The Heart of Being a Lawyer

Lorna Propes rode a wave of cultural change to become a lawyer—and the law’s gain is, well, the teaching profession’s gain, too

Published in 2010 Illinois Super Lawyers — February 2010

Lorna Propes says she is a product of opportunities that arose in the late 1960s.

“I like to think of it more broadly than the [women’s] movement,” says a smartly dressed Propes, 64, from behind a big wooden desk at Propes & Kaveny, the firm she founded in 2000. “It was really the civil rights movement.

“It started in the 1960s and focused on racial discrimination, which was broadened to include gender discrimination. This isn’t to say there weren’t women who went to law school, some of whom you could name, like Ruth Ginsburg, and some of whom you couldn’t. But from my circumstances—I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a very blue-collar area and with a very blue-collar family—no one even went to college in my whole extended family. If I had said that I should probably be a lawyer, they would have had me committed.”

She adds: “I had always known this: If I had been a boy, I would have been a lawyer.”

Instead, upon graduating from Indiana University in 1966, she followed the traditional path for a career-minded woman of the era. She became a teacher.

“I was a terrible teacher,” she says. “I mean, bad. And I was no good at being a guidance counselor, either. People think I don’t mean that, but, no, I mean it.

“But you know what I really think about?” she asks. “All of the years when teaching and nursing were the only things that women could do, think of all the rotten teachers who really should have been businesswomen or doctors or lawyers or anything else. Instead, they were teaching, and they never liked it—they didn’t have a choice. It would have been bad for every student if I had been stuck there for a lifetime. So I feel lucky that circumstances allowed me to find something that I love.”

In the early 1970s, just as she was getting her master’s degree in education, she began to ride a wave of cultural change that was finally breaking in her favor. “I spent a year in New York at Columbia University,” she says. “Columbia, of course, was always the cutting edge of social change. So I met a lot of people with a lot of ideas who were doing a lot of things that I never thought about, period. And I thought, ‘Wow, there is more opportunity out there than little Midwestern me knows about.’ It was the perfect Petri dish for me.”

When Propes moved back to Chicago she decided to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a lawyer and enrolled in Loyola University School of Law—taking classes by night and working as a guidance counselor at Evanston Township High School by day. After graduating in 1975, she went to work in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, where it might take several years to advance to the coveted trial division and work in a courtroom setting. It took Propes several minutes. “I would not have even been hired 10 years earlier—I might not have even thought it was a possibility,” Propes recalls. “But they needed women. I’m quite sure the only reason I was hired was that I was a woman, because I recall sort of blowing the interview and being totally terrified.”

Around that same period, Propes landed a scholarship from the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA), a three-week training program for trial lawyers in Boulder, Colo., where she was able to make contacts and learn from some of the nation’s most renowned trial lawyers.

Why did she land the scholarship? In part, she feels, because there was a dearth of women in the program. The next year, Propes returned to NITA as a faculty member, even though she felt wholly unqualified for the position. Why did she land the gig? In part, she feels, because there was a dearth of female instructors.

“It was all strictly timing—it had nothing to do with me,” Propes says. “It was just me being the person in the right place when the world was changing. You have to work and take advantage of things, but there are times when no matter how hard you work, you will not get the opportunity. Ten years later, half the people in the state’s attorney’s office were women. Ten years earlier, there just weren’t any.”

 

Mark Brennan, an attorney for the Chicago-based firm Cassiday Schade, opposed Propes in a high-profile local case, Taylor v. St. James Hospital, which settled favorably for Propes’ client in 2005. He came away impressed.

“Of all the plaintiff’s attorneys I’ve worked with as an opposing counsel,” Brennan says, “she by far provides the type of service to clients that is completely at its own level. Anyone who has Lorna Propes as their lawyer is very lucky because she works extremely hard for her clients. She’s smart and she never gives up. She was tough in [Taylor v. St. James Hospital], the toughest I’ve ever had.”

Tough is a word often used to describe Propes. Most famously, in 2002, Chicago magazine named her one of Chicago’s toughest lawyers. Propes isn’t necessarily buying it. “I think ‘tough’ was just the word Chicago magazine used to make the story,” she says. “I think that I’m fairly effective and that most people who do my kind of work are.”

Other lawyers don’t buy that denial. John Donley, a Chicago-based attorney for Kirkland & Ellis, worked with Propes in 1997 defending Dow Chemical Company in a class action lawsuit that alleged injury from silicone breast implants. He says that Propes is, well, tough.

“The unique thing about Lorna is the combination of things she brings to the courtroom,” Donley says. “You meet people who are tough, you meet people who are charming—but she’s got both qualities. Whether she’s before a judge, a jury or an opposing counsel, everything she does has a genuine human quality and warmth to it. At the same time, everyone she deals with knows that she’s absolutely made of steel. She won’t lose that charming personality, but she’s going to be an adversary that’s as tough as they come. It’s very hard for me to remember any other lawyer I’ve worked with who’s had that natural combination of charm and steely toughness.”

The Dow Chemical case was a departure for Propes—and not just because she spent several months living in New Orleans, where the case was tried. This time she represented the defendant, Dow Chemical, and not the plaintiffs. Additionally, Propes had never participated in a case of this scope: She was part of a team of 20 attorneys working on a case of national interest. Propes and John Donley, of Kirkland & Ellis, were lead trial counsel. And though the victory went to the plaintiffs (the ruling was later reversed on appeal), she thoroughly enjoyed her brush with big-time corporate law.

“It exposed me to litigation on a level I had not done before,” she says, “and I learned a lot that I still draw on today.”

But Propes was more than happy to return to her side of the courtroom. She describes being a personal injury plaintiff’s lawyer thus: “Some poor family that has something hideous happen to it and is bereft and down and out and desperately needs help—it isn’t like that family has a lot of choices. In cases like this, you really feel like you’re standing between these people and all of the misery that’s been visited upon them by whatever source. Their individual lives depend on you. You’re speaking for them, protecting them, advancing their position. I feel it’s the heart of what being a lawyer is.”

This ideal may be best exemplified by Taylor v. St. James Hospital, in which Propes represented a couple named Charles and Elva Taylor. Elva had been rendered quadriplegic by a negligent medical treatment and wound up in a nursing home in the Chicago suburb of Niles, an hour by car from the family’s home on the city’s South Side. Propes garnered more than $9 million for the Taylors in an out-of-court settlement, a sum that enabled them to make the best of a horrific situation.

“He drove to the nursing home every day from the South Side—no matter what the weather—and spent four hours with her, grooming her and helping with her care,” Propes says. “They were from Mississippi originally, and all he wanted was to be able to move her home so they could be with their extended family and have the money for in-home care. So our success in that case allowed him to do exactly that: go to Mississippi and buy a home that was completely accessible for her and had room for her mother and other caregivers to live. Now he provides for her in the best possible way.”

 

For more than 100 cases, Propes has never lost sight of the idea that the law is a people business—whether the person in question is a client, a juror or a judge.

Donley still marvels at how she was able to connect with jurors in the Dow Chemical case. “One of the best things I’ve learned from Lorna is communication—putting, as someone once said, the hay down where the goats can eat it,” he says. Here’s how he remembers Propes talking to the jury one day:

“‘Is everyone here aware that in our legal system, the person that does the suing has got to do the proving?’ she asked. ‘Yeah, it’s called the burden of proof. The plaintiff—these folks over there—did the suing, and they’re the ones who have to do the proving. So if they don’t prove anything or if there is no evidence on a point on either side, the judge will instruct you that we win.’”

Donley adds: “I was delighted to have tried a case with her. And I never want to see her on the other side.”

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