Law Firm So Real: Riley Safer's First Five Years

Drawing of Ronald Safer, Patricia Brown Holmes, Robert Riley and Joseph Cancila provided by the firm.

“And then a knee on the neck.”

Oppression. Inequality. Violence.

In many years, those words could be symbolic.

George Floyd.

May 25, 2020.

All too real.

Judge Patricia Brown Holmes watched in horror. As managing partner of Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila, the former prosecutor and judge knew her firm needed to talk about the killing of George Floyd. A Chicago native, she served as a special prosecutor in the killing of Laquan McDonald by the Chicago Police Department and knew all too well the desperate need for a new day.

“I live on the other side of the fence,” says Holmes, the only African American female founding partner of a major U.S. law firm.

And that fence, FYI, is not where roughly 99 percent of elite law firm partners reside. A proud daughter of Chicago’s South Side, she rose to the top of Chicago law practice through tenacity, grit, intensely hard work and personality – not to mention some serious legal chops.

She had led the firm through the early months of the pandemic, aided by a team of legal professionals, many of whom joined the partners in founding Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila nearly five years ago. Executive assistants, paralegals, file clerks, facilities managers – all would gather regularly in all-firm meetings and share reports on how things were progressing in their corner of the world. The flat, equally apportioned boxes of Zoom remarkably symbolic of the firm’s democratic underpinnings.

While the Zoom boxes didn’t change, the plea that issued from them that day could not be denied. “I wanted the firm as a firm to understand that this was weighing heavy on the Black people in the firm and that these are your partners, your associates, your admins, your average everyday folks who are helping you do your work,” Holmes says. “You might look at [the killing of George Floyd] and say, ‘Oh wow, that’s a shame, that’s too bad.’ But they’re looking at it and saying, ‘Damn, that could be me.’”

An office assistant told how hurtful it was to him when he enters the elevator and is greeted by a tighter grip on a handbag.

Holmes told the story of her son, a “beanpole,” being stopped out front of their house because his license plate sticker is expired. He’s harassed in contrast to the son of another partner who was stopped for the same offense and given assistance in applying the sticker.

“Understanding that this stuff happens. And so the Black men in the firm started telling their stories. Every one of them – every one of them from the top lawyer to the bottom, has had a gun pulled on them for nothing, has been stopped and harassed,” she says. “One guy tells a story of how he goes to the store, he buys a loaf of bread and he doesn’t take a bag. The guy doesn’t need a bag for a loaf of bread. He walks out, gets arrested.

“Having people hear those stories and understand that this is an almost universal view of a race of people – that my skin color is a weapon, I walk in a room and there is a view of me and I haven’t even said anything. But I don’t walk into a room and see white people and go, ‘Oh my God.’ I walk into a room, ‘Hey, it’s people.’ But when people see me, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, oh no.’”

The conversation was a crossroads for a firm that has defined itself from the start by rethinking what it is to be a collection of legal professionals moored by first-class private representation, civic responsibility and the possibility of redefining what it means to be truly excellent.

Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila does not look, talk, act or walk like any other major law firm in America. Beyond Holmes’ groundbreaking leadership role, the firm is known not just for its well-recognized talent, but also for its wrongful conviction exoneration practice. Led by founding partner Ron Safer, the firm has helped nine wrongly convicted people find justice and freedom.

The firm’s lawyers work hard at their craft, not because of minimum billable hour requirements – it has none. And client origination is neither tracked nor a key metric. (Did we mention the firm also has a leading animal law practice based in San Francisco that protects chimpanzees and many other of our nature-based friends? A premier antitrust practice based in Ann Arbor, Mich.?)

If it sounds like Nirvana, it may be. But make no mistake: This is a firm founded and focused on providing exquisite service to top-tier corporate as well as wrongful conviction clients. They bill hours, they make money. It’s just that a fabric other than dollars and billable hours binds the firm.

“We show the power of the blank slate,” says Robert Riley, a leading trial lawyer who was chairman of Schiff Hardin, from which 22 partners decamped in 2016 to form Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila.

They’ve done it right from the outset. Interviews with 38 lawyers and legal professionals from the firm profoundly illustrate – from Zoom boxes coast to coast – the mutual respect and dignity across generations, job function, gender, ethnicity and everything in between. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s a dialogue that’s often talked about, but rarely delivered.

“There’s something you need to understand about the firm to begin to understand who we are,” says Riley. “We didn’t start the way most law firms start, which is a couple of contemporaries start a firm, and then try to fill in the spots. We started with a multi-generational group of 20 people – with the 30-somethings, the 40-somethings, and the 50-somethings. I didn’t really fully understand the power of that when we began.”

As Holmes remembers, they were sitting around at a vineyard – which never hurts. And talking about what if. Which became why not?

