The Durkin 5

The Durkin brothers. Top row: Kevin, Mike and Jim. Bottom row: Terry and Tom.
The Durkin brothers. Top row: Kevin, Mike and Jim. Bottom row: Terry and Tom.
March 2014

Before Tom Durkin agreed to speak at his mother’s funeral earlier this year, he first had to cut a deal with his brothers.

“I agreed to do so on one condition,” he told the congregation on Jan. 10. “That I speak for all eight of us, and they tell me things they would say if they were to speak. So I speak on behalf of all of us.”

What followed, on behalf of all the Durkin brothers, were tales of birthdays, Sunday dinners and family trips to Wisconsin in a station wagon — full of kids getting carsick and hungry, and a mother prodding her husband to please slow down.

Colette Durkin never forgot an anniversary. She never forgot friends. She was always genuine.

And she settled disputes. Often, she could coax compromises with one soft, simple promise: “I’m going to have to tell your father.”

But she rarely had to resort to that, because as Tom pointed out, there were hardly any arguments she couldn’t settle.

“Mom was the judge and arbitrator on a daily basis of the dozens of squabbles the (eight) of us would get into. Multiply that by thousands of days and she became the ultimate Solomon, meting out justice,” Thomas said in his eulogy.

The ultimate Solomon. Meting out justice. Maybe it runs in the family, because five of her boys went on to become attorneys. And the Durkin family is a fixture in Chicago’s legal community.

Tom is a federal judge and former Mayer Brown partner.

Kevin has been a partner at Clifford Law Offices since 1993 and was president of The Chicago Bar Association for the 2006-07 term.

Terry is licensed as a sole practitioner in Inverness.

Mike heads Pedersen & Houpt’s wealth preservation practice group.

And Jim is the recently installed Illinois House Republican leader and a partner at Arnstein & Lehr.

The other Durkin siblings — Pat, Bill and Bob — meanwhile, work in the trade, insurance and banking industries, respectively.

“They’re the smart ones,” Terry said, laughing.

‘Tough as nails’

In their earliest years, the Durkin family resided in an Adams Street apartment on Chicago’s West Side. The boys’ father, also named Tom, is a Korean War veteran who worked during the day at various jobs, including a railroad, a bank and setting pins at a bowling alley.

Durkin family
The Durkins, circa late 1960s or early 1970s. Top row, from left: Terry, Mike, Kevin, Tom and Jim. Bottom row: Pat, Bob and Bill, with parents Tom and Colette and dog Muffin.

Tom Sr., now in his mid-80s, was able to attend accounting classes at night through the GI Bill while also helping Colette raise their growing family. In addition to passing the bar, his three oldest sons became certified accountants as well.

“He was incredible. My parents were incredible,” Kevin said.

In addition to her roles as homemaker and mother, Colette did a few other things, too. One of the more interesting bits of family folklore from that era involved her chasing down a would-be burglar with a frying pan.

“We were at the pool across the street at the park district,” Terry said. “It was during the day, and dad was at work. We were coming back from the pool and someone was trying to get through the window, and she started hitting him with the pan.”

“My mother was a very petite, very pretty Irish lady,” Jim said. “But she was as tough as nails.”

In the early 1960s — Michael believes it was around 1961 or 1962; Terry said it was more like 1963 — the family relocated to a house on Canterbury Street in Westchester, 15 miles west of the city. The three-bedroom, two-bathroom house was an upgrade in space for the still-growing family — which would eventually total eight boys, 13 years apart — but it remained cramped.

“There were constant quarrels and disputes, primarily because in such a large family, there’s a scarcity of resources,” Mike said.

“It was tight quarters and, you know, we were just very animated guys who had very strong opinions,” Jim said.

But much as their mother’s justice set a good example, the bickering arguably would be beneficial down the road.

“Whether it was our parents’ time … or using a car, it forced us to allocate limited resources,” Mike said. “And I think that experience helped us all as lawyers and in business.”

Another thing that may have helped: The kids were competitive.

Two of the older boys ran on the track and cross-country teams. Two of the younger ones played football. Someone was playing something at all times.

“Whether it was football, basketball, baseball,” Jim said, “there were sports going on year-round.”

Jim also recalled pickup games and rounds of H-O-R-S-E on the family’s backyard basketball court.

The competition was stiff, to say the least.

Although the brothers attended Fenwick — a Catholic high school in nearby Oak Park — Westchester is home to St. Joseph, a high school hoops powerhouse that has spawned numerous college and pro players.

