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Chicago Lawyer's 2009 Person of the Year: Tony Valukas

Chicago Lawyer's 2009 Person of the Year: Tony Valukas
November 2009

Tony Valukas chose to become a lawyer because he wanted a career that gave him the opportunity "to make things happen."

And throughout his career he has made things happen.

Valukas began his career as assistant director of the National Defender Project, where he helped establish legal assistance programs for poor people. He went to the U.S. attorney's office, where he worked with a close-knit group of attorneys who, like himself, have gone on to prestigious careers as top lawyers, judges, politicians, and firm chairmen.

As a Jenner & Block partner he has handled many major matters, including litigation involving the crash of American Airlines Flight 587, and a SEC investigation of General Motors.

He was the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois from 1985 to 1989. He is now chairman of Jenner & Block, and this year he became the court-appointed examiner in Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.'s bankruptcy case.

But his active legal practice represents only one side of him.

He also believes in the importance of getting involved in his community, whether it be through pro bono work or tutoring young people. For example, he started tutoring three sixth-graders living in Cabrini-Green, and even though they are now in their 30s he still mentors them whenever they need him. And they know him by name at Fairfield Academy, a Chicago public school, because he is a volunteer, donor, and advocate for the students.

All these reasons are why he has been named Chicago Lawyer 's 2009 Person of the Year. The magazine accepted nominations from members of the legal community and selected Valukas based on those nominations.

"I've lived a great life," said Valukas, 66. "I wanted to be an art historian, but I didn't think I was bright enough to get a Ph.D. from a high-end school and spend the rest of my life teaching. I didn't think it was for me.

"The single most important influence on my life when I was in college, in terms of what I wanted to be, was the civil rights movement. It made me feel very strongly about the need to have as a part of my life a commitment to public service."

Winston & Strawn Chairman Dan Webb, who was the 2008 Person of the Year, wrote: "In his many years at Jenner & Block, Tony has developed the reputation of being one of the best trial lawyers in the United States. ... His success in the litigation marketplace is unmatched, as evidenced by his recent appointment to be the examiner in the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Inc., one of the largest bankruptcies in American history. This appointment caps a truly remarkable career."

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke wrote: "There are too few heroes in this world. In my view, Tony is a living hero whom we all should emulate. Tony has always lived by a strong code of ethics, and he has spent his career advancing the values of honesty, integrity, and justice for the good of all."

Discovering himself

From age 5 to 11 he lived in the Marquette Park area of Chicago. His father was an attorney who practiced personal-injury law, and his mother was a homemaker.

Around age 11 he and his family moved to Palatine, where he eventually graduated from Palatine High School.

He learned about volunteerism from his parents. His father would eventually become a judge, and his 88-year-old mother still enjoys volunteering with the elderly - as she describes it.

"In my family growing up there was frequently a discussion about political events, events of the day, and I became very interested early on with the world outside of school ... [and] the larger issues facing society," he said. "I attribute that to both my parents."

Valukas graduated from Lawrence University in 1965 and Northwestern University School of Law in 1968. He said he attended Northwestern during the civil rights movement, and society's issues during that time greatly affected him.

"I've always felt that lawyers are very privileged individuals and we have an obligation to give back," he said.

After law school he served for two years as assistant director of the National Defender Project, a Ford Foundation program funded to establish Defender offices throughout the nation to provide legal representation to low-income individuals.

While working with the project, he traveled all around the U.S., but spent much time in the South in places like Pascagoula, Miss., and Mobile, Ala.

Valukas said people would sit in jail in many southern communities for up to two years without a trial because there were no lawyers to represent them.

But that situation improved with the creation of a Defender office in their community, he said.

While attending Northwestern, Valukas worked for Gov. Jim Thompson, a professor at the law school, as part of his work fellowship. When he was at the Defender Project he received a call from Thompson, who was then the first assistant U.S. attorney.

Thompson asked him to become an assistant U.S. attorney. At the time, Valukas didn't know what the position entailed.

"I got the call, and we went over to Binyon's and had a couple drinks, and I became an assistant U.S. attorney," he said.

