Batting Cleanup

When defendants need a grand slam, they bring in John Tarantino

Published in 2009 New England Super Lawyers — November 2009

It’s 1967 and in the Italian neighborhood of Federal Hill in Providence, R.I., a gaggle of kids crowd around a TV set, watching Carl Yastrzemski and Tony Conigliaro take their beloved Red Sox from ninth place to its first league pennant in 21 years.

One boy says he’ll become a Red Sox pitcher some day, and throw a no-hitter against Detroit. Another swears he’ll rack up as many homers as Yastrzemski. Then there’s 12-year-old John Tarantino, the kid with the mischievous smile, with his own claim.

“My dream was to play center field, between Carl Yastrzemski and Tony Conigliaro,” Tarantino, now 54, says, chuckling.

Tarantino never got to play center field for the Red Sox, but he is a major leaguer in the legal world. As a high-profile attorney, his cases have taken him all the way to the Rhode Island and U.S. Supreme Courts. His clients include the governor, the speaker of the house and multibillion-dollar corporations.

Growing up, Tarantino was the all-rounder, the kid who loved to play sports, did well at academics and still had time to make plenty of friends. He also learned that if you wanted to fight the good fight, defense law was the place to be.

“If you look at the way society [was] in the 1960s, it was more those who were defending who were the ‘good guys’ on any kind of legal show—Perry Mason; Judd, for the Defense,” he says. “Our Supreme Court was a court that enforced and protected rights then, most considered pro-person accused.”

And though his childhood dreams were fixated on baseball, there was already an inkling of his legal future.

“A couple of years ago, sorting through my old things, I found something I had written in the seventh grade, an assignment of ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’” he says. “I had written that I wanted to be a lawyer. It was kind of a very idealistic view of being a lawyer, but it was the first time where I can recall expressing an interest.”

By the time he went to Dartmouth College, that interest had grown. Working an intense class schedule to save his family tuition money, he graduated in three years with a double major in psychology and religious studies, and kept the campus on its toes with his pranks.

“It was amazing the amount of energy he put into it, but what really struck me about John was his resourcefulness and playfulness,” says college roommate Jan Long, now a telecommunications executive in California. “He’d always find a way to create levity for us.”

When he graduated in 1976, Tarantino still didn’t have enough money for law school, so he took a job at a social-service agency for developmentally disabled adults—beating out a young Providence College grad named Pat McGovern for the position.

“We didn’t know each other, I got the job, she didn’t, but I asked her out on a date, we hit it off, and a year later we were married,” he says.

By 1978, he was accepted into Boston College’s law school, but because they couldn’t afford for Pat to give up her teaching salary, and because she was pregnant with their first child, Christen, Tarantino commuted every day from Providence to Boston.

“They were long, long days,” he says. “Most people say they’re overwhelmed by the work when they start at a firm, but, to me, it was never as bad as that first year of law school.”

In 1979, he took a summer position at Adler Pollock & Sheehan, impressed by the energy and relative youth of the firm’s attorneys. By his third year at law school, he was at the firm 30 hours a week and arranging his classes around his work schedule. When he graduated in 1981, Tarantino joined Adler Pollock full-time. He was hungry for work—especially anything that would take him inside a courtroom.

“I made it crystal clear what I wanted to do: try cases,” he says. “The firm had a contract with a laborers union, and we’d provide legal services, including various criminal cases. No one wanted to do these cases, so I got them. I remember going home and complaining to my wife, ‘This is the kind of stuff I’m getting.’ She said, ‘Just be the absolute best at these cases.’”

Good advice. Tarantino took it and started to earn acclaim.

Across the country in the 1980s, drunken-driving laws were stiffening considerably and offenders were threatened with harsh punishment instead of the slaps on the wrist that had been administered for decades. Tarantino learned everything he could about the cases, and ran up an impressive string of defense victories. A publisher eventually contacted him and asked him to write a book, earning him a wide reputation.

“All kinds of issues are involved—criminal law, constitutional law, expert issues, cross-examination of officers,” he says. “I truly believe if you can try one of those cases and win it, you can win almost anything.”

The cases he handled became increasingly high-profile. Not to mention long. In the mid-’80s, he took on McQuillan v. Spectrum Sports, an antitrust case that began with an episode of That’s Incredible! From 1987 to 2004, he argued against outdated insurance clauses in Textron v. Aetna, helping establish Rhode Island as a state that favors policyholders.

“His genius was to be able to put the case in context with what Rhode Island case law was,” says Andrew Spacone, assistant general counsel for manufacturing conglomerate Textron. “He didn’t go in and say, ‘Do what other states did.’ He was able to relate our position so that the Supreme Court did not have to make entirely new law.”

In 1991, Tarantino came to Gov. Bruce Sundlun’s rescue when he successfully argued to the state Supreme Court that the chief executive of the state has the power to temporarily shut down government to avert fiscal crisis. In the late ’90s, he helped defend a Jordanian prince who had been accused of rape while studying at Brown University.

“John is a person who is willing and imaginative enough to work with nonlegal approaches to getting to the bottom of a case,” says John Bomster, Tarantino’s mentor at Adler Pollock. “And he treats small matters the same way he treats larger matters.”

And he hasn’t slowed down. From 1999 to 2008, Tarantino worked on Rhode Island’s massive lead paint contamination lawsuits, the longest jury trial in state history, and a case in which he potentially saved Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO) billions of dollars.

“You can’t really tell on meeting him how he’ll do in the courtroom because he’s just such a nice, modest man,” says Bill Noble, ARCO’s in-house counsel. “But in the courtroom he’s fabulous.”

“From our perspective, we always felt the defense had a better chance when John was representing,” says Decof & Decof’s Neil Kelly, who was state assistant attorney general in the lead paint case. “We were on opposite sides, but I developed a great admiration for John.”

In June, Tarantino won a favorable Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling in a case where he used the state constitution’s “speech in debate” clause to defend former senate president William Irons from charges that he had violated the law by voting on legislation affecting one of his insurance clients, CVS.

“He’s very passionate about his cases,” says daughter Lauren, a 27-year-old public-school teacher in Brooklyn. “He just e-mailed my brother and sister and me and said he won a big case. He really cares about his clients—that’s something I always remembered.”

When Tarantino can find a minute outside of the courtroom, he’s chaired the Rhode Island Legal Services Equal Justice Campaign, is president of the Rhode Island Bar Foundation (the bar’s charitable arm), and is active in his church and a local food bank.

He even gets to fit in a little Major League Baseball: He’s representing a Chinese company that has allegedly supplied the human-growth hormone that the Mitchell Report claims is an epidemic among ballplayers.

“I love what I do,” Tarantino says. “I think that other than playing center field for the Red Sox, or being commissioner of Major League Baseball, I have one of the best jobs.”

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