Here’s the thing about most law firm origin stories. As Riley notes, they almost necessarily involve a cohort of similarly minded partners (often generationally and gender bonded) “rebelling” against something – pay structure, leadership, the old guard not getting out of the way.

That’s not the way Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila rolls. “We asked what would it look like to create a law firm where people were happy every day,” says Matt Crowl, a former prosecutor and top trial lawyer.

Lawyers are trained deconstructionists, says Riley, who’s made his living using precisely that skill as a defense lawyer. For every assertion, a lawyer can tell you five problems with it. The Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila founders flipped the script, he explains, asking: “Okay. Where’s the promise? Where’s the opportunity? What can you do, and what can you accomplish that maybe you hadn’t anticipated you could accomplish before?”

Amplifying the creativity was the real-world Holmes: “I think law firms in general were struggling with the fact that, when you think about it, law firms started with all white men. And there were no women. So how you became a partner stems from the birth of the white male law firm and it just kind of grew. And here you are, it’s no longer white male, at least not if you want the best and brightest.”

“The reason to start this firm was the opportunity to write on a blank sheet of paper,” says Safer, who learned the difficulty of changing a one-hundred year old firm as managing partner of Schiff Hardin and appreciated the advantage of starting anew. “These law firms are like battleships. It takes an enormous amount of effort to change them a few degrees.”

He became managing partner of Schiff in 2004, in large part because there was no diversity. “We had zero African American partners at the time and something like 12 percent women,” he says. “And I said unless we can change this profile, you are depriving yourself of such rich talent pools that you will not be able to survive in the marketplace. I sincerely believe that. In addition, I just didn’t want to be in a law firm that was monolithic. It’s not a way of life.”

Sitting at the vineyard and throughout the weeks that followed, Holmes saw two lines destined to cross. A perfect storm. Millennial lawyers and Gen X lawyers were coming up and thinking differently and stuck within traditional law firm structures. “They want different things, and many of them are in the client base,” she says including maternity and paternity leave, how people are ascending and who’s in the succession plan.

Blank slates are nice. Second mortgages are harder. After the retreat, partners went home and talked to families about the opportunity and what it would take. They committed – many mentioning they’d follow Holmes anywhere – rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Lead partners assembled tables and the early makings of a law firm, preparing name badges for a possibly premature opening celebration.

The firm’s success has been remarkable, no matter your metric. Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila’s attorney corps is more than 60 percent inclusive. It has 80 attorneys in five offices throughout the country, with a trial corps boasting more than 200 trials, a transactional practice, some of the nation’s top litigators in white collar, and the entire range of defense work, from insurance and business disputes, as well as intellectual property. Its appellate practice also boasts a remarkable track record having won decisions in multiple federal appellate districts in the last five years. And then there are those chimpanzees.

Partner Joe Cancila spent his entire career at Schiff before co-founding the firm, developing a national reputation as a top class action defense litigator. He’s enjoyed watching how his practice as well as the product liability defense practice led by Riley and the white collar team guided by Safer and Holmes, have proven more synergistic with fewer walls, as he calls them.

“When you get along with a lot of your colleagues, it just really encourages collaborative work. It’s really amazingly striking how much you can work collaboratively when you’re rowing in the same direction and your objectives are the general interest of the client and the general interest of advancing the client’s interest and the firm’s interest and not your own interest and not desires to earn the maximum amount you can individually,” says Cancila.

The firm’s wrongful conviction and exoneration practice draws most of the headlines, and exemplifies the heart of this group of professionals. Many of the firm’s litigators are former prosecutors, which obviously means the firm offers unique skill sets in the white collar and internal investigations fields. Having worked extensively with law enforcement throughout Chicago, however, it strengthens their voice in challenging improper police practices.

If Holmes is the heart of the firm, Safer may be its soul. A remarkably low-key powerful attorney, he works hard to deflect attention from himself and heap praise on others. And to hear him tell it, he basically fell into the exoneration practice. A longtime prosecutor, he left the U.S. Attorney’s Office as Chief of the Criminal Division, worked his way up at Schiff and had been elected managing partner. That’s when the head of the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions called in need of a lawyer for a special case.

“I can’t,” he replied. He needed to focus on revenue-generating strategy for the firm. “But let me just tell you a bit about the case,” the caller said. Safer said no, again, and the caller said, “Okay, got it. You can’t do it, but there is a bond hearing in two days in downstate Illinois, Lawrenceville. Can you do that?” Of course they’d bring in a new lawyer just after that.

