Philip H. Corboy, founder of Corboy & Demetrio P.C., and one of Chicago's and the nation's best known personal-injury lawyers, died of natural causes early this morning at his Chicago home.
He was 87 years old.
"He died at 3:30 this morning, quietly, peacefully at home in his sleep," said his partner and longtime friend, Thomas A. Demetrio.
Corboy's wife, Mary A. Dempsey, former head of the Chicago Public Library, was at his side in their near North Side home.
Dempsey said in a statement: "Phil was a kind, compassionate and marvelous lawyer, and a wonderful husband, and I want him to be remembered as someone who cared about people he loved and people he represented."
His son, Philip Harnett Corboy Jr. said: "I was very, very lucky to have a great friend, a great partner and a great father all wrapped up in the same person.
"I was very lucky that he was able to provide me with a strong social conscience at a very early age that's remained with me to this day. He was adamant in reminding all the kids in our family that the old phrase of 'to those that have been much, much is expected in return.' My dad felt very, very seriously about helping people open doors so as to better their lives.
"He also didn't like the idea of bullies and big shots riding roughshod over people with little political or economic power. I was very proud of him for being consistent to his core beliefs throughout his entire life. He was a wonderful role model, and I will miss him very much."
"With the passing of Phil Corboy, this is really the end of an era," said John E. Corkery, dean of The John Marshall Law School.
It was the era when decades ago a young lawyer who might have difficulty getting hired by the big firms "could go out and represent the little guy against big, entrenched interests and rise to the pinnacle of his profession and become a leader," Corkery said.
Corboy's era " is also the story of the development of personal-injury law in Illinois," Corkery said, and of "the expansion of all the protections for injured people over the last 50 years. He was in the forefront of that movement."
Corboy practiced personal-injury trial law for at least 50 years. He trained so many trial lawyers that his proteges became known collectively as Corboy College. By his own account at least 70 lawyers passed through his firm while he was there.
Corboy was president of The Chicago Bar Association in 1972 and 1973. He believed strongly that lawyers should contribute "to the bench and the bar in an organized fashion," Demetrio said.
Through Corboy's example, at least four other lawyers at his firm or who came from there became CBA presidents: Demetrio and his brother, Michael K. Demetrio; Rene A. Torrado Jr., and Robert A. Clifford.
Clifford, head of Clifford Law Offices, is the current CBA president.
Friends and colleagues also remembered Corboy for his extraordinary generosity.
In 2009, he gave the largest-ever gift to Loyola University Chicago School of Law, unspecified but at least $5 million. Loyola named the building that houses the law school at 25 E. Pearson St. the "Philip H. Corboy Law Center."
Also in 2009, he and his wife made the single largest gift ever to DePaul University College of Law to create an endowed scholarship fund for DePaul law students.
And he established a scholarship fund at John Marshall to pay costs for tuition and books for Chicago police officers who study law there that are not covered by the city.
Raised in Rogers Park, his father, Harold, was a Chicago police officer, as were Corboy's grandfather, uncle and brother, Daniel.
Corboy attended St. George High School in Chicago and started at St. Ambrose College but this got interrupted by service in the Army from 1943 to 1945. After the Army, with the benefit of the GI Bill, he attended the University of Notre Dame and then Loyola University Chicago School of Law.
He graduated first in his class from Loyola in 1949 after only two years and became an assistant corporation counsel for the city of Chicago.
One of his earliest efforts was drafting an ordinance banning smoking in public elevators.
In January 1950, Corboy argued a case before the Illinois Supreme Court, "exactly one year after I received my license," he said in prior articles and biographies. The city represented by Corboy won.
"I was secure. I was earning $4,200 a year," he said.
James Dooley, according to one of Corboy's biographies, offered Corboy a job. The two were Irish Catholics and both graduated No. 1 from Loyola's law school.
Corboy went to work for Dooley in November 1950. After two years, Corboy went out on his own. Dooley was later elected an Illinois Supreme Court justice.
Corboy founded his firm in 1952. His first associate was John D. Hayes who had been his investigator. Hayes went on to become a nationally-known trial lawyer.
Corboy did not put any name besides his own on the Corboy firm for 30 years, until 1982 when Thomas Demetrio became a partner, and the firm became Corboy & Demetrio.
In the 1950s through the 1970s, "plaintiff personal-injury lawyers were lone rangers," Demetrio said. "Partnership was for big law firms, not the personal injury world."
But when Corboy named a partner, other personal-injury lawyers followed.
Personally "he was like a tornado," Demetrio said. Demetrio first met Corboy in Tynan's restaurant owned by Demetrio's father.
Then in 1973, after Demetrio got his law degree from IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, Demetrio went to see his mentor, then-Cook County Circuit Judge James A. Geroulis. A trial was underway in Geroulis' courtroom and Corboy was questioning a witness.
Geroulis interrupted. "Phil, there's the young man I was talking to you about," he said.
"Phil came over to me and said, 'Do you want a job?'" Demetrio said. "I'll see you in 20 minutes."
Corboy then resumed questioning the witness.
The legal world was somewhat more informal then.
One of the reasons personal-injury law was not a prominent practice back in Corboy's early days, Demetrio said, was because for a long time the cap for a wrongful death was $5,000, then $10,000, and even in the 1960s, $30,000.
"Corboy was a leader in lobbying in Springfield for changes in archaic laws for the good of society," Demetrio said. "Among those was erasing the cap on wrongful deaths."
Corboy's biography on his firm's website says he was "a relentless lobbyist against tort reform."
Nevertheless, Demetrio said Corboy participated as one of the leaders of the plaintiff's bar in the mid-1980s when a major tort reform measure got passed by the legislature for medical malpractice cases through the urging of State Rep. Michael J. Madigan, the Chicago Democrat.
"Personal-injury trial lawyers are in the rare position of being able to level the playing field to help people in the war against organized money, insurance companies, corporations, health-care providers, common carriers, manufacturers, cities, states and government," Corboy once said.
Corboy was the former president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association and former chairman of the Section of Litigation of the American Bar Association.
The National Law Journal listed him as one of the top 100 most influential lawyers in the country since the beginning of its survey in 1985.
Corboy's youngest son, Robert J., was killed at age 12 by an out-of-control motorist. His daughter, Cook County Circuit Judge Joan M. Corboy, was fatally injured in an accident on vacation in 1999.
In addition to his wife, Corboy is survived by three sons, Philip Harnett Jr.; John R.; and Thomas M.; eight grandchildren; and his brother, Daniel. The mother of the children was Doris Marie, who died in 1996.
Mass will be said at Holy Name Cathedral at 10 a.m. Saturday.