceless and vulnerable.

And much of his time outside the office goes to public-service organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and Equip for Equality, an organization dedicated to the advancement of civil rights for people with disabilities.

To hear Quinn, 54, speak in his rapid-fire New England twang is to understand why he does well in the courtroom. To dig into his personality is to understand just how his empathy helps him stand out in a crowd.

Growing up

Quinn was born and raised in the suburbs of Boston, the oldest of three boys. One of his brothers, Douglas, is developmentally disabled.

Douglas’ challenges motivated their mother, Gayle, who died in 2010, to obtain her master’s degree in special education late in life. Quinn’s father, Robert, was a stockbroker.

There were no attorneys in the family, but Quinn exhibited a lawyer’s flair early

“I liked to debate issues, current events, government and politics,” he said. “People would say, ‘You would make a good lawyer’ from time to time, but I really didn’t know what it meant.”

He majored in history at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, uncertain about what he wanted to do with it. At a time when many of his friends were applying to law school, he took a year off after graduating to become a paralegal for a large Wall Street law firm.

“I loved working with lawyers and seeing how their minds worked,” he said.

Not long after enrolling at Northwestern University School of Law, Quinn knew his legal future would involve verbal advocacy.

“In law school, there tends to be a divide early on between those who want to pursue a corporate transactional caseload and those who pursue litigation, practice-oriented work,” he said. “Frankly, a lot of corporate transactional stuff bored me to tears. It still does.”

Quinn’s experience with a clinical trial advocacy class, along with his participation in the Miner Moot Court Competition, further solidified his desire to become a litigator.

“The idea of being a young associate stuck in a library doing research was a difficult one for me to accept,” he said. “I like the rough-and-tumble of litigation. I like the battle; I like taking a position and researching it and preparing to wage war and using the facts available to your advantage to create the most strategically advantageous case for your position.”

In the summer between his second and third years of law school, Quinn received a fateful suggestion from a friend of a friend who worked for the district attorney’s office in Manhattan. He invited Quinn to shadow him, which included a visit to the criminal courthouse and police interview rooms.

“I fell head over heels in love with everything I saw,” Quinn said. “There were people right out of law school handling jury trials and motions and involved in representing victims of horrific crimes and getting incredible on-your-feet experience.”

Quinn applied to the district attorney’s office, where he was hired after graduating from law school in 1985.

“I hedged my bets and applied to firms as well, but my heart was really in the DA’s office job,” he said.

Coming of age

Quinn said his work with the district attorney for three years — during which time he handled between two dozen and three dozen jury trials on his own — was among the most eye-opening experiences of his career.

Quinn“Wellesley, Mass., is not the Lower East Side of Manhattan,” he said. “There wasn’t a day that went by that something didn’t happen that was incredibly formative personally and professionally.”

Quinn’s move to New York came during a turbulent and transformative time, a time captured in Tom Wolfe’s New York-based novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” He said the city was experiencing convulsive sociopolitical times, complete with the rise of the Rev. Al Sharpton and a rampant crack epidemic. All those factors led to a heavy caseload.

“It was everything I hoped for,” he said. “I had the ability to handle a case from the moment a police officer walks in to our office with a new arrest through to the conclusion of the case in an environment that I was unfamiliar with.”

He also experienced firsthand the contrast between the booming stock market that led Wall Street to higher and higher gains and the lower middle class, many of whom wound up on his courtroom docket.

“People were making lots of money, but there was a great disparity between the haves and have-nots,” he said. “It was a growth industry in our courthouse.”

His experience as a young attorney in his 20s solidified a bent for advocacy that was only still developing when he was in law school.

“It raised questions in my mind about the justice system and the extent to which it can do good,” he said. “But it also helped me recognize the limits of its ability to really make significant changes to systemic socioeconomic problems.”

Quinn learned how to navigate complicated sets of facts that helped him determine when not to use his powers to prosecute the accused.

“I learned at a young age that sometimes the thing you can do to achieve the greatest justice is to do nothing,” he said.

Lanny Breuer, vice chairman of Covington & Burling’s Washington, D.C., office, became close friends with Quinn when they worked together at the district attorney’s office.

“Jon is the guy who can perform at the absolute highest levels,” Breuer said. “Because he’s tough as nails and one of the most organized people on the planet, I think he’s really the whole package. But he also has an incredibly engaging personality, a terrific sense of humor and can be the sweetest guy on the planet.”