“Isiah Thomas used to play in my backyard,” Jim said, referring to the former Detroit Pistons star and NBA Hall of Famer. “He went to Westchester … I had friends who knew guys that went to St. Joseph’s in Westchester, but I’d see ’em around the neighborhood and we’d play in the backyard.”

When the time came, the boys’ father would have a big hand in influencing the oldest three to get degrees in accounting, then encouraging them to go to law school.

But did having older brothers who pursued the law influence the younger ones as well?

“You could argue that there was an element of that,” Terry said.

Tom, though, isn’t so sure that was the case.

“I don’t think any of ’em got into it because of me,” he said. “They just found their own way. We’re all in completely different areas.”

But some of the other brothers said it was definitely influential.

“Tom and Kevin did very well in school,” Mike said. “And you looked at them and thought, ‘I’ve got to keep up with them.’ ”

Jim agreed.

“My interest in the legal profession came when my brothers were plying their trade in courtrooms as young prosecutors for the federal government and also for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office,” Jim said. “I found it quite fascinating and decided it was something I wanted to try and do myself.”

When it came time for college and law school, none of the future lawyers strayed too far from home. Tom, Kevin and Mike all went to the University of Illinois for undergraduate degrees, then DePaul University College of Law. Jim and Terry went to The John Marshall Law School after getting degrees from Illinois State in Normal and Knox College in Galesburg, respectively.

“The big joke was that when we were starting our senior year of high school, my mom would hand us an application to Notre Dame. And my dad would sneak around, take it from our hands, tear it up and give us application to U. of I., knowing he had eight tuitions to go,” Mike said.

“And then law school, I think we all — it was economics, and (we were) financially motivated to keep the cost down.”

A legal legacy

After decades of practice, the Durkins have also left a mark on Illinois’ legal history. A small bit of statistical evidence — searching the name “Durkin” in the digital Chicago Daily Law Bulletin archives nets nearly 650 stories and briefs dating back to 1991, most of which mention one or more of this particular set of Durkins.

There’s also some anecdotal evidence.

DurkinsMike was the lead counsel for the defendants in In re Estate of Feinberg, a case in which the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the validity of a will restricting a man’s inheritance to only his grandchildren who married within the Jewish faith.

Chief Justice Rita Garman authored the 2009 opinion and cited the ruling during her swearing-in ceremony last year as one that exemplified her legal and writing style.

Kevin is recognized nationally as an expert in aviation law and was part of the team of attorneys that secured a $110 million settlement for the families of victims in the 1994 crash of American Eagle Flight 4184.

Tom helped prosecute the cases spawned by Operations Greylord and Gambat, the late-1980s undercover investigations into the Cook County courts that yielded numerous convictions of lawyers, judges and court staff.

Those operations rooted out what prosecutors at the time called “a moveable feast” of corruption, and were two of the biggest court-related corruption stings in Chicago history.

“The weight of the cases and the sacrifices of the people involved to gather the evidence, those were in my mind — the biggest cases I had as an attorney,” Tom said.

And as one might expect with five attorneys working five different areas of the law, the Durkin network in 2014 runs fairly deep.

“It surprises me to this day, because when I became a new judge — you’re assigned a docket of about 300 to 310 cases which are drawn randomly from the other judges who are sitting,” Tom said.

“When I got these new cases, it probably was a quarter of ’em where one attorney or another mentioned that they knew so-and-so through a brother. It was never a matter of recusal. But it was put on the record. It was amazing how many people knew one or more of my brothers in the practice of law.”

Mike said he constantly runs into other attorneys that know his brothers who he didn’t even know knew his brothers.

“I would say on a regular basis. Weekly, if not more often,” he said.

One of the attorneys they all know? Flip Corboy, a partner at Corboy & Demetrio and son of the firm’s co-founder, the late legendary trial attorney Philip H. Corboy.

As it happens, the Durkins’ father was the Corboys’ accountant. It was an association that developed through Tom Sr.’s position as a board member at The John Marshall Law School.

“As the history goes, they just met as one was a young accountant and the other was a young lawyer, and they clicked and they became friends,” Corboy said. “And a trust ensued to the point where my dad and Tom Durkin took each other on.”

Corboy knew Kevin and Tom Jr. during law school, and worked with Kevin during a stint at the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.

“It’s probably one of the most unique families to have the good pleasure of knowing,” Corboy said. “I can call a number of these Durkin boys my good friends.”

