Reflections from a Lawyer



Saturday, September 25, 2021

Reflections from a Lawyer

By: Lynn Gosewisch

"Can't lie about anything?" John Adler asks as he sits down in his Chicago Loop office. He wants to know if he is under oath. For over 50 years he has worked as a trial lawyer, trying approximately 75 cases, mostly involving aviation law and wrongful death suits. Since graduating from law school in 1961, he has worked at the U.S. Justice Department, served as a Judge Advocate General Corps officer in the Air Force, worked as an in house lawyer for a major airline and was the founding partner at three law firms bearing his name. He currently works at Adler, Murphy & McQuillenLLP, which he co-founded 19 years ago. For years his life revolved around his business, but he managed to escape the burnout that plagues others in his profession. If it's true that if you love what you do you never work a day in your life, then Adler has been on vacation for the past 50 years. These days he works far fewer hours than he used to, leaving him with more time to reflect on his career and the future of litigation. Now, under no legal obligation, he is ready to answer a few questions himself.

In his green knit sweater, he eases in behind his desk. His hair is white and thinning, but he looks younger than his 77 years. He has a natural confidence and ease that must have served him well in front of a jury. His voice is quiet, just above a whisper. It's a wonder a jury could ever hear his arguments in court. When asked to describe the perfect law partner he says it would be "one that just kept his big mouth shut and let me do what I want."

Some of his partners now have been with him for over 30 years, following him from earlier versions of the current firm, showing him the loyalty he always extended to them. They say nobody has as much fun practicing law as Adler.

His office is strewn with toy cars, rubber band guns and pictures of airplanes. He is a lifelong baseball fan who proudly displays White Sox bobble heads on his bookshelf. Many of the items he collected over the years were once displayed in a large corner office. Now they are crammed into a smaller space. As he downsized his role in the firm, he found it appropriate for his office to downsize too.

He doesn't have a computer in his office, but he has a Rolodex big enough to hold the name and information of anyone he has ever met. It sits on his desk next to his iPhone. Adler admits that most of the people in there are probably dead now, but he also says there is no easier way to find a phone number.

Hanging off a lamp from his desk is a sign that says "No Whining." According to his partners he takes that sign seriously. He doesn't complain and he doesn't want to listen to anyone else complain.

Looking at the view of Lake Michigan outside his office window, he talks about how much he loves this city. He always felt Chicago was a good place for his business; its central location meant he was never tied to one coast and it allowed him to travel anywhere in the world. Now that he has fewer work obligations he has more time to enjoy the city. His favorite baseball team is a train ride away from his apartment and he and his wife often attend the Chicago Symphony or the theatre. For years he kept a boat on Lake Michigan. Listening to him talk, it's hard to believe that Adler is not a lifelong Chicagoan. Only the Georgetown painting on the wall behind his desk hints that he has roots elsewhere.

 From Georgetown to Chicago

Adler was born and raised in Washington D.C.where his father worked at the Justice Department. His father worked his way through law school at Georgetown during the Great Depression only to find few opportunities after graduation. Determined to pursue his law career, he took a job at the Justice Department as a supply clerk. He worked his way up and was eventually appointed Assistant Attorney General, one of the highest ranking non-political positions. His father worked with people who are synonymous with our nation's history, such as J. Edgar Hoover and Robert Kennedy. He even took his wife and his mother to a party at Bobby Kenney's house once.

Though Adler now admits that his father had an impressive career, he had no intention of following in his footsteps. When he was still in high school he tried to join the Marines. He wanted to be a fighter pilot, but his father insisted he go to college. He enrolled at Georgetownas a pre-med student, intentionally choosing a course of study that he would most likely fail. His goal was to satisfy his father until he turned 18, then he would be free to join the Marines on his own.

His plans changed once he got to Georgetown, where his competitive nature made him excel despite his intentions. For the first time he wanted to do well in school. The only subject he didn't do well in was chemistry and it prohibited his admittance to medical school. As Adler puts it, "I went to law school because I didn't get into medical school."

In 1958 when young men finished college, they graduated right into the army. The draft was in place and in order to keep his student deferment he had to go on to graduate school. Law school seemed like the best route. He continued at Georgetown for three more years completing his law degree.

In his last year of law school he was upgraded to a 1A classification, essentially putting him at the top of the list for active military duty. Rather than wait to be drafted into the Army, Adler enlisted in the Air Force, which would allow him to practice law.

Looking back, Adler believes the draft drove many of his career decisions, as it did for other young men at that time. No one wanted to hire someone who might be leaving at any time for active duty. Many guys he went to law school with were drafted into the Army, serving two years overseas before they could even take the bar exam.

Adler had to spend a year in the reserves before he could begin active duty in the Air Force. During that year he worked at the Justice Department, one of the few places that couldn't discriminate against hiring servicemen.