Moving on

Despite the profound personal and professional experiences Quinn received with the district attorney’s office, he didn’t want to solely focus on criminal law. He sought a space in private practice, but he knew New York wasn’t where he would continue his career.

“My hesitation about civil practice in general had to do with young lawyers getting on-your-feet experience,” he said. “And I found that young lawyers in New York got even less experience than anywhere else.”

Quinn returned to Chicago, where he still had a sizable network of connections in the legal community. He joined the firm now known as Mayer Brown.

“Because I was transitioning from being a prosecutor to private practice, it made sense that going to a large general practice firm would give me a broad-brush exposure to a variety of different substantive practice areas,” he said. “Over time, I have come to realize what I think I’ve always known: That I prefer smaller organizations.”

After 3½ years, he moved to corporate transactional and commercial litigation firm Sachnoff & Weaver in 1992. When the firm merged with Reed Smith in 2007, it went from a comfortable, midsize firm to what he called an “intergalactic” law firm with multiple offices around the world.

“I prefer the culture and personal interaction of a smaller firm,” he said. “I like having the person with whom I need to deal with down the hall or on the floor above me. I like to deal with people face to face rather than through a video conference.”

So, he moved to Neal Gerber Eisenberg in January 2013. The single-office firm with 160 attorneys fit him just right.

“The transition was seamless,” he said. “My clients have been very happy.”

Richard Fischer, executive vice president and general counsel for Clover Holdings Inc., worked with Quinn on a commercial dispute filed in state court in Texas that was successfully removed to a federal court in Dallas, where it’s now pending.

“He’s extraordinarily thoughtful about the strategy that goes into a case,” Fisher said. “He is equally thoughtful in executing on that strategy. That’s what distinguishes an excellent litigator from a good one — it’s all about identifying the right strategy given the facts and context of the case.”

Always the advocate

Quinn’s proclivity for civil advocacy began when his parents shared with him the story of looking for a home in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, Mass., in the early 1960s, a time when anti-Semitism in the region was thinly veiled.

Quinn“Growing up with the name ‘Quinn,’ it wasn’t readily apparent to anyone that we were Jewish,” he said. “So people would tell my parents how they would like Wellesley because there were no African-Americans or Jews. (My parents) were astonished people would talk that way, and I was astonished too.”

Quinn was also heavily influenced by his brother, Douglas — whose disabilities led to schoolyard bullying by others — and by one of his earliest memories — his father’s involvement in the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

“It was a turbulent time,” he said. “Vietnam was going on, and the Civil Rights Movement was a big deal. I found all of that to be terribly exciting, and I wanted to be involved in making the country a better place. I grew up in a family that made me feel that that was an obligation or duty.”

Quinn noted that his great-grandfather immigrated to the United States from Russia (“or Poland, depending on the day”) with little more than the clothes on his back.

“Even though we were living in a suburban environment in which our neighbors looked at us and thought we came from a similar viewpoint, it wasn’t long before that that our family had nothing,” he said. “I identified much more with the disadvantaged and the downtrodden than the other side.”

Quinn started working with the Anti-Defamation League when he moved from New York to Chicago in 1988 and started attending meetings for the league’s civil rights committee, which were often held at the offices of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal. On Jan. 1 of this year, he became chairman of ADL’s Chicago regional board.

Among his numerous ongoing initiatives with the ADL was his work to legalize same-sex marriage in Illinois.

“It has been a difficult, ongoing battle for many years,” he said. “The ADL was quite actively involved in the (same-sex marriage) effort. We were one of a very few organizations not solely dedicated to LGBT rights that were as actively involved in it as we were.”

Quinn also heads up the ADL’s Summer Associate Research Program for Neal Gerber. The program, which started in Chicago in 2004 with seven firms and 40 associates, pairs law students with a practicing mentor who works with them on research projects in which they are assigned a legal issue related to ADL work and must research it before delivering an answer by memorandum.

ADL regional director Lonnie Nasatir said Quinn is a large part of the reason that the summer associate program now has a national scope, in multiple cities, with more than 100 associates participating.

“He was instrumental in getting more firms involved, he was instrumental in figuring ways to get speakers to talk to students, to talk about the benefits of pro bono work,” Nasatir said. “It was really Jon’s baby from the get-go.”

