Photo by Michelle Nolan.
Keeping things “simple” in court has worked like a charm for Joseph A. Power Jr. The Chicago trial lawyer and perennial Lawdragon 500 member has one of the best courtroom scorecards in the nation with more than 200 verdicts in excess of $1 million – winning his first at age 28 – and an unbeaten record in medical malpractice cases. The excellent reputation also extends to his firm, Power Rogers & Smith, which has earned billions for injured clients and their families.
The firm’s genesis dates to Power’s days at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, when his car happened to need servicing at the gas station. While there, he got to talking with one of the employees, Larry Rogers, who as it turned out was on leave from law school. Power encouraged him to head back to the books, advice he took on his way to having his name on the door next to Power. Those are the kinds of real people and Chicago heart that have come to define Power’s career.
Lawdragon: When did you first know you wanted to go to law school? Was it during undergrad at Notre Dame or did you know earlier?
Joseph Power: I generally thought of going to law school in my teenage years. It was in college at Notre Dame that I committed myself to obtaining that goal.
LD: As a student at Loyola, what did you think you would end up doing with your degree?
JP: While a student at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, I became a law clerk with a prominent personal injury lawyer by the name of John D. Hayes. It was working with Mr. Hayes while in law school when I first realized I wanted to represent individual tort victims.
As a result of working as a law clerk for John D. Hayes, I decided to pursue a plaintiffs’ practice rather than becoming a defense attorney. It seemed to be natural for me. Larry and I became friends while I was in law school. We later practiced law together and eventually became partners. Todd Smith later joined our practice after leaving another law firm as a partner.
LD: What is it about your work that has kept you motivated over the years?
JP: I am committed, most importantly to my clients and the people in our law firm. I find it very satisfying to obtain justice on behalf of my clients. That is the ultimate reward for hard work. I have tried many types of cases with success being my ultimate satisfaction.
LD: Do you remember your first multimillion-dollar verdict? Do you recall how you felt during jury deliberations or afterward?
JP: I remember every seven- or eight-figure dollar verdict, of course. The most memorable is when at age 28, I obtained my first million-dollar verdict. My wife, Sue, was pregnant with our first child, but helped me by writing on a poster board the figures for the decedent’s future wage losses. After closing argument and before the jury returned with the verdict, the plaintiff decedent’s teenage son David said, “Whatever the verdict, I am just proud that you are our lawyer.” I really appreciated his thanking me, especially as a young lawyer, before we knew the outcome. They only offered $75,000 and ended up paying every penny plus interest after we prevailed on appeal.
LD: With so many trials under your belt, do you still get nervous?
JP: It is not so much being nervous as tense. Typically, I first experience tension right before I learn who the judge is assigned to the case; second, when I view the entire venire; and third, between the point when the buzzer rings that the jury has a verdict, and the announcement of the verdict. Awaiting the jury’s verdict is always tense because of my deep concern for my client’s welfare. My concern for my client is what drives me through the trial.
LD: Obviously, with such success in court, you have been able to relate to jurors. Is there any particular way you characterize your style as a trial lawyer?
JP: I like to keep the case simple. Even the most complex medical malpractice case can be simplified to the point where it can be easily understood. This is mostly done through demonstrative evidence, as well as effective use of analogies and examples. Affecting the credibility of the defendant, as well as the defendant’s experts is also very important to your client’s success in the courtroom.
LD: You’ve had a number of high-profile cases, including those that have had an impact beyond the dollar amount earned for your client. Is there any case that stands out for you as especially memorable or meaningful, either for the result, the challenges of the case or unusual circumstances involved?
JP: Probably the Willis case where I represented six children of a minister who were burned to death. It was a very complex case involving strict liability regarding a defective fuel tank on their van, a poor weld on the taillight assembly on the trailer which fell off the truck and struck the plaintiffs’ fuel tank, and the intermodal system involving multiple defendants that in the end was determined to be a joint venture that included the illegal truck driver as its agent. We took over one hundred depositions. Ultimately, it concluded with a $100-million recovery for the family and 74 criminal convictions, including the former Governor, who went to jail.
It also resulted in over 2,000 truck drivers either giving up their Commercial Driver’s Licenses, or retaking the Commercial Driver’s Exam. The case involved the payment of bribes for licenses by candidates for CDLs and the driving schools that trained them. These bribes were cloaked as political contributions. In the Willis case in particular, the driver involved and the driving school paid a bribe as a political contribution to the people who tested him for the CDL, which led to their convictions and prison terms. That driver never showed for a retest, and ultimately gave up his commercial driver’s license. The former Governor and his administration were involved in obstructing justice, including suppressing records which we later obtained from fired investigators who became witnesses in the criminal trial. Our investigation ultimately helped lead to the criminal convictions.
LD: Are there big-picture ways in which your practice has changed since the early years?
JP: In the early years, cases were simple. Typically each party called one expert witness who covered the gamut of specialties in medical malpractice cases. In other tort cases, single experts testified on behalf of each side. Now, cases have been made much more complex, and it is not unusual to see six or more experts on either side of a case. Expert witnesses has become a cottage industry. In addition, we have become much more involved politically in helping candidates who support the 7th Amendment right to trial by jury in civil cases. Our practice has been politicized tremendously as compared to the past.
LD: Your firm has incredible results year after year. Why is that?
JP: Our firm has obtained these results year after year due to the hard work of the firm’s employees. Typically, the harder one works, the more productive they are. People who work hard and are productive are compensated accordingly. We also provide excellent benefits. People rarely leave except to retire.
LD: Please talk about your community involvement or extra-practice activities. Are there certain subject areas, issues or organizations you have tended to focus your time on?
JP: There is not a lot of time after the law and politics. I have been on various school and charitable boards and have contributed my share to various charitable organizations as well as the schools from which I have graduated. A lot of my time has been involved in assisting public servants who are supportive of the rights of victims of tortious conduct.
LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now?
JP: If I weren’t a lawyer, I would most likely be a history professor or some sort of fundraiser.