Q&A: Tom Salerno
Tom Salerno on saving hospitals, handling obnoxious lawyers and earning blood wings
Published in 2009 Southwest Super Lawyers Magazine — May 2009 on June 10, 2009
Tom Salerno of Squire Sanders has worked on financial restructurings in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Switzerland and many other places. In his spare time he jumps out of airplanes. He tells us what he's learned and why he does what he does.
What drew you to law?
From watching trial shows on TV such as Perry Mason. I come from a working-class background, and the idea of wearing a suit to work intrigued me. I was also intrigued by the power that lawyers seem to have in their spheres.
What have you learned about the U.S. in your travels?
I have come to appreciate that what is self-evident in the U.S. system is not so evident to people outside the U.S. As one appellate court judge admonished me in conversation after a court hearing in Germany, the view of the U.S. legal system by German courts is that German courts believe they are about the search for truth, while they view the U.S. as being about process, often regardless of truth.
Economically, looking at systems from Eastern and Central Europe, as well as Latin America, my main observation is that we have the most effective system there is. That's not to say we don't have issues, but there's an undeniable legitimacy to the U.S. economic system that is viewed as such in other countries.
What is your most significant professional accomplishment?
My representation of Phoenix Memorial Hospital (PMH) in its Chapter 11 case a few years back. PMH was, and still is, the only hospital available for indigent and Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System patients in south Phoenix. It was undergoing huge economic problems to the point where it was losing between $500,000 and $1 million per month. A buyer was found, but they wouldn't buy it unless they had a bankruptcy court order blessing the sale because the purchase price was well below the outstanding debts. It was extremely tense. We pushed the sale through in six weeks, working closely with the state of Arizona, doctors and others. The hospital remained open and continues to this day.
Who was your role model growing up?
My parents. My father was a truck driver and musician—he worked as hard as anyone I've ever known. His viewpoint, as well as that of my mother, was that you earned a living, and were entitled to nothing short of what you earn.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
One: Don't take yourself too seriously. You have to be able to laugh at yourself, and have balance. I've seen many professionals—mostly lawyers—who seem to have an exaggerated sense of self-worth, which makes them less effective and lacking in perspective. Two: Always strive for balance in your life. The law can be all-consuming. You need to have outside interests. Not only does it make you more interesting as a person, but it gives you a sense of balance. I think having children was the best experience in balance there was for me. It forced a sense of perspective that I might not have otherwise had.
What do you like most and least about your job?
What I like the most about the practice of law are the great clients you get to meet and get to know. When doing restructuring work, which is very stressful, you get to see the best and sometimes worst in people, and going through the process with clients creates a bond that lasts a career and sometimes a lifetime. What I dislike the most are incompetent and obnoxious lawyers. They make a constructive dialogue and resolution extremely difficult, adding to the stress and costs. The longer I practice, the more I enjoy the former, and the less tolerance and patience I have for the latter.
How do you unwind after work?
I play drums—as did my father and grandfather.
When was your last vacation? Where?
It was in Frederick, Oklahoma, where my then-18-year-old son and I attended jump school at the Frederick Army Airfield with the Airborne Demonstration Team (ADT). The ADT is a nonprofit group that was formed by military veterans to honor and preserve the memory of those who fought for this country, particularly in World War II. It puts on a nine-day jump school, where you live in World War II-era barracks, train as paratroopers did, and if you pass the training, take five jumps from a C-47 aircraft in military fashion. The cadre for the jump school are all highly qualified airborne-qualified veterans, some of whom taught at the U.S. Army Airborne School. My son was the youngest in the class, and I, 50 at the time, was the oldest of those who jumped. We made our jumps, all solo, static line jumps at 1,500 feet, and when we landed on our fifth jump, a member of the cadre met us on the drop zone and we took a swig of apple brandy, as this was what the French citizens greeted landing paratroopers with in World War II. As a result of completing our five jumps, we earned our airborne wings, which were pinned on us by a World War II veteran who jumped in Normandy on D-Day. And then we received our blood wings, which is when the base commander grabs the lapel of your uniform tunic and slaps the wings, with the exposed pins, hard into your chest, pricking you and drawing blood.