The jobs Tom Power held as a teen offered him more than just cash to buy gas.
They were early installments on potential career paths.
One, fueling planes at Chicago’s Midway Airport, reflected a longtime fascination with flying and a dream of becoming an airline pilot.
The other, a part-time gig in the file room at Chicago’s Criminal Courts building, gave Power the opportunity to watch criminal trials and honed his interest in becoming a trial lawyer – the profession he would choose after abandoning an aviation major at Southern Illinois University.
He’s now a personal injury partner at Power Rogers, the firm founded by his brother, renowned trial lawyer Joseph Power Jr.
Tom Power’s specialties include product liability, automobile and construction negligence and medical malpractice. In 1994, the siblings won the largest knee-injury verdict in Indiana history, $1.5M, for a Polish immigrant whose disabled truck was struck. The client had lived in the United States for less than six months.
Thirteen years later, in 2007, Tom Power won $13M on behalf of a boy whose physician failed to test him for tuberculosis after complaints of a fever and lethargy. The child developed meningitis and suffered brain damage.
In 2020, he secured a settlement in the amount of $13M for a widow and her four children after a dump truck collided with the car being driven by her husband, which was stopped in a lane of traffic due to a flat tire. The decedent died instantly. This was a record settlement in Lake County Illinois.
Power began his career in the Cook County Public Defender’s Office, where he worked for seven years and handled more than 300 bench and jury trials, eventually joining the elite murder task force unit.
“It's the only place I applied for a job at the end of my law school career because I wanted to be a trial lawyer, and I knew that the only place you could get to try a lot of cases was in the criminal area,” Power says.
The experience proved invaluable.
“In the public defender’s office, you don’t get to pick your cases. You get your assigned cases, they’re yours, and you have to try them,” he says. “It's very challenging. When you go into a courtroom, the judge is against you, the jury is against you, the clerks are against you, the victims, the police officers, the States Attorneys, and the sheriffs, everybody is against you, and it's just you and your client.”
Lawdragon: It's hard work that criminal defense lawyers do, and so often under-appreciated. My hat’s off to you, especially for being able to do it that long, because you have to keep caring and the odds are against you every single time.
Thomas Power: I enjoyed that aspect of it. Once you try a lot of cases that are tough like that, you're very confident when you go to trial with a good case. But every case I ever tried, I always thought I had a chance regardless. If you are not optimistic and confident, the jury will notice and it will affect your case.
LD: Tell me about your first trial as a public defender.
TP: It was a bench trial, and the client was charged with eluding the police. It was my first day on the job, but I was handling the case by myself. I ended up getting a “not guilty” verdict because at the time the statute required the cars to be marked squad cars and it wasn't a marked squad car, so I focused on that point. I started out well even though it was an insignificant case.
LD: Are there other cases from your time as a public defender that stand out in your memory?
TP: One that I'll never forget is a case that I lost, a murder case. I had a client who was 17 and, looking at the police report, the physical evidence and what the witnesses had to say, I thought it didn't look good for him. Typically, if you had a tough case to try like that, you might take a bench trial because if you lost, the judge might not impose as long a sentence as after a jury trial. I talked to my client, gave him the option. He chose a bench trial; the judge had indicated he'd give him 30 years if he chose a bench trial and at the time, defendants would serve about half of their sentence. Now, they have to serve almost all their time.
Then we went to trial and midway through the trial, when I was cross examining the witness, I was shocked because I thought for the first time, “This kid's not guilty.” I was convinced that he was not guilty, and I really felt bad for him. If we’d taken a jury, I have no doubt I would've won it. The witness didn't hold up on cross examination, but the judge found him guilty anyway. What happened next made it even worse. He ended up giving him 40 years, instead of 30.
LD: Oh, no.
TP: That really angered me, and I let the judge know it. I'll never forget that case.
LD: How did you end up moving into private practice?
TP: At the time, I had four children and I decided that I needed to try to make some money, so I came on with Joe. I was lucky enough to have a brother who is a prominent attorney and had a successful law practice and was willing to take me on.
LD: You have seven brothers and sisters, right? Are there others who are attorneys?
TP: In addition to Joe and myself, my sister, Margaret, and my brother Billy were practicing attorneys. So is one of my sons. My father was chief judge in the criminal court for a number of years.
LD: Tell me about the transition to private practice with your brother. What was it like?
TP: It was a change: Civil laws are different than criminal laws, and the case law is different, too, so there’s a lot to catch up on. As far as the trial work, though, it's largely the same: It’s based on evidence, rules of evidence, being persuasive, being able to cross-examine and put witnesses on.
What was great about the experience with the public defender's office is that I got so much cross examination experience with not only trials, but hearings, because they aren’t handled by attaching deposition testimony.
When you have a motion to quash or motion to suppress, you're putting live witnesses on. You get a great deal of cross-examination experience there, which I have found helpful in the civil area, too. I was very confident because of my experience, but again, it took a while to learn the civil rules and the case law. It's more complicated than it is in the criminal area. Your demeanor on trial needs to be different in a civil case. You have to have a softer demeanor in civil.
LD: Definitely. You've won some huge cases. What do you like about your practice as a plaintiffs’ lawyer, helping people who've been badly injured?
TP: What I like the most is the satisfaction that I provide for my clients. I've had clients who have really suffered, perhaps because of the physical limitations after an injury or the loss of a loved one who was the breadwinner. The main objective in those cases is to make sure that they're secure for the rest of their life financially.
I get a lot of satisfaction out of making sure that they're happy and when they tell me if I helped change their life. We often have clients who are minors, and we have to make sure that down the road, if you secure a substantial settlement or verdict for them, that nobody is in there trying to take their money from them.
LD: That’s such an important part of it. You want to win the settlement or the verdict, but it’s crucial to make sure it’s secure.
TP: Exactly. We've seen so many cases when people will just get the money, millions of dollars, and then it's gone within five years. People come in that are now their best friends and they give sob stories to them and they help them out. Or they go into a business that they have no business going into, where they don't know what they're doing. That's what I try to advise my clients, to protect their money for the future.
LD: I know over the years you've done at least a couple of cases with your brother. What’s that like?
TP: I've never learned more from anybody in my career than I have my brother. He's phenomenal; he thinks on a different level. As far as trying cases with him, it's just amazing to watch how he works it up and his strategy. There's no one better at picking a jury than he is. He reads people like nobody else can.
His strategic capability is amazing, too. In one case we were trying, we had both a negligence and a product liability theory, and the defense was defending the negligence more than the products part of the case. Then in the middle of the case Joe switched and concentrated more on the products part of it and the defense didn’t see it coming. By the end of the week, the defense was begging him to settle it.