The case was that of a mother whose son was murdered sleeping in his bed at 4:30 a.m. He was stabbed 17 or 18 times. His mother awoke and tried to stop the assailant as he ran from the house. Because a knife from the home had been used, Julie was convicted of killing her son. Thanks to a 20/20 episode, a serial killer on Death Row in Texas had confessed to the crime, providing matching details that exonerated Julie. She won her appeal on technicalities, and Safer headed south to Lawrenceville for her bond hearing. (It’s about a three-hour drive East of St. Louis, with time for a 15-minute stop to see the white squirrels of Olney.)

Julie had been released on $250K bond for trial, and Safer argued she should be released. The state’s attorney responded that the judge should not worry about the confessed killer on death row “because Texas will not honor a subpoena for an out of state death row inmate.” While a true statement, it was also a particularly reprehensible one, made worse by the second sentence from the prosecutor: “Second, we immunized him for the death penalty when we talked to him, so it’s not a statement against penal interest. So nobody will ever hear about the [Tommy Lynn] Sells confession.”

Safer turned to the judge, and said, “Your honor, I don’t hear the representative of the people of the state of Illinois to be telling you that he intends to try this woman for her life while concealing from the jury the fact that he took an 86-page confession from a serial murderer about this crime that he knows is corroborated by independent evidence. I don’t hear the representative of the people of the state of Illinois to be saying that. But if you hear him to be saying that, you ought to say ‘Not in my courtroom you don’t.’”

The judge granted Julie a $1M bond. Safer turned to the Northwestern team and said, “OK, I’m in.”

And he’s never looked back. Julie was acquitted. And Safer swore he’d never do it again. “The pressure of representing an innocent defendant in a murder case is unbearable.”

Northwestern called with a new case six months later. “Once you realize you can do it, you really don’t have much of a choice. You have to do it,” Safer says. 

Like most lawyers, there’s a narrative for why Safer and the other members of Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila do what they do. His is rooted in the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. when he was 10-years old and the modest reaction of his parents – who he felt were the greatest people who ever lived. They lived in New York City and it didn’t affect them much. “But I said, ‘Yeah, but what about the rest of the country which was treating Black people as sub-human? During this horrendous injustice to Black people, what were you doing?’”

When he came to Chicago, he was sickened reading every day about a kid getting caught in the crossfire of a gang. So he became a prosecutor, and with Crowl prosecuted the Gangster Disciples.

“So you do what you can to try to right those wrongs. As much as I love and admire my parents, when my kids ask me ‘What did you do when these gangs were killing these kids, our future, in largely Black and Hispanic communities, what did you do to stop that?’ I did want to have a better answer. It didn’t directly affect my community, but I had a broader definition of what my community was. I viewed those kids as my kids who were gunned down.”

He brings that full circle with the inequality he sees in most law firms. “I view the people who are not playing on a level field in most law firms, those are my brothers and sisters,” says Safer. “I feel it is a privilege to be able to build something where the playing ground is more level. Are we perfect? Not by a long shot. We have to get better at lots of things, including leveling the playing field, but it’s a privilege to be able to try that.”

Riley couldn’t help but think of the firm’s journey on a recent law firm management panel prompted by the pandemic. “Everybody was talking about the pandemic, and they all seemed to gravitate over the idea that, ‘You know? We think we’re in a change moment.’”

They were trying to figure out how to get their firms to accept this was a real change moment, and what they were going to change and not change, how to weigh what people thought with what metrics indicated.

And Riley sat, and listened, and remembered his change moment. “We started a new law firm five years ago. We’ve been in the change moment for a long time.” For Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila, the question is not whether they can become diverse or improve their numbers. They are diverse and have overcome the “pertinacious problem of law firms” that you can’t create diverse law firms from existing organizations. They’re onto the next and more important problem. “What does it mean to be a firm whose professional excellence is built on authentic diversity, equity and inclusion? How do we live up to that? Can we listen and learn from our diverse stakeholders at every level of the firm? How can we build this into our alignment with the goals of those we serve? That process will never end for us.”

The goal is to prove to themselves and their clients there are no limits when you embrace what’s possible. “We have to worry about whether we’re true to our principles, and whether our clients understand who we are, what we’re trying to accomplish, and how that demonstrates the professional excellence they seek concerning their most demanding legal problems,” says Riley. “That’s the measuring stick. It’s always the measuring stick for us.

“I’ve learned over time that what people are afraid of is very powerful, and it can govern the way people behave if they let it, but what people aspire to is just as powerful if you can stay focused on it, if you believe in your ability to achieve it, and if you’re committed to getting over whatever bumps are in your way to get that done. It’s just a happier way to spend your energy,” he says.

For Holmes, the biggest struggle is that the firm doesn’t have room for everyone who wants to come through the doors. “I am most proud of the fact that we are extremely diverse. We have excellent lawyers and great marquee clients, even international clients. We’re not regional. We’re not local. We are a true national firm. I’m very proud of that.”