Lawyer Limelight: Kevin Durkin

Kevin Durkin has done it all. While the acclaimed trial lawyer was in school at DePaul College of Law, he worked a wide array of part-time jobs, including working at UPS, on the line at a paint factory, as a bartender, delivering pizzas, delivering for a catering company, as a clerk at a law firm, volunteering at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office and doing research for a professor at DePaul. That variety of work in his early years is paralleled by the wide range of plaintiffs’ cases he currently tries; just a handful of the practice areas he has expertise in include aviation litigation, premises liability, automobile litigation and medical negligence cases. But no matter what area he’s navigating, Durkin does so with a sense of grace, purpose and tenacity that has earned him renown in his 35-year career.

A partner at Chicago-based firm Clifford Law Offices, Durkin has spent decades fighting for victims of negligence – and winning. He has garnered more than one hundred verdicts or settlements in excess of a million dollars in his career, setting statewide records for results in his practice areas. In one career-defining personal injury case, Durkin successfully tried a case on behalf of a mother and her two children who were involved in a catastrophic truck-car collision. The result – a staggering $38.3M – was published as the largest motor vehicle crash verdict in the country that year. Durkin is also widely recognized for his work in aviation accident litigation, where he has often served as lead counsel for the most famous aviation cases in the last 40 years.

Durkin’s accomplishments are the result of a dedication to justice that has been with him from an early age. He has always wanted to be involved in the justice system, working to create a fair and safe society – a goal he has realized with decades of service and success.

Lawdragon: How would you summarize your career as a trial lawyer?

Kevin Durkin: Over my career I have handled a variety of cases including aviation cases involving small aircraft, aviation accidents with large commercial aircraft, helicopter accidents, product liability cases, premises liability cases, truck accident cases, train accident cases, farm accident cases, fire cases, explosion cases, grain bin safety cases and medical negligence cases among many others. I enjoy the fact that I handle a wide variety of cases as each case is a learning experience on a different topic. The bottom line though in all of them is that I am trying to maximize the monetary damages for the people that were harmed to make them as whole as possible. 

LD: That’s an impressive range of cases. How did you first become interested in developing this type of practice?

KD: My career started as an Assistant State’s Attorney to Cook County. I thoroughly enjoyed prosecuting criminal cases. I handled many violent crime cases, including more than 40 murder trials. I always felt I was helping people when I did that. So, it was a natural progression to move to trial work where I am assisting people who have been wronged and attempting to recover monetary damages for them.

LD: What are some aspects about your work that you find fulfilling? What keeps you excited about it?

KD: I am a “people” person. I love working with my clients and helping them. That’s what excites me when I get up for work every day. I have been practicing law for 41 years and have met so many interesting people. 

LD: In those years, what would you say is the most interesting case you’ve tried?

KD: I have handled so many interesting aviation cases, including a current case involving the Boeing Max aircraft, which resulted in so many deaths because of Boeing’s misconduct.

One of the most interesting cases I have handled was the high-rise loop fire at the Cook County Administration Building in downtown Chicago. There were so many things that went wrong that resulted in death and injury. And, being a former Assistant State’s Attorney to Cook County, I knew many of the people that were in the building and were affected.

The problems in the case were widespread. There were issues with building safety as it relates to fire safety and evacuation procedures. There were issues regarding emergency communications and how the calls of people trapped in the stairwell of the building did not get to the front-line firefighters. There were also issues regarding firefighting procedure. All these circumstances led to multiple deaths and injuries that day. 

It happened on a Friday afternoon around 5:00 p.m. We were all in our main conference room in our office watching it unfold live. It was very rewarding to help those people and their families.

LD: It must have been rewarding for you to be able to do something about those unjust deaths and injuries, especially when the case was so personal for you.

Tell me how you first got involved in your current practice – what made you make the move from your role as Assistant State’s Attorney?

KD: I left the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office in 1988 and went to work for Bob Clifford. He encouraged me to get involved in professional activities, which I did. For instance, at one point I was the Chair of the American Bar Association Aviation Section. I also became involved with the Chicago Bar Association and worked my way up to becoming the president of that organization in 2005. There were over 20,000 members of the organization then. During that year, we achieved quite a bit, including the expanding of continuing legal education provided by the association. 

LD: Tell us a bit about your path to the legal field. Did any experience from your undergraduate work push you towards a career in the law?

KD: My undergraduate degree was in accounting and I did become a certified public accountant.

However, during that time, I always wanted to be a Chicago police officer. I had a strong interest in getting into the criminal justice system in some way. My dad convinced me that I could get involved in the criminal justice system by going to law school. While I was in law school, I volunteered at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and was allowed to try misdemeanor cases with supervision. That resulted in me being hired as an Assistant State’s Attorney to Cook County. 

LD: Did you have any jobs between undergrad and law school?

KD: I went right from my undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois directly to DePaul Law School. However, during the time I was in law school, I worked many, many part-time jobs.

LD: How do you feel those jobs informed your career?

KD: Doing all those jobs while I was also going to law school taught me many life lessons – the most important of which were how to deal with people and the value of hard work. 

LD: Is there a specific reason why you chose to go to DePaul?

KD: I did get into several local law schools, but DePaul College of Law was my first choice. First of all, since I was living at home with my parents and seven brothers, I needed somewhere where I could commute on public transportation. I took what was then known as the Congress Line to school.
I always have felt DePaul was Chicago’s law school. Many of the famous lawyers and judges in Chicago went to DePaul. My older brother was there at the time, as well. It was a great choice for me. 

LD: Did you have any mentors early on in your career?

KD: Of course, I had plenty of mentors in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. However, when I left there and started working for Bob Clifford, I think he shaped the course of my professional life. Bob Clifford is a fierce competitor on behalf of his clients, which I believe I am, as well. Bob Clifford also treats everybody with respect and handles everything in a professional manner. I strive to do the same. 

LD: Can you tell us about a lawyer you have come up against in a negotiation or case who you admire, and why?

KD: I am currently working with Dan Webb. He is unbelievably bright and an incredible advocate for his clients, but does so in a professional and courteous way. He is a credit to our profession.

LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?

KD: I have a huge Chicago family so, of course, I spend time with them. I coached my children’s basketball and softball teams for many years, and I actually started a traveling softball team. I have been a season ticket holder for the White Sox for over 20 years. Right now, I enjoy going to see my young nephews and nieces play high school and college sports.

I also started doing stand-up comedy recently, as well as taking classes in First Aid, CPR and AED. I recently became Red Cross certified. I also read four newspapers a day to keep up on current events.

LD: Are you involved in any pro bono or public interest activities?

KD: I have been. The most recent significant endeavor in that area involved a church in Orland Park, where I lived. I read a story about how the church had a temporary homeless shelter that was open one night a week to assist homeless people in the southwest suburbs. They helped families who had nowhere to go on an emergency basis. It was part of an overall licensed program with strict regulations.

The Village of Orland Park came in and found the most stupid code violations anyone could imagine and closed them down. They then went to court to get a permanent injunction against this group. Quite frankly, it ticked me off. I called the pastor and asked him if he had a lawyer. He said he could not afford one as it was a very small church. I told him he now had one. I worked with him and fought the case in court and was successful. The homeless shelter went back into operation and remains so.

LD: That’s important work. If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now?

KD: I would be a police officer or a sports announcer.