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Salt in His Veins

If not a lawyer, Steve Levin might have been an oceanographer or marine biologist

Published in 2022 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine

One of Steve Levin’s favorite photos on his desk is the one with an outstretched cownose ray that’s photobombing him. In it, Levin is at work in downtown Chicago on another busy afternoon, clutching a bucket filled with shrimp, squid and clam, hooked to an umbilical-like cord that pumps oxygen into his mouth as he moves underwater.

The photo was taken years ago, when Levin volunteered every week as a coral reef diver at the Shedd Aquarium. On Thursdays and Saturdays, he would swap his suit and tie for a wetsuit and microphone, trading the courtroom for a saltwater tank, where he fed marine creatures such as 8-foot nurse sharks, cleaned the coral, and gave anyone who walked by a tutorial of what was happening in this underwater world.

He did this all while balancing his full-time personal injury practice at Levin, Riback & Adelman. Why? Levin likes to respond with a question of his own: “What were the books by your bedside table as a kid? Mine were all about saltwater fish.”

Levin loves law, but often he wonders if it was what he was born to do. “Maybe,” he says. “Both were of interest to me, but the books by my bedside were not Clarence Darrow.”

Part of him keeps thinking about those bedside books about coral and marine life, and the numerous copies of National Geographic. A young Levin watched and read Jacques Cousteau and, one day, even wrote him a letter asking for a job on the Calypso (though he never got a response).

The saltwater bug came from his father, also a lawyer, who in 1956 started the firm where his son would later work. He would take his sons on impromptu trips to the Bahamas or Florida, where they would snorkel in the locals’ favorite spots. 

“That’s when the salt came into my veins,” says Levin.

His true love, scuba diving, didn’t come until a few years later. It started in his high school pool, where students had a chance to use a scuba tank. Levin sat at the bottom of the pool, mesmerized. It was quiet and calm. He’d watch the big bubbles shimmy to the surface and wish he could stay down there all day.

But the fantasy of being a marine biologist or oceanographer faded when he was confronted with physics and chemistry classes. It just wasn’t for him. Instead, he followed his father’s footsteps, attending Tulane for undergrad and law school.

So he scratched his saltwater itch another way.

In 1999, after 13 years at his firm, and numerous diving trips to Bonaire, the Cayman Islands and the Great Barrier Reef, Levin applied to be a coral reef diver at Shedd.

There were two auditions. One was a simple presentation in an auditorium. The other? Levin was tossed into a 90,000-gallon coral reef exhibit during off hours, mic’d up. A supervising diver communicated with Levin through an earpiece.

Right away, Levin started naming fish as they swam by: a queen angelfish, a rock beauty angelfish, a foureye butterflyfish. “How do you know these?” the voice in his ear asked. It was because of those books, of course. Levin was hired.

“It was an extremely fun moment in life to have my studies appreciated by somebody of his magnitude at the Shedd—which I grew up going to,” Levin says.

Even more fun was the joy he spread from the gig, which he likens to being one of the characters at a Disney theme park. He also received many visitors from his day job, from judges to opposing counsel, and spoke with each one from the tank.

In 2014, after 15 years, he stepped out of the water to spend more time with his family. Now, Levin goes to Key Largo 10 times a year to dive, snorkel, and now, help save the reefs. Active with the Coral Restoration Foundation, which aims to restore the 350-mile barrier reef, Levin is training to be a diver that plants coral buds onto the reef with the hope of transforming the dead, white coral into the colorful brown, gold and purple images he remembers from his books.

As he always tells young lawyers: “Don’t forget yourself and the enjoyment of life. To be a good lawyer, to be a good person, don’t forget other things you love, beyond the law. If you ever forget your passion, ask yourself, ‘What were the books by your bedside?’”

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