Valukas said Judge William J. Bauer, who was then the U.S. attorney in Chicago, was "very focused on doing things differently here in Chicago. ... He came to that office at a time when there was increased commitment to expand the U.S. attorney's offices. Bauer was bound and determined that it was going to be an apolitical office. ... What he really imbued in everyone was the sense that we had great responsibilities and we were there to do public service."

"[Bauer] created the first civil rights unit of any office outside of Washington, and he made me head of that unit," Valukas said. "Gov. Thompson created the first corruption unit, and I headed that unit. We were doing exciting things at exciting times."

He said the people in that office went on to amazing careers.

"It's truly remarkable the impact they've had not only locally but across the nation," Valukas said.

Bauer described Valukas as "always a bright guy who uses his brightness and thinks like a lawyer and acts like a lawyer. He is one of the most decent men I know. He's a great human being.

"His whole life is a story of his commitment to justice. ... He is the kind of guy you turn to for help, and he would give it willingly."

Ty Fahner, a former chairman of Mayer Brown and 2002 Person of the Year, said he's known Valukas since about 1971 when they worked together in the U.S. attorney's office.

All the assistant U.S. attorneys worked closely and got to know one another well. They spent time together outside of work, and a group of them took regular fishing trips, Fahner said.

He said this bond formed because of the type of office Thompson created. Thompson showed confidence in the assistant U.S. attorneys, and demanded a high level of professionalism.

"None of us came with silver spoons, and we all worked hard and had something to prove," Fahner said.

He said Valukas remains a good friend, and he considers him a born leader who leads by way of example.

"He's the perfect guy to lead a law firm such as Jenner & Block in the difficult times the profession is going through," Fahner said. "Leadership comes easy to Tony because people are willing to follow his lead."

Inside the firm

Before Valukas left the U.S. attorney's office Fahner and Valukas tried a case together against Jenner & Block lawyer Tom Sullivan. They possessed much confidence in their case and assumed they would beat Sullivan, Valukas said.

"We had all the evidence in the world, and Tom Sullivan kept the jury out for two and a half days," Valukas said. "It was the most brilliant cross-examination I've seen in my life. Ty Fahner and I were absolutely convinced we were going to lose this case."

They won, but shortly after it was finished Sullivan and name partner Bert Jenner asked Valukas to join their firm.

Valukas has been a partner at Jenner & Block since 1976, with the exception of his tenure as the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois from 1985 to 1989.

He returned to the firm after serving in that position.

Burke wrote that while Valukas was U.S. attorney he "was instrumental in continuing the Operation Greylord investigation and prosecution of Cook County judges, attorneys, and court personnel who had dishonored themselves and the legal community through their self-serving practices."

Jenner & Block Chairman Emeritus Jerold Solovy, and 2007 Person of the Year, quoted the Chicago Tribune in his nomination letter, saying that when Valukas was U.S. attorney he "initiated a major undercover probe into illicit trading at the nation's two largest future exchanges - the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange - which resulted in the indictment of 46 individuals."

Valukas has been appointed to many committees and task forces throughout his career. He was appointed as special counsel to the City of Chicago to investigate and report on the city's health care system. He was selected as special inspector general to the Chicago Transit Authority to investigate vendor fraud, and counsel to the Chicago Housing Authority to investigate vendor and pension fraud.

He served as chairman of the Governor's Task Force on Crime and Corrections for the state, which led to the passage of prison reform legislation in 1993.

"When I came back to Jenner one of the things that happened was I realized that for all the resources we're putting into the major drug prosecutions we were not really making a difference," he said. "I came to believe that the way to keep kids off drugs and the way we could really make a difference was one kid at a time. Just like raising your own children, you attend to them and you pay attention to them."

He and Randy Mehrberg, then a Jenner lawyer, decided to volunteer at a tutoring program in Cabrini-Green. They tutored and mentored three male sixth-graders. Valukas continues that mentoring today, and remains in contact with them.

"They think of me as their second father, and I think of them as my sons," Valukas said. "Educating and assisting kids going through these tough circumstances is really essential if we want to break the cycle."

