Hall of Fame Limelight: Ron Safer

Ron Safer is a kind-hearted warrior. When he talks about his work, you feel every ounce of compassion he feels for his clients, dedication he has to his craft and conviction he holds that his clients deserve the justice he battles tirelessly to win them. Now a white-collar crime and civil litigation attorney, Safer’s career has always been a mission to answer the question, “How can I help?”

He first asked himself that question while facing the horrifying rates of gun violence in Chicago in the 1980s. Picking up the paper every day, he thought, “What am I going to say when my children ask me, ‘When the youth of our community were being killed, what did you do about it?’ Safer wanted an answer to that question, so he “joined the battle.”

That refusal to accept comfort or status quo propelled him out of a “cushy” corporate law firm and into a role as a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago. There, among other projects, he led the prosecution of the top leaders of the Gangster Disciples, an organized crime operation that sold over $100M of drugs in Illinois alone, had 30,000 members in 28 states and was responsible for more than half the murders in Chicago. He spent a decade as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and eventually Chief of the Criminal Division. After he returned to private practice, Safer served as a managing partner of a Big Law firm before realizing that he and his close colleagues could revolutionize the legal profession. So, they struck out together and, in 2016, he and his other name partners built a world-class trial firm in Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila. They created an environment that offers the elite feel and expertise of a Big Law firm with a level of dedication to clients, diversity and public service only a fresher, more progressive firm could provide. 

When building the firm, the founders knew pro bono work would be at the core of its mission. To that end, Safer has spent more than a decade working to overturn wrongful convictions. Recently, he branched out into helping his wrongfully convicted clients get compensation for the decades they lost, and last year obtained a verdict of $25.2M, the largest verdict in the Northern District of Illinois for a single plaintiff in a wrongful conviction claim. Safer has exonerated multiple people serving life sentences, reuniting innocent people with their families and working, little by little, to repair a justice system that can act unjustly. 

But, when asked about his achievements, Safer is never one to brag. Humble to the core, he credits his successes to those he surrounds himself with – a star-studded team that has built a firm on shared values. Looking back, he seems to have answered that driving question, “How can I help?”: He is recognized as a champion of the vulnerable and an advocate for a more diverse and equitable legal profession. Nonetheless, Safer continues to search for where and how he can help the most, fighting his clients’ battles with unparalleled depth of feeling and a steadfast commitment to what’s right. 

Safer was inducted into the Lawdragon Hall of Fame in 2022. 

Lawdragon: Tell me about your time as a prosecutor. How did you decide to become a government lawyer?

Ron Safer: My career took a dramatic turn when I clerked for Judge Flannery in the District of Columbia. He told me something that I kept next to my computer for the 10 years I was a prosecutor: “A conscientious prosecutor can do more for an innocent defendant, or for a defendant who might be guilty but who should not be entered into the criminal justice system, than the best defense attorney in the world.” That’s very true.

For example, in the Gangster Disciples investigation, which was probably the largest project I undertook as a prosecutor, we gathered evidence against 200 people who were involved in the drug trade – but we only prosecuted the top 40 or so leaders of the gang. We didn’t prosecute the young people who I viewed more as victims of the gang. 

LD: Absolutely. Are there any other stories from your time as a prosecutor that stand out to you?

RS: There are a thousand stories. The job was wonderful because you could look at a problem and attack it. Like the gang problem in Chicago, for example. The gangs controlled, at that time, 95 percent of the retail drug traffic and were responsible for hundreds of murders. Political corruption is also a huge problem here in Illinois. Everything you're doing as a prosecutor is inherently important and that is tremendously fulfilling. You can really move the needle on justice.

What am I going to say when my children ask me, ‘When the youth of our community were being killed, what did you do about it?’

But while it is tremendously fulfilling, it is also joyless. Almost every case that you prosecute ends with a sentencing. Some of the people who I prosecuted did really bad things, and they got enormous sentences. I never left one of those sentencings feeling anything but empty. Somebody loved that person and that person loved somebody.

As much as I always felt that justice was served by them going away, it's tragic. In contrast, when you hug somebody who is coming out of jail for a crime they didn't commit after a couple of decades and usher them into the waiting arms of their family… that's joyful.

LD: Yes, tell me about your pro bono work overturning wrongful convictions.

RS: Like all of the good things that have happened in my career, that is the product of other people's work and direction, not my own initiative. I got involved in wrongful conviction work because the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern called me up and said, "We've got a complex case. We won a new trial for a woman who was convicted of murdering her son. She didn't do it. We've called around, and we found that we need you to defend the case."

