This is the first in a series on lawyers in Illinois’ 101st General Assembly.
When Illinois House Minority Leader James B. Durkin has questions about a state law or a constitutional provision, he reaches for his copy of “Smith-Hurd Illinois Compiled Statutes Annotated.”
It’s a habit he picked up in law school and hasn’t kicked even as legal research has gone digital.
“I would say that I still have an old-school attitude when I have to look up and analyze issues,” said Durkin, who this month marked 30 years as a licensed attorney.
Durkin’s leafing through hardbound volumes is frequent for both hats he wears: as of counsel at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP and as the House Republican leader — a position he’s held since 2013 in a chamber he’s served in for 22 years.
He views the roles as coequal, with shared responsibilities to his private practice and to the state.
“To a certain extent you have to look at each day that there’s going to be problems that I have to make decisions on in the legislature, but also, I will have to do the same with clients and matters with a law firm,” Durkin said. “So you get used to it. It’s never easy, but that’s the life I chose. And I’ve been able to work my way through it.”
Durkin is hardly the only lawyer that doubles as a legislator.
A Daily Law Bulletin analysis identified 38 out of 177 lawmakers in the 101st Illinois General Assembly as attorneys.
Some lawyer-lawmakers handle military and family law, while others specialize in personal injury or medical-malpractice defense. Their firms range from solo practices to multi-partnered, multi-department operations.
This series will explore those differences, spotlighting trends among the lawyers who also serve as state lawmakers.
Before Durkin joined the Arnstein & Lehr governmental and municipal affairs team in 2011, he practiced for about eight years at Ice Miller LLP and spent some time at Wildman Harrold Allen & Dixon LLP.
Prior to private practice, Durkin was as an Illinois assistant attorney general and a Cook County assistant state’s attorney in the felony trial and narcotics bureau.
Prosecutors are truth-seekers and last lines of hope, Durkin said. And legislators act in a similar, albeit preemptive, way — they ask questions and look for solutions to problems that don’t always already exist.
When you combine the experience of a prosecutor with the experience of a policymaker, the result is a more judicious law, he said.
“It’s important that we have thought through the scenarios of how legislation, if it becomes law, how it is going to play out for the practitioner, and also for the judge who’s asked to rule on the applicability of a law,” Durkin said. “It’s important to have people in the legislature who have experience in a courtroom to ask those types of questions, because it does nothing more than to enhance the process.”
Among lawyer-lawmakers, 24 serve in the House, while 14 are senators. Along party lines, 24 identify as Democrats, while 14 identify as Republicans.
Lawyers in the Illinois House have been licensed an average of 23.5 as attorneys, and the median length of service in Springfield is three years. State senators have on average 21.4 years experience in the bar, and the median legislative tenure is 5.5 years.
Durkin first entered the House in 1995, but had a four-year break following an unsuccessful 2002 bid for the U.S. Senate.
Before he became minority leader, Durkin served as the ranking Republican on House Special Investigation Committee for the impeachment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Durkin also had a hand in passing education funding formula reform and sentencing guidelines for repeat gun offenders.
The intersection of his two jobs occurs in committee and caucus negotiations, where he presses other representatives on how a law would stand up in a courtroom. He said he hopes to practice in both fields for as long as he can.
“We’re setting the law for everybody in the state,” Durkin said. “And bottom line, someone’s going to challenge the law.”