Kevin Boens was one of those young people Valukas mentored. The 31-year-old is now a Cook County sheriff and a private investigator, and he checks in with Valukas once or twice a week. He said he considers him a father figure.

"I grew up in a single-parent home, and he really showed me even though I grew up in one of the worst projects in the City of Chicago there is a bigger way," Boens said. "I don't have to fall victim to the gangs and the streets. He helped me by taking time out to help with homework and taking me places I've never been, like Bulls games and restaurants."

"If it wasn't for Tony Valukas I don't quite know where I would be right now," he said. "I wasn't supposed to make it out of the projects. I wasn't supposed to be alive. I was supposed to be in jail and not working for the jail. [Valukas and Mehrberg] both contributed to me having to make a conscious decision as to who I hang out with. I didn't want to disappoint these guys because they did a lot for me."

Leading a law firm

Valukas maintains an active practice with many high-level clients. He represents Fortune 500 companies and public entities with regard to conflict of interest, ethics violations, and internal corporate investigations.

Valukas became chairman of Jenner & Block in 2007, and is a member of the firm's litigation department. He specializes in major civil and white-collar criminal litigation. In early 2009 he was appointed as the examiner in the Lehman bankruptcy case.

In regards to Lehman, Solovy wrote that Valukas "was tasked by the court to investigate and unravel the events that led to the banking giant's collapse. Tony's selection for this uniquely important assignment is emblematic of his reputation for integrity, acumen, and independence that has long distinguished him as a pillar in the Chicago legal community and an influential leader in our profession."

When asked to describe his approach to legal matters, Valukas said he tries to be totally open to whatever the facts will show.

"I don't try to superimpose a theory in the first instance and find facts to support the theory," he said. "What I do is put all the cards face up on the table and then we know what hand we have to play."

Among the cases he's handled, he said at one point he started representing airlines in crash cases. For example, he represented American Airlines in a case involving the 1994 crash of American Eagle Flight 4184 in Roselawn, Ind.

"They are very difficult cases because people die, innocent people die because someone made mistakes," he said. "I'll tell you, one of the most difficult things is listening to the cockpit recording. You're listening to somebody knowing they don't know they are about to die."

Chuck Douglas, chairman of Sidley Austin's management committee, has known Valukas for 25 years. They worked together on the Flight 4184 case. Valukas represented American Airlines on the liability side, and Douglas represented the airline on the damages side.

"I think he did a terrific job for American in representing them in a crash where so many people died," Douglas said. "That took a good bit of both legal skill and I think compassion for the families of those people who died. Ultimately when those cases settled he really stood up for both the corporation, the client, and for the wisdom of the settlement, which had been reached for the benefit of the families."

William A. Von Hoene, Jr., executive vice president, finance and legal at Exelon Corp., met Valukas in 1983 when they worked at Jenner. After Valukas returned from the U.S. attorney's office he worked closely with him from about 1987 to 2002.

Von Hoene said Valukas taught him how to relate to clients and understand their problems, and about the importance of having a balanced life.

"He approaches problems in a very holistic way, looking at the impact of various courses on the client in a way that is very insightful and that closely aligns with the client's needs and exposure," Von Hoene said.

"What I have really found is what clients value in Tony more than anything else is his considerable ability to distill things down and give a clear strategic direction to the client."

Jenner & Block partner Dean Panos has known Valukas for 19 years and they work together on one or two matters a year, but often those matters turn into intense cases where they spend time together every day for months at a time.

He said Valukas is very creative in coming up with theories and trial themes. He doesn't accept any fact or theory as the right way until he completely takes it apart and puts it back together like he's playing with a puzzle, Panos said.

When they are working, he said, there's often a bowl of fruit sitting on the conference table. And they will take breaks from trial preparation to get workouts in.

"You can be intimidated as a young lawyer, as I was when I started as a young lawyer working with him, because of his prominence and his immense talent," Panos said. "What you come to realize when you are in the room with him preparing for trial is he lets you in on his creativity and seeks input and critique on his ideas. He uses you to test his theories."

Giving his time

Valukas was Principal for a Day at Fairfield Academy about seven or eight years ago. He enjoyed the experience, but with Christmas around the corner, he learned that many of the students did not celebrate Christmas because of their economic situations, he said. Valukas asked the school to identify a group of students who faced this situation, and the firm filled moving trucks with donated gifts.

