Going Public

For William J. Quinlan, counsel to Gov. Blagojevich, father knows best

Published in 2008 Illinois Super Lawyers — February 2008

Gov. Rod Blagojevich doesn’t implement a single initiative without first consulting William Quinlan.

“On a personal level, I like the fact that you can make a difference in people’s lives, and a direct difference,” says Quinlan, a native of the northwest side of Chicago. “Many times [in private practice], you have people coming to you and saying, ‘Look, I’m getting sued by this person’… You’re dealing with it after the fact. Here, working for a chief executive, you’re more on the front end. You can say, ‘We’d like to increase education funding,’ and you get a chance to actually help implement it. That’s rewarding. Frankly, it’s one of the reasons I took the job.”

His father, William R. Quinlan, is another reason he took the job. The elder Quinlan served as counsel to Chicago mayors Richard J. Daley, Michael Bilandic and Jane Byrne. After that, he became a justice of the Illinois Appellate Court.

“Our parents shape our lives,” says the younger Quinlan. “My dad really cherished his public service. It was something he instilled in me.”

Even though the younger Quinlan began his career in private practice—doing high-end litigation at Quinlan & Carroll, the Chicago-based firm his father founded in the mid-1990s—he’d already laid the groundwork for his transition into the public sector. Quinlan worked for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan while in college at the University of Illinois and then served under U.S. Representative Dan Rostenkowski during law school at Georgetown University. His greatest teacher, however, has been his father.

“My dad taught me not to get caught up in a lot of the policy things and to just be the lawyer,” the 37-year-old Quinlan says. “Many times in that role, the elected official needs someone to be the attorney, to give him the legal advice and the options. My dad’s very good at understanding the law, and he’s very good at saying to a client, ‘OK, I know where we need to go—let’s figure out how to get there.’ It’s something I’ve tried to do.”

Despite such grounding, Quinlan was nervous when he got the call from Blagojevich in 2005.

“The jitters were monetary ones,” Quinlan says with a chuckle. “This pays substantially less money. I had one child and another on the way, and then you start worrying about mortgages, and paying for preschool, and everything else. It’s a sacrifice every month. But look, at the end of the day I still make a good wage.”

Quinlan counts the governor’s initiative to provide free health care to kids whose parents can’t afford it as one of his proudest accomplishments. He isn’t yet sure if he’ll return to private practice, enter the business world, or remain in public service when his gig with Blagojevich ends, but regardless of what he decides to do, his goals will remain as idealistic as ever.

“To be very candid, you get into a business because you want to make a difference,” he says. “You hope those opportunities breed more opportunities to make a difference in what society is doing. I’ve taken this opportunity to learn as much as I can about government so that I can apply it to different things.”

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