Everybody Wants to See Joe Gagliardo

Why governors, mayors—and even Donald Trump—have consulted him

Published in 2011 Illinois Super Lawyers — February 2011

You won’t find much about Joe Gagliardo or his cases online.

“My whole approach is to be discreet,” says the Chicago labor and employment litigator. He has had more than his share of high-profile clients, including Illinois governors, Chicago mayors, Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios and Donald Trump. “If we’re in the press, we’re not doing our job right. I think it’s an attraction for clients that I’m more interested in their concerns than mine.”

It helps, too, that the managing partner of Laner, Muchin, Dombrow, Becker, Levin and Tominberg is committed to responding to every client request within two hours. He’s made it a mantra of the firm.

Trump, hardly known for his patience, but well known for his capacity to fire people, continues to consult with Gagliardo, who represents both government and private-sector employers. Facing a work stoppage in the early stages of construction at the Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago because of a labor dispute, Trump was referred to Gagliardo. “Joe fits our mode of operation,” says Andy Weiss, executive vice president of design and construction with the Trump Organization. “We both say, ‘Let’s get to the point quickly and figure out a way to make it happen.’ That keeps legal bills reasonable, too,” Weiss adds with a laugh, “which Mr. Trump appreciates.”

Gagliardo has also represented four governors. In 2009, Gov. Pat Quinn’s office sent over a case involving 1,200 employees that required Gagliardo to coordinate the actions of 15 of the firm’s lawyers. “We send a lot of ‘hot-potato’ cases to Joe,” said Greg Newton, Quinn’s former acting deputy general counsel for labor relations, at the time. “Grievances, lawsuits, the time-consuming, difficult cases—and we don’t want them tried in the press. … Whenever we contact him, very shortly we are talking to someone [at the firm] who knows the issue and is on the way to a solution.”

“Joe is persuasive because he’s reasonable,” says retired U.S. District Judge Wayne Andersen. “He won’t wave his arms and yell that he’s right from A to Z. He doesn’t take hard positions but tries to bring out differences quietly. When Joe raises his voice, you notice, because it happens so rarely.”

Except on stage.

Twice a month, more often during the summer, Gagliardo plays bass guitar in a band with Dan Buck of the Boyzz from Illinoizz. This very same attorney who is the soul of discretion lays down a thumping beat as the audience sings along to “My Generation,” “Hush,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and the band’s originals.

“It’s a great release,” says Joe Annunzio, village attorney in Niles, who persuaded Gagliardo to return to his high school passion in 1999. “Where else can you stand in front of a microphone, scream at the top of your lungs and get applause?”

Gagliardo has even played with legends. In his cluttered office, with a 28th-floor view of Lake Michigan, the walls are covered with the usual awards, but there’s also a nicely framed triptych of Chuck Berry in concert. And right next to Berry, laying down a bass riff on a hot summer evening, is Gagliardo.

It happened out of the blue. One day in 2001, Gagliardo received a call from local rock promoter Ron Onesti, who, Gagliardo says, “thought of me because he had seen and heard me play, and felt I had an encyclopedic knowledge of music.” Onesti had a dilemma: Chuck Berry needed a band to play with him at Hawthorne Race Course. Little Richard would open, but there would be no time for rehearsal or sound check, and no song list. Could Gagliardo find a drummer and keyboardist and show up with his bass?

When he arrived at the racetrack, things didn’t get any clearer. “Key?” he asked Berry.

“No, man, we’re just going to play,” came the raspy reply.

And they did.

“To show his appreciation for our playing,” Gagliardo recalls, “[Berry] bowed before each one of us—me, a piano player and drummer—before he left the stage.”

Gagliardo learned in his parents’ Italian grocery near Wrigley Field to treat other people with respect. The store, long gone now, was an old-fashioned kind of place with wood floors and handmade meats. “I got a grounding there,” says Gagliardo. “I’ve never forgotten where I came up. With my father, it was all about being a good person and helping neighbors.”