He said that even though Kevin, as a plaintiff trial lawyer, is in some respects his competitor, Corboy doesn’t let it interfere with their friendship. He also joked that Jim’s political leanings don’t bother him — at least not much.

“I like him a lot. Even though he’s a Republican,” Corboy said with a laugh.

‘It was a bit surrealistic’

Jim, the third youngest of the brothers, is a big guy.

At well over 6 feet and 200 pounds, he is crammed into one side of a tiny booth he’s sharing with a legislative staffer at the Golden Mine Family Restaurant in Braidwood.

“Bob, Bill and myself are the tallest and the biggest of the bunch,” he said, hunching over the table to take spoonfuls of soup.

His physical size, one could argue, is commensurate with the task he now faces — returning the fragile state Republican Party to prominence.

Jim took over as House GOP leader for Tom Cross, who stepped down from the position last year to focus on a run for state treasurer.

He knows it’s going to be an important spring.

But in a state that’s voted reliably Democrat for years, he’s equally aware that what happens in November may be the yardstick by which his tenure as Republican leader is measured.

He’s already honing the GOP’s arguments.

“There’s going to be no secrets with what we’re raising during the campaigns,” Jim said. “It’s simple: They’ve run the state for the last 10 years, and I think Democrats are going to do everything they can in the next year to prove that they’re good stewards. But I don’t think they can be trusted.”

Not to say that he’s all about elections.

During an hourlong interview, he stressed the importance of the various policy issues the General Assembly faced last year and the ones that might come up over the next few months at the Statehouse.

He said it would have been “negligent malpractice at its highest” if the legislature failed to pass a bill addressing the state’s pension systems — which faced an estimated $100 billion shortfall.

“If we did not take up the pension bill … heaven help us on what the credit rating agencies would have done,” Jim said.

A former Cook County prosecutor, he unabashedly supported a mandatory minimums bill that would have doled out prison sentences to some first-time gun offenders.

For those who didn’t support it, he said, “spend a couple years like I did in the highest-volume courtroom in America and you might think differently.”

He “absolutely” supports the idea to amend the redistricting process laid out in the state constitution by giving the map-drawing power to a commission independent of the legislature.

He’d support a minimum wage increase “if there’s a negotiated bill between labor and management,” he said.

Yet, whatever the policy challenges, at the end of the day, Jim knows his party has to win more seats. It’s one of the things he told House Speaker Michael Madigan during negotiations on the politically risky pension bill in the fall.

“I told him, I have to win seats,” Jim said. “He understands that.”

Maybe that competitive spirit runs in the family. Colette, as Tom recounted during his eulogy, was unfailingly warm and polite — with one pronounced exception.

“There were no enemies unless they crossed one of her sons. Then she was as protective as a female bear. Jim’s political opponents were a special source of her anger,” he said.

At least in public, Jim may keep any similarly animalistic tendencies to himself. On this day, he says he’s focused on leaving no stone unturned during his tenure as GOP leader.

“I don’t want to be a guy who retires from the legislature who says ‘I should’ve done this’ or ‘I could’ve done this,’ but I never really went after it,” he said, recalling his losing bid for U.S. Senate against incumbent Dick Durbin in 2002.

“I wasn’t expected to win a primary and didn’t have any money. But I did pretty well, and in the general election — it was a challenging year for us,” Jim said. “But I know that I did my best, and I felt it was something important … and I took my shot.”

No matter what shots he takes next, the rest of the Durkin brothers will be behind him.

Most of them were actually in front of him in the House chamber gallery when he was sworn-in as leader late last year — a much more formal affair than their typical Thanksgiving gatherings at Kevin’s house, which require three turkeys to feed the 47 family members.

During a short speech, he pointed each one of them out individually — Tom, Bill, Bob, Mike and Pat — and thanked them for taking time off of work to be down in Springfield for the day.

Terry and Kevin couldn’t make it because of work requirements.

“But I just wanted a little word to my two brothers who couldn’t make it here, they can tell this to their employers — if they are looking for (tax breaks) any time in the near future, they should not look to the House Republican caucus for any help any time soon,” Jim said to laughs throughout the chamber.

Reflecting on that October day, he called it “surrealistic.”

“I’ve always looked up to my older brothers, and I’ve always emulated them. These are guys that I thought I could never reach their success or what they’ve done,” he said, leaning back in his seat.

“And for that moment, my brothers coming down to watch me … I would say that it’s the highlight of my professional life.”

One imagines Colette Durkin would be proud to hear that.