In January of 1962, he started working at the Justice Department as a litigator in the tax division under Robert Kennedy. He didn't know Kennedy well, but he did meet him. Kennedy used to walk around the office on Saturdays introducing himself and asking people about the work they were doing. Adler says people easily got along with him. "It's a shame he didn't get to be President," Adler says. "He was the best of the bunch."  A high compliment coming from a staunch Republican, whose conservative political views today are in sharp contrast to Kennedy's.

When Adler began active duty the next year he switched out of the tax division the first chance he got. He says tax law was "no one's idea of fun." He joined the newly formed aviation group, which better suited his interests. He continued working in aviation law the rest of his career. When his active duty was over he returned to the Justice Department and briefly worked in the Civil Division-Aviation section, but the politics of Washington weren't for him. When he was recruited to work as an in-house lawyer for United Airlines, he accepted the job and moved to Illinois.

Being an in-house lawyer required a lot of paper pushing and that wasn't for Adler either. He joined a private firm where he tried cases more frequently, which suited him just fine. Trying cases is the fun part of the job.

Winning, Losing and Investigating

Adler likens arguing in court to making a sales pitch; it's all about persuasion. He always looked forward to the trial, describing the courtroom as a "battle of the wits." He preferred making an argument in court to the chore of taking depositions. However, he never neglected the preparation for trial, always doing what it took to get to the bottom of a case.

A case he handled for Beech Aircraft involving a small plane crash in Oregon brought him out of his office and into the mountains searching for parts of the plane himself. The crash took place several hundred feet down a cliff near the Columbia River. During the investigation of this particular crash the tail of the plane was never found. The investigator theorized that the tail fell off in flight. That explanation didn't sit right with Adler. He viewed pictures taken during the initial investigation and noticed that there were no close ups taken of the wreckage. He suspected that the overweight investigator did not climb down the cliff to get the evidence he really needed. His suspicion was confirmed by the helicopter pilot who flew the investigator to the edge of the cliff. The pilot gave an affidavit claiming that the investigator stood on the edge of the cliff to get pictures, but never climbed down to get a closer look at the wreckage.

Adler went there by himself and hiked 2 to 3 miles until he got to the site of the accident. He carefully climbed down the cliff to get closer to the wreckage and found the tail of the plane in a tree. His instincts were right. The tail didn't fall off in flight. It was ripped off when the pilot hit a tree. The new evidence revealed the true cause of the crash and exonerated Adler's client. Adler claims that what he did is not unique saying, "Lawyers should investigate."

In 1986 Adler was involved in the most high profile case of his career. He was called upon to represent Morton Thiokol after the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart in flight killing all seven people on board. Morton Thiokol no doubt expected a larger firm to handle such high profile cases and Adler admits that representing them took a little persuasion. He worked on cases stemming from this tragedy for roughly 5 years, settling cases across the country and handling some unique situations.

The family of one astronaut never intended to go to trial. Their cultural beliefs prevented them from suing over the death of their loved one. Their only interest was in honoring their deceased family member. Adler worked with his client and the family to establish an agreement for Morton Thiokol to pay for a memorial to the astronaut.

Because the explosion that killed the flight crew took place over the high seas, Adler argued that the Death on The High Seas Act applied. The admiralty law meant that there would be no jury during trial and no award for punitive damages. In the end, these cases settled without the need for trial. But a few years later Adler tried multiple cases after another highly publicized disaster.

At the height of his career Adler was asked to handle cases stemming from a major airline disaster. On July 19, 1989 United Flight 232 crashed in Sioux City, Iowa killing 111 out of the 296 people on board. Adler was in Indiana enrolling his daughter at college the next day when he got a call requesting that his firm represent United Airlines. He and his partner flew to the site of the crash the next day in his partner's plane. They witnessed the chaos as area hospitals dealt with the overflow of patients and bodies were shipped home.

A case of this magnitude, requiring depositions around the country and the retention of numerous experts to support the defense, presents the kind of challenges Adler likes to face. Though a vast majority of the cases settled, some went to trial. Adler had the task of trying one of the more emotionally charged cases, which resulted in a verdict favoring the horribly injured plaintiff.

Adler knew that verdict was coming. His clients agreed to accept liability, leaving only the damages to be determined in court. According to Adler a good lawyer can predict the outcome of the trial. He gets to know the jury and can get a feel for their sympathies. He watches the judge and gets a flavor for which way he or she is leaning. In this case the amount of damages was much more substantial than he predicted, proving that even experienced lawyers can be taken by surprise. The unexpected losses are the toughest.      

Traveling Man

The rigors of this job can take a toll on lawyers, often burdening them with poor health and failed marriages. But Adler has been blessed with good health and a family that understood the absence of their husband and father was their sacrifice to his career.

Adler has been happily married to Joann for 43 years. His nickname for her is "Lucky." He is the only one who calls her that. "I am the only one that can get away with it," he says.

They met at his brother's wedding in Washington D.C.where she was the maid of honor. Adler was working for United Airlines in Illinois at the time and used his travel benefits to fly back to D.C. on weekends to see Joann.

Even after they were married and living in the same state, they often found themselves apart. Adler started working for a private firm and was on the road a lot entertaining clients and preparing for trials. "You get used to being by yourself," Joann says.