I said, "Well, that's very nice, but I can't. I have just agreed to be managing partner of the firm and in the free time that I have, I should work on billable matters.”

They said, "Okay, but she has a bond hearing downstate in two days and we need somebody to attend. Could you do that with the understanding that somebody is going to come in for you?" So, I did. Of course, once I got a glimpse of the injustice…

LD: What was the case?

RS: This was a case involving a mass murderer. Tommy Lynn Sells had broken into a woman named Julie Rea's house and, for no reason, murdered her son, and then left, with only minor injuries to her. If you saw it on Lifetime, you would say, "That's ridiculous. That never happens."

The police never believed her. They never fingerprinted the house, never took fibers because her prints and fibers would be all over the house. At her first trial, the defense attorney was overwhelmed and experts gave some junk science testimony, and the jury convicted her of murdering her own son and shipped her off to jail.

Then a “20/20” episode asked, “Isn't it weird that a loving mother, a PhD candidate in educational psychology who had no sign of mental illness, would kill her son? On the other hand, who does what she claimed? Who breaks into a home, kills a kid for no reason and leaves an adult essentially unharmed?”

A woman who was writing a book on a Texas death row inmate, Tommy Lynn Sells, watched this “20/20,” and wrote to him: "I just heard a prosecutor say no one breaks into a house to kill a child for no reason, leaves an adult unharmed and forgets to bring a murder weapon. We know that's not true because you’ve committed six murders exactly like that.”

He wrote back. "Was it in Illinois? Two days before Stephanie Mahaney?" Joel, Julie’s son, was killed on Oct. 13, 1997. On Oct. 15, Sells raped and murdered a little girl, Mahaney. The writer said, "Yes. How did you know?" He said, "Because I did it."

Eventually, he gave an 86-page tape-recorded confession. Now, the guy's a drug-addled mass murderer. He got a lot wrong. So, the prosecutors refused to believe it, and he recanted his confession. 

When I asked the judge to let Julie Rea out on bond, I mentioned the confession and he turned to the prosecutor and said, "Yeah, what about this Tommy Lynn Sells thing?" They said – and these are almost verbatim their words, because they are burned into my memory – "Oh, Judge, don't worry about Tommy Lynn Sells. No jury is going to hear about that confession because Texas will not honor a subpoena for an out-of-state inmate. It's hearsay."

I turned to the judge. I said, "Judge, I don't hear the representative of the people of the state of Illinois 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 tape-recorded confession, which he knows is corroborated by independent evidence. But if you hear that, you should say, 'Not in my courtroom.'" 

Then I turned to the Northwestern people and said, "Okay, I'm in."

LD: Wow.

RS: That was the start. We tried the case, with many twists and turns. She was acquitted. I turned to Karen Daniel, who was a true hero and the head of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern, and said, "I will never do this again. Never. The pressure of representing an innocent defendant in a murder case is unbearable."

About six months later, she called up with another case. I said yes before she got the full question out. 

Everything you're doing as a prosecutor is inherently important and that is tremendously fulfilling. You can really move the needle on justice.

LD: That's an incredible story. Your firm’s commitment to pro bono work is paralleled in your focus on diversity and inclusion. Tell me why, from the founding of the firm, that was so important to you.

RS: Well, I was the managing partner at a large corporate law firm for 10 years. I had zero interest in firm management; whatever skills I had were in the courtroom.

But our firm was remarkably non-diverse. We had zero African American partners out of over 100. We had something like 12 percent women partners. I loved that firm, and I knew we could not succeed while having that profile. So, I agreed to become the managing partner.

My largest contribution to that firm was dragging Judge Patricia Brown Holmes off the bench and into the private sector. Over the next 10 years, she did the very hard work of building our diversity. I tried to be her champion and support her in every way, and we obtained remarkable results. We had seven percent minority partners by the time we left, and close to 25 percent female partners.

LD: That's great.

RS: Well, much to my partners' chagrin, when interviewed about that accomplishment, I said, "Yes, we have made it all the way from abysmal to a little less than mediocre." Who should celebrate seven percent minority participation? Who should celebrate 25 percent women? It's disgraceful.

We realized that a big law firm is a ship that takes monumental effort to change the course by a few degrees. We knew if we started fresh, we could accomplish tremendous things. We could insist that there be excellence at every level of the firm and provide real diverse teams for every engagement – because if you do not have a diverse team, you cannot provide excellence. 

We put mechanisms in place to ensure the right people get the right tasks, such as not tracking billing attorney credit, so you put the client first, not the rainmaker. We made it so the firm doesn’t run primarily to drive profits for the equity partners – the firm runs to serve its clients. That's a different mindset. And we serve our community through pro bono work. It's been very rewarding.

