Q&A with Philip Harris
Published in 2009 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine
on January 8, 2009
Updated on September 17, 2009
Philip L. Harris received his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School in 1983. At Jenner & Block, he focuses his practice on the defense of substantial and complex product liability, mass tort and commercial cases for large corporations.
Super Lawyers: When did you first think about becoming a lawyer?
Philip Harris: Definitely in high school or early in college. My career plan was to go into politics, which I ended up not doing, thankfully.
I’ve always been interested in public policy. It’s why I went into political science at Northwestern.
Did any politician inspire you?
Hubert Humphrey. I liked his style, I liked his integrity and I thought he was very charismatic. I remember when he was running for president, my parents took me to see him, and he went out of his way to shake my hand. I would’ve been 10 at the time.
How did you get involved in product-related litigation?
It started with torts in law school. I was just fascinated by the fact patterns. I remember being one of the few people excited by the Palsgraf case.
I was always interested in those kinds of issues. My father is a doctor and I was raised to be comfortable around medical issues. And when I got into product litigation, it combined my interest in business with my interest in medicine.
Any moment in court stand out for you?
There was a case I was trying in 1996 that involved kids who were riding in an open bed of a pickup truck. They were coming back from a Rolling Stones concert and the pickup truck got in a head-on accident with an off-duty police officer and the kids were all ejected out of the bed of the pickup truck. One of them became a quadriplegic. The others escaped serious injury, but they sued the manufacturer of the pickup truck on the theory that the manufacturer should’ve put a warning label on the back window.
The kids all claimed that they believed it was safe to sit in the open bed of a pickup truck—because they had been taught to believe that it was better to be thrown clear of the accident scene. They didn’t believe there was any benefit to being restrained in a vehicle.
When I was preparing the case for trial, I happened to find the driver’s ed instructor for the kids. He had left teaching and had become a youth minister at a Catholic church—and he had saved all of his class notes, if you can believe this, from his high school class. And he happened to have the lecture notes from the class he had given to all of these kids when he talked about the importance of using seat belts. It was easy for me to show that all the kids had taken the class, and, in fact, the most seriously injured plaintiff got an A.
So I asked [the teacher on the stand], “Is it likely that Mr. Plaintiff could have gotten an A in your class and not have understood the importance of being restrained in a vehicle?”
Of course that question was objected to and he didn’t answer it, but it made the point.
What changes have you seen in your years practicing law?
It’s become much more competitive, much more entrepreneurial, and much less secure. The lack of civility that has existed in the litigation process between adversaries has infiltrated many law firms.
One of the things to think about is whether firms, in their compensation decisions, reward team-oriented behavior.
In July 2007, you wrote the cover story for Chicago Lawyer called “Confronting Race.” What was the reaction?
It’s been favorable. But I also think that my audience has generally been an open and a receptive audience. Very few people who didn’t like the piece, or who disagreed with the piece, contacted me, and I’m sure those people are out there.
All I was trying to do by writing that piece was to generate discussion. And I was concerned about being branded, you know, “Here’s another person of color complaining about not being treated fairly.” I worried what it would do to my reputation. But I thought I was in a position to do it.
Who are your role models?
People I know personally—especially my parents and a few aunts and uncles. My mother is a pianist. She gave up her life in music to raise 12 kids and help my father get through med school.
Twelve? What number were you?
Fifth. I have a twin brother, so … tied for fifth.
And your father?
He was born in Durant, Mississippi, in 1927, and both of his parents died when he was young. He grew up in one of the poorest counties in the United States, Holmes County, and really had nothing. And he found a way to get through college—shining shoes and working in restaurants to make money—and moved all over the country before settling down in Iowa. To me he is the classic American success story. People might not think of him that way because he’s a minority, but he became a success through old-fashioned values and hard work, and, really, with my mother, prepared the way for everyone in my family to be successful.
I always figured that if we couldn’t find a way to make it after all they did, there would be something wrong with us.