I have had the good fortune to work with Richard A. Devine for several years in leadership positions in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and in private practice. When Dick left office, I joined him at Meckler, Bulger, Tilson, Marick & Pearson LLP, a great litigation firm.
While this column could have been written by any number of celebrity attorney friends of Dick’s, my perspective as a normal “Joe Lawyer” who works directly for him highlights some great lawyering, leadership and service lessons that I want to share.
Dick Devine has practiced law for almost 40 years and was the Cook County state’s attorney for 12 years when he made the decision not to seek a certain fourth term. Pundits think he could have been governor of Illinois or mayor of Chicago.
Devine has argued before the Illinois and U.S. supreme courts, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the Illinois Appellate Court and tried cases in state and federal court. He could fill a room with his awards and achievements.
Yet, through it all, Dick would say his family is his biggest accomplishment. He and his wife, Charlene, are blessed with four adult children (not to mention many grandchildren) who have all followed his impassioned lead toward service to others.
The Devines’ oldest son, Matt, is a partner at Jenner & Block LLP. Tim is the principal of Payton High School, daughter Karen heads the counselors at Taft High School and son Pete is a detective with the Chicago Police Department. Family activities are interwoven across many schedules with many challenging demands.
Devine demonstrates that even with divergent demands on time, our most important obligations are to our loved ones. Make time. While trials and discovery deadlines can make personal time seem impossible, we must keep our practice in perspective. Life happens, even when there is an expert deposition the next day.
Devine is not a “touchy-feely” mentor and is “old school” in the best possible sense. A professional with great pride, wisdom and honed skills, Dick does not hold your hand through each step in a case and is not going to pat you on the back for doing your job.
If you have done something exceptional, he will compliment your work, but don’t expect many superlatives. Devine lets you know what he expects, by when and patiently answers questions. Keep up, do your job and learn.
Devine has shown that leadership is not about harsh words, generic praise or, even worse, silence. He gives candid, timely and constructive feedback. He understands the importance of guiding others, both through words and actions.
Well after becoming a name partner or elected official, he made arguments before the Illinois and U.S. supreme courts and argued and tried substantial cases in state court — when he easily could have delegated the work to others.
Nor will he delegate to “save face” if the case turns out badly. He would much prefer taking on the tough issues rather than hide from them. For inexperienced attorneys, watch, listen and learn.
Devine teaches you to control what you can control. He takes the inevitable bumps and bruises in litigation in stride and deals with them. He expects first-rate work and does his utmost to serve his clients and win, but does not get ruffled when things outside his control go awry.
As I have learned from Devine, there are many factors that lawyers cannot control, so concentrate on what you can control. Win or lose? Learn something. Move on. Call another case.
Fortunately, there are many aspects you can control and most start with an attorney’s self-management and accountability. Follow through on commitments you make. When Devine tells you he will do something, it gets done.
He is famous for lists; nothing fancy, just index cards he can stick in his shirt pocket or sometimes a legal pad. When a task is completed, Devine strikes it from the list with his trademark fountain pen. Everyone has a system. Find one that works for you — one that collects and organizes your tasks and follow through.
Of course, bigger issues can significantly affect individual lives or your client’s interests and involve many faceted problems with lengthy (or extremely short) time periods. These matters are best broken down into “chunks” with tasks clearly assigned. Communication is key. Devine does not want to be surprised about developments and expects updates.
On complex questions with many approaches, he often asks different people their opinions. This process is very effective for collecting divergent views and driving out an approach. Yet, there is no “paralysis by analysis” with Devine: Once a course of action is determined, decisively follow through.
How does Devine prioritize? Most importantly, he takes the time to critically think. No smartphone. No tablet. For part of each day, put your electronics down and think: What are the real issues in this case? Good facts? Bad facts? What do we do about them? What legal research must be done pronto? You are a lawyer, drill down and think before you act.
If you are a newer attorney reading this and think the tasks you are working are “grunt level” tasks, you need to understand that great attorneys like Dick Devine don’t succeed by hitting “grand slams’’ every day in a trial or an isolated motion. Rather, they succeed by working the fundamentals of lawyering on each phase of a case with diligence and reliability.
A small sample of such fundamentals include: Be on time (which means early); return phone calls; spot issues early in a case (make simple “bad facts/good facts” and “bad law/good law” lists and research needed lists); diary all dates and track the “chunks” so you are done on time (which, again, means early); make a chronology of events so you can logically present the case to your boss (and later a judge or jury); focus when you talk with a human; show courtesy to support staff, the court, opposing counsel and court personnel; show proper decorum at all stages of a proceeding, including depositions; and if you aren’t sure how to do something, ask.
When you exercise the fundamentals well and in a consistent manner, the great argument (or brief, or deposition, or closing argument) will follow.
Finally, it’s no secret that Devine improves the legal writing of those attorneys who work with him. He is an excellent legal writer. Attorneys have become quite familiar with his detailed editing in renowned perfect cursive.
If you are presenting work to a supervisor for review, it should look like a “finished product.” Grow thicker skin about your work and draft the best product.
Never stop learning. Devine has practiced law for several decades. When he started out, there were no cellphones, no real-time transcripts, no case software and no trial graphics. In 2014, he types away on his iPad, uses his smartphone and many different case management and trial graphics tools. Learning and adapting is what has led Devine through a masterful career.
Change is something we should all hope to similarly master.
For well more than a decade, Dick Devine has been my great teacher. His legal and leadership skills, and the lessons I’ve attempted to capture here, have influenced countless lawyers for nearly half a century. We are all better lawyers and better people because of him.