LD: How has the firm grown and changed from when you started? 

RS: It grew faster than I expected. 

We grew because of client demand. There is something about our model that's extremely attractive to the market. We deliver the excellence of AmLaw 30 law firms with the diversity that no AmLaw 200 firm approaches, and we're nice people. We get along with each other. We have palpable respect and affection for each other. It's a collaborative place, and clients like that because it serves their interest.

We've attracted talent at a pace that I would not have predicted. People want to join a firm like ours. Even though we don't run the firm to maximize profits per partner, the partners have said, "We make enough, more than enough.” The returns in client satisfaction are far more than money can buy.

LD: Tell me about your other name partners.

RS: Bob Riley was a moving force behind our firm. He is the most elegant and eloquent lawyer I have ever met. He personifies excellence and has a vision, foresight and commitment to clients that is unparalleled. He is strategic and dogged. Bob is the trial lawyer we all aspire to be.

Judge Holmes is a force of nature. She is the most tireless human being I've ever met. She is a talented trial lawyer, former federal prosecutor, corporate counsel and judge. She has the best judgment of any person I've ever met. She is a trusted advisor to Fortune 100 companies. At the same time, she’s spent enormous amounts of time mentoring and coaching people – reaching back and lifting up. Anybody who needs help, she will give it. She's tremendously generous.

Joe Cancila is perhaps the smartest lawyer I know. He is one of the finest class action lawyers in the country, tremendously hardworking and also one of the most generous people – always giving credit to others and deflecting it from himself, even though he is one of the most well-respected and outstanding lawyers I know.

We've attracted talent at a pace that I would not have predicted. People want to join a firm like ours.

LD: How would you describe yourself?

RS: “Lucky” is how I would describe myself.

LD: What about your style in court?

RS: I am not a genius. I do have, I think, an uncommon work ethic, and I work to understand complex concepts that are difficult for me. Because of that, I think I have an unusual ability to translate those concepts into terms that jurors and judges can understand. I think that's my greatest gift as a trial lawyer. I speak slowly. I stumble at times. But I don't think there's anybody I can't talk to. I greatly respect all people, and I am naturally curious. That has helped me communicate why justice would be served by those people voting for my client.

LD: A lot of lawyers in your firm are former federal prosecutors like yourself. How did that come about, and what strengths do you think that brings to the firm?

RS: It brings enormous strength. Everybody knows about the “disappearing trial.” Well, the U.S. Attorneys' Offices are the biggest litigation boutiques in any city. They go to trial. Until you see trials, you can't prepare for them.

We have more Assistant U.S. Attorneys in our small law firm than most AmLaw 200 firms have. Why is that? We share values. Somebody becomes an Assistant U.S. Attorney because they want to help their community. You make a fraction of what people make in the private sector, and yet, at least for me, I felt overpaid every day. I would've done that job for nothing, because you're helping your community.

I think that same idea appeals to people about our law firm – although we make a lot more money. We have a rare sense of common purpose, serving our clients and our community.

LD: Speaking of trials, which moments in the courtroom stand out most in your memory?

RS: Because I've surrounded myself with people who are smarter and better than me in every way, I have had remarkably good fortune in the courtroom. In the private sector, in jury trials, my record is unblemished. That has been tremendously rewarding, because in every one of those cases, I believed in my client – or else I would not have taken the case.

LD: That’s incredible. Can you discuss any recent wins you’ve had?

RS: Last year, we had three cases of enormous significance to me that went to trial back-to-back. We had a criminal case for a lawyer who was convicted of fraud that he did not commit. His entire livelihood and that of his family were on the line, and we prevailed at trial. 

Then I went immediately to a case for Zurich Insurance Company, which was facing a $2B claim. We convinced the judge on the eve of trial of a legal aspect of that case that ended up being dispositive. I believe with every fiber of my being that the client was absolutely right, and judgment was granted for Zurich. They paid nothing on the main claim.

Then we moved on to a civil rights case for a client that we got out of prison. I've done these wrongful conviction cases now for a number of years, but never a civil case. I always felt my time was better spent trying to get the next person out of jail than doing the civil cases.

But our client, who I regard as my family, had spent 22 years in jail for a crime he didn't commit. I tried to get him to go to another firm to handle the civil case, and he said no, that he trusted one person in the world. At that point, I could not say no.

The learning curve was steep. But, because we had an outstanding team, we were able to achieve a record-setting verdict for an individual who'd been wrongfully convicted: $25.2M. We sat there, tears flowing from every one of our team member's eyes, as the jury read “for the plaintiff” 24 times. It was one of the most joyful experiences I've ever had in my professional life.