The first in his family to attend college, Gagliardo says he was encouraged by his parents to practice law or medicine and escape the blue-collar life. Earlier, he had dreams of being a rock star but eventually concluded, “You can’t wait forever for lightning to strike.” He reluctantly gave up playing the bass after high school, and he worked at the grocery store to help pay for college at DePaul University and law school at John Marshall.

He was inspired to become a lawyer by a high school reading of Gideon’s Trumpet. “That book showed me that one lawyer [Abe Fortas] could change the law for the entire country and give everyone a right to counsel. Since I was raised to help people, I thought, ‘What better way to do it?’” he says.

After law school in 1977, Gagliardo didn’t send out a single résumé since he had no desire to work for a law firm—especially a big one. Instead, he went back to the old neighborhood as a sole practitioner. He knew the area needed legal representation, and who better than somebody everybody knew?

“Later that year, a neighbor told me I was doing it backward,” he says. “If I wanted to be successful as a lawyer for the people, I should get some experience working for government agencies.” Those, after all, were the offices that people in the neighborhood had the most dealings with—and the most trouble. He was also engaged and needed a little stability.

So Gagliardo applied to the city departments, “all of them,” he says, and in 1978 he was offered a job by the corporation counsel’s office under Mayor Michael Bilandic. It involved a lot of responsibility and a $15,600 annual salary.

Over the next decade, as he climbed the ladder to first deputy corporation counsel, he worked under four mayors—five, he says, “if you count David Orr, who was only mayor for a few days.” He was involved in creating the hiring plan for Chicago’s implementation of the Shakman consent decrees, even though the political-patronage case started in 1969, when he was still in high school.

In the wake of Operation Greylord, which exposed rampant corruption in the metropolitan judicial system, he took a leading role in writing and implementing legislation to cure the nightmare that was traffic court. In those days, the 3 million tickets written in Chicago each year all had to be adjudicated, tying up courtrooms and judges, resulting in a logjam of cases and collections. Gagliardo testified before the state Senate that a lot of judges would be freed up to handle more important cases if traffic tickets could be paid by mail or satisfied by traffic school. “It wasn’t a good use of anybody’s time,” he says.

The value of treating everyone with respect that Gagliardo had learned from his family was reinforced by Mayor Harold Washington. “He showed me that the goal of government could be opening services to those not previously served and employment to those not previously considered,” Gagliardo says. In 2007, Laner Muchin won a Thomas L. Sager Award from the Minority Corporate Counsel Association for promoting diversity in hiring and promoting minority attorneys. Gagliardo is a longtime board member of Windows of Opportunity, which assists public-housing residents.

A problem-solver, Gagliardo was an early proponent of mediation, a technique that was largely unused in Chicago trial practice until 1992.

Such skills have also helped him and a team of lawyers get close to resolution of the, incredibly, 40-year-old Shakman case that has “bubbled up” again in his life as the result of a political-hiring case that sent three city officials to prison. Gagliardo has played a role in resolving issues between the city and the Shakman monitor, appointed to make certain that city hirings are not influenced by politics. Current monitor Noelle Brennan credits Gagliardo, as outside counsel for the city of Chicago, with an active role in resolving issues. The parties are continuing to make progress toward compliance, she says. “Joe was instrumental in drafting policies to get us here,” says Brennan. “He has the unique ability to be an adversary and friend at the same time.”

Bill Becker, former managing partner at Laner Muchin, met Gagliardo in the course of doing business as outside counsel for Mayor Harold Washington’s administration. On the recommendation of Becker and several other Laner Muchin partners, the firm hired Gagliardo away from the city in 1988 to set up a litigation practice. “But I became a jack of all trades,” Gagliardo says. Six years ago, when Becker joined Harpo Studios, he recommended Gagliardo as his replacement as managing partner.

“He has the qualities that are important to being managing partner,” says Becker. “His sensitivity to people and his skills as a litigator are magical. Running a law firm well is a combination of tremendous attention to detail and sensitivity to the politics of herding cats. Joe was always a savvy lawyer with a very human side.”

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