Paying it forward

Shortly before starting an interview for this story, Quinn received a phone call from a relative of Edward Franco thanking him for his assistance to Franco, an imprisoned client who he defended in a case in Chicago’s federal court.

Franco was transferred against his will by the Rhode Island Department of Corrections to Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Ill., where he was held for 17 years. Following his transfer, Franco lost access to his rehabilitative programs and his job in the prison’s law library.

With help from Quinn, Franco was transferred back to the Rhode Island facility in May.

“I can’t tell you how much pleasure it gives me to get phone calls from his family members who are so thankful for help,” Quinn said. “For people that have no lawyers and no financial means of hiring them, the notion of having to navigate the legal system with no one to assist them is horrifying.”

Quinn lives what he tries to convey to any young attorney: Everyone should make a point to take on pro bono work.

Since many pro bono and court-assigned cases go to trial more often than others, getting into the courtroom is just a bonus for him.

He primarily focuses his pro bono work on people with disabilities whose rights are being violated and students in disciplinary proceedings.

“We are very fortunate to have gone to good colleges and law schools — for those of us fortunate to find law firms that pay us very handsomely for what we do, it’s an obligation and responsibility for us to not only to do well but to do good,” he said.

Though Quinn is no longer the young, hungry trial lawyer he was in New York, he never lost the itch to hit the courtroom.

“For better or for worse, most of the time, it makes sense for clients to resolve a case without going to trial,” he said. “Selfishly, I would like to try more cases, but I understand why it makes sense for our clients to resolve them in other ways.”

That itch for the courtroom is part of the reason he works as a trial advocacy professor for Northwestern’s law school — a job he took up partly as a means to emulate his school professors he held in high regard, including James Epstein, a trial advocacy instructor who took time out of his evenings to help Quinn out while in law school.

“He’s always been a very hard-working and very bright person. Put those together and you get a lot of success,” said Epstein, an Illinois Appellate Court justice. “He’s a good people-person with a great ability to teach and relate to people.”

Though it’s not the primary reason he does it, Quinn admits that teaching trial advocacy is just another way to scratch that itch.

“Since so many of my cases settle and don’t go to trial, on a purely selfish level, teaching trial skills to young lawyers is a way of maintaining my own trial skills,” he said. “I can keep fresh because I have way more opportunities to use them in a teaching context. It’s a win-win.”

Tao of Quinn

Quinn is accustomed to wearing many hats, including his ADL work, law school teaching and summer associate program activities among others.

“Every day, I’m a husband, a parent, a teacher and I’m on top of my clients and their interests,” he said. “I don’t work a set number of hours on any one thing, but I’m always mindful of every aspect of my work.”

In his 29-year career, Quinn points to a highlight in a case that originated in Chicago’s federal court: John Bridge v. Phoenix Bond and Indemnity Co.

At issue were bids for property tax liens at the annual Cook County tax sale that competed with Quinn’s clients, Phoenix Bond and BCS Services.

They alleged that Bridge created dummy companies to defraud the bidding process, prompting Quinn’s clients to file a civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) case against Bridge. The case went to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals three times.

After nine years of litigation, a jury awarded both clients a combined total of more than $10.7 million.

“We were being dealt with unfairly, but we were right all along on the facts of the law, and we persevered,” he said. “We overcame obstacles little by little in instances in which other people might have thrown in the towel, but we were unwilling to accept a world and a justice system in which the right side was not going to prevail.”

Stanford Marks, president of Phoenix Bond & Indemnity Co., said that every aspect of the case — including working through a dozen different defendants, numerous exhibits and the more than $13 million award (including legal fees) that Quinn and his team finally won — was inspired work.

“I’ve been a lawyer since January of 1956, and I have to tell you: His handling of the trial was a total win,” Marks said. “It was like watching a movie with someone who could not lose.”

Marks said that watching Quinn at work made it clear that he stands apart from his peers.

“He has an amazing ability to remember details, and he’s smarter than most lawyers,” he said. “Many lawyers are good on their feet, but they can’t remember the things they want to present. He’s very quick to respond to the unexpected in a trial, and most people aren’t that quick.”

Quinn’s philosophy toward practicing law is the same one he has conveyed to his children and every young lawyer that he mentors: “Treat everyone you come in contact with honorably and respectfully.”

“I didn’t appreciate that as much when I was a younger lawyer, but it’s a small world and you always run into people later in life,” he said. “Thank goodness I dealt with them honestly and honorably.”