He has favorite restaurants all over the country and can recommend sites to visit as well as any travel agent. Of all the places Adler has traveled, London is his favorite, probably because he knows it so well. There was a time earlier in his career when he spent 2 months a year there for 2-3 weeks at a time. He thinks he may hold the record in the firm for longest consecutive time spent away on business. He was once gone for seven straight weeks, missing the Thanksgiving holiday at home. "My kids used to call me 'Uncle Daddy,'" he says. He missed family events, including the birth of his second daughter. He was trying a case in Des Moines, Iowaat the time and the judge wouldn't let him go. When he told the judge that he needed to return home for the birth of his baby, the judge responded, "Wives have babies."

Practicing a different type of law would have allowed Adler to be home more.  Then again, if he were practicing a different type of law he probably wouldn't have loved it so much.

The Changing Profession

He believes that practicing the law wouldn't be as much fun if he were starting out as a young lawyer today. When Adler first started as a trial lawyer he had clients that took nearly every case to trial. Now businesses prefer to settle cases in mediation, in order to save money.

Mediation is becoming the new trial law. He once worked as an arbitrator, essentially serving as the judge in a less formal trial. It was not as much fun as giving the closing argument. He prefers to be the advocate.  

Adler acknowledges that it is nearly impossible for young lawyers to get trial experience. It's a growing problem in his profession. He thinks law schools should shift their focus to teaching mediation law in order to better prepare future lawyers.

In regards to the young people out there contemplating a law career he says, "I would tell them what my mother told me, 'Go be a dentist.'" But he doesn't completely discourage the law. One of his daughters is a lawyer. And last year he took his granddaughter, a senior in high school interested in the law, to court with him to observe a colleague.  

The profession itself isn't what it used to be either. It's more business-like now, less collegial. "People don't trust each other as much," he says. There was a time he used to have lunch with the opposing lawyer. That doesn't happen anymore. "Business leads the practice now," he says. But Adler's business has always been personal.

The Attorney Client Friendship 

Not many lawyers have a real attachment to the furniture in their office, but Adler has kept the same furniture for 30 years. A client made it for him specifically. Influenced by Adler's work with aviation law, he designed the furniture to resemble aviation wings. The wood of the desk, bookcase and end tables is curved, looking like waves. The client gave him this furniture as payment when he could not afford Adler's services and it has made the move with him every time he changed offices or started another law firm. His clients moved with him too.

Adler's relationship with his clients is unique. Other lawyers find it extraordinary that he kept some clients for over 30 years. Adler built genuine friendships out of attorney client relationships. While other lawyers keep company with their clients in order to keep their business, Adler truly enjoyed their company.

People may expect dinner at a steakhouse when they are with their lawyer, but Adler's clients were accustomed to parties and camping. Adler's firm sponsored traditional events that sealed life long friendships. For several years they hosted a campout at the annual Air Show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Attorneys and clients pitched tents on the lawn of an old farmhouse that bordered the show. Barbeque, touch football, campfires and kegs of Adlerbrau beer were a part of the tradition that lasted over 25 years. Former clients, now retired from their own businesses, are still in contact with Adler. In fact, his closest friends today are former clients.

When asked how he managed to keep his clients with him so long he laughs and says, "Well, I'm just a likeable guy." He credits his partners with helping him earn his clients' loyalty. According to Adler the clients want to know that someone else can take the reins. There was a second generation of lawyers who had Adler's confidence and gradually he passed the torch over to them.  

The South Side Office

 Anyone looking for Adler on a beautiful summer afternoon when the White Sox are in town can find him on the south side of Chicago at U.S. Cellular Field. At some point during the game he will take out his cell phone and place a call back to the office to one of his partners.

"Hello," he will say, "just checking in to see how things are going back at the office."

"Everything is fine here John," his partner will say. "And how are things at the South Side office?"

"Oh, the Sox are up 3-2, top of the 8th," he'll report.

His days of going to trial and being away from his wife for weeks at a time are behind him. Usually when he spends an afternoon at the Sox game his wife is in the seat next to him. They had season tickets behind home plate for many years, but recently gave them up as they started traveling more. The same thing happened with the season tickets to the Chicago Symphony.

He travels almost as frequently now as he did when he was still preparing for trial. Each year he and Joann spend the winter in Florida. And he admits that when he is away from the office, he misses being there. He likes the "mental gymnastics" this job requires and the camaraderie with the other lawyers. When he is in the office he finds himself talking to the young lawyers. He will occasionally poke his head in their office to ask about their work, similar to the way Bobby Kennedy once came around to talk to him.  

He calls from O'Hare airport, where he and "Lucky" are waiting to board their flight. They are on their way to Baltimore to attend the wedding of a former client's son. While they are there they will take in a dinner at "The Prime Rib," a favorite restaurant he discovered years ago when he was there on business. He answers a few more questions before boarding his flight. When the conversation on his life and career eventually comes to a close he says, "I didn't even have to make anything up."