When they discovered that some needy students did not get a gift they decided the next year to purchase two gifts for every student in the school, he said.

While giving the students gifts is a good thing, he said they wanted to make a more lasting impact.

They purchased computers for the school, and created programming that would help the students and their parents. And about 30 Jenner employees tutor students each Tuesday.

Principal Elsa Rubio said Valukas leads by example, and that's why the school has such a strong commitment from the firm.

She said his empathy for the underprivileged is evident.

"He does things for the sake of doing good," Rubio said. "He will never draw attention to himself or any of the things he does."

Valukas said the way the school system is created it's assumed that things are okay as long as the schools are open and the teachers and administrators are at peace with each other.

"I feel what is missing is an advocate for the children," he said. "Who speaks for the children? What I do in my professional life is make the system work for very powerful people and corporations. They come to me expecting that I will be able to accomplish that for them.

"What I see at Fairfield is an opportunity for the people at Jenner & Block to do the same thing for these students, to be their advocates, and to make the system work for them."

Bob Glaves, executive director of The Chicago Bar Foundation, wrote that Valukas has been at the forefront of launching and expanding the annual Investing in Justice Campaign for the past three years. He served as chair of the campaign in its inaugural year.

He helped position the campaign so that it can support the local pro bono and legal aid system long term, Glaves said.

People know about Valukas' legal acumen and leadership at the firm, but they don't always realize how much pro bono work he does, and how instrumental he's been in building the firm's reputation as a place that's committed to pro bono, he said.

"Really he's our George Washington of the campaign because we really needed to get that up and running," Glaves said. "At the time we needed someone with a lot of stature and credibility on all fronts, as a leader in a firm, a lawyer, someone who walks the walk on these issues. He fit all of those."

A balanced life

As his four children grew up, family discussions at the dinner table included talk about how to give back to the community.

All of his children have taken those lessons seriously, whether it be in their extracurricular activities or their careers.

For example, his 19-year-old daughter, Cassie, created www.documenthumanity.com so that people can share their stories about helping others. And his 17-year-old son, Paul, volunteers at a school for developmentally disabled children.

His 37-year-old daughter, Beth Valukas, a consultant to a group of nonprofit organizations, said her parents taught her "to do something that had a positive social impact. That has really been the guiding force in my professional life. The work he has done has allowed me to make those choices. He supported my education. Early on in my career he always pitched in when I was involved in a variety of organizations."

She said she hopes people understand how "committed he is to having a positive impact on the community."

"I think his passion for social justice and social service and just kind of his sense of fairness is something that is overriding in his life," said his eldest daughter, Amy Valukas, 39, who runs health care programs in schools on the West Side through the Erie Family Health Center. The center serves anyone, regardless of their ability to pay, she said.

When Tony Valukas was a boy he enjoyed reading adventure books, and now he gets to live out those adventures. He and his family enjoy adventure travel to places like Patagonia and Africa. He also enjoys such thrills as skydiving, which he's done twice.

His wife, Maria Finitzo, said one of the family's favorite places to visit is Alaska. They pack their own food, sleeping bags, tents, a gun, and other supplies, and an airplane drops them off in a remote area and returns six days later to pick them up

"We are completely alone," she said. "At times I bring a satellite phone, but for the most part we are completely out of touch.

"We live in a fast-paced world with everything happening quickly. When in the wilderness you have to slow down."

Finitzo said her husband has tremendous integrity.

"Certainly his strength comes from the fact that he just works harder than anybody around," she said.

"He goes over and over things. His life lesson is one of the elements of success in life is hard work. A lot of people are smart, but if you don't use it it doesn't get you anywhere."

His youngest brother, Shawn Valukas, a 38-year-old financial adviser at UBS, said Tony is very down-to-earth, and a great storyteller.

"In his professional life he's a top-notch attorney," he said. "But at the end of the day he's the kind of guy you love to grab a beer with. He's funny. He's also very generous with his time.

"He can take off the suit and put on a pair of jeans and be equally comfortable in both."