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  • Kirk Hartley

John Cooney Takes Over the Presidency of ITLA

Union rules among Chicago lawyers require cross-promotional efforts on behalf of all Chicago lawyers. Ok, not really, but I’m still happy to publish a story about John Cooney taking over the Presidency of ITLA. It’s from a June 6, 2014 article in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin (paywall). His partner, Kevin Conway, held the same role a decade ago. Both are lawyers I’ve worked with  and respected for more years than I wish to admit.


“In the world of trial lawyers, John D. Cooney is a man who doesn’t need much of an introduction.

But that’s exactly what he’ll get tonight when he’s installed as the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association’s 61st president at the group’s annual convention in Oak Brook.

A partner at Cooney and Conway who has been representing plaintiffs since the mid-1980s, the 60-year-old Oak Park native has helped win hundreds of millions for clients over the years.

He chairs a national committee that has negotiated billion-dollar settlements with corporate giants such as Halliburton, General Motors and Owens Corning.

His firm is considered one of the premiere shops for asbestos litigation. He’ll take the ITLA reins exactly one decade after his partner, Kevin J. Conway, held the position starting in 2004.

Cooney graduated from Georgetown University in 1976 and got his law degree from Loyola University Chicago School of Law in 1979. He worked for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office from 1979 until 1985.

From there, he joined his father as a trial lawyer at the firm that is now Cooney and Conway. His brother, Robert J. Cooney Jr., is also a partner.

His career and success have hinged in large part on being persistent, he said, especially in those asbestos cases against big companies.

“Many times, you’re looking through endless boxes of information, and the critical document is simply buried in there,” Cooney said. “And while much of the work is invaluable, it’s worth it if you stay with it.”

One case Cooney pointed out where that persistence paid off was a suit against Shell Oil Co. in the early 2000s. One of the firm’s attorneys, William R. Fahey, was cross-examining a witness in the courtroom while his partner deposed a company paralegal in a separate room.

Halfway through the 13-day trial, the paralegal revealed she had been ordered by one of the defense attorneys to sign off on legal documents she knew were not accurate.

What’s more, she said the company had withheld hundreds of other documents relevant to the case and others like it.

When word arrived about the additional documents, Cooney said, “the fact that they existed was like a thunderbolt throughout the courtroom.”

The jury in the case eventually returned a $34.1 million verdict for the plaintiff.

“It’s just one of those more dramatic moments,” he said. “Typically, the work that gets done in these cases is less dramatic and more drudgery. It just sometimes takes more stick-to-itiveness.”

And “stick-to-itiveness” is one thing that crosses people’s minds when they think of Cooney himself.

Robert A. Clifford of Clifford Law Offices, an ITLA past president, said he was one of many who courted Cooney to run for the post “over many glasses of wine” and a long period of time.

“To me, a very important point about John — he doesn’t have to do this,” Clifford said. “He’s at a stage in his career where a lot of guys use the bar to advance their careers for networking and exposure, and John has done all of those things. Instead, he’s a deep advocate for victim’s rights.”

But in a state lawmaker election year, it doesn’t hurt to have a guy who’s open about his politics, either.

Cooney was a supporter of then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden’s presidential bid in 2008. He’s contributed to plenty of judicial campaigns and said he believes attorneys should play a more active role in the political system.

“I’m a simple thinker. I think that lawyers should be very concerned about what the laws are. But I sometimes find that they think that that should simply be somebody else’s concern,” Cooney said.

“I think that what laws are passed that affect the rights of ordinary people to simply be in court and tell their story are worth protecting.”

ITLA is a powerful, sometimes polarizing force in the Statehouse. Whether the group supports a given measure is frequently one of the first things discussed when a legal bill is debated on the floor.

Outgoing ITLA President Stephen D. Phillips said the group’s leader needs to engage with the legislature.

“If the foundation on the law tends to start with the legislature and politics, then you better gain some knowledge about politics fairly quickly,” Phillips said.

One might believe the group is in good shape with a Democratic governor and Democratic supermajorities in both the House and Senate. But Cooney said the group’s calculation of which candidates to support isn’t based merely on party loyalty.

“I think that it’s odd that the politics are such that certain candidates seem to want to perpetuate the myth that injured people are the problem, as opposed to those who cause those injuries,” he said. “And those candidates that wish to use burn victims and quadriplegics as political pawns are not candidates I feel are worthy of support.”

Cooney said he still needs to look at what initiatives the group will push this fall during the legislature’s veto session and next spring during its regular session.

At least one thing is for sure, Cooney said. He’ll use his term to continue what he’s tried to do elsewhere in his career — be a voice for people who need one.

“I really am honored to take on this position, and I recognize that it involves the responsibility of speaking for a lot of voiceless people,” Cooney said. “And I take that obligation seriously.”

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