Hall of Fame Lawyer Limelight: Robert A. Clifford

When renowned personal injury attorney Robert A. Clifford was in law school, he was immediately drawn to tort law. The son of a carpenter, he worked several jobs as an undergraduate; one, stacking wood for $2 an hour at a local lumberyard in Mudville, a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Another, working at a rope factory, where he remembers a sign that read: “He who weaves the ropes made herein weaves his conscience into every rope twine because so many lives depend thereon.” That motto weaved its way into his heart, and into his practice of law – where victims of major aviation crashes, medical negligence, auto accidents and more depend on his staunch commitment to justice.

Founder of internationally acclaimed plaintiffs’ firm Clifford Law Offices, he has led the nation in personal injury matters – including representing victims in nearly every major commercial U.S. airlines crash in the last several decades. Currently, his firm represents nearly 70 of the 157 people who were on board a Boeing 737-MAX plane that crashed in Ethiopia several years ago. He has been involved in litigating cases stemming from major historic events, including the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. After nearly a decade pursuing property damage claims for businesses located in the Twin Towers, Clifford and his team obtained a $1.2B settlement for those whose claims were not covered under insurance.

Clifford was inducted into the Lawdragon Hall of Fame this year, celebrating his career-long devotion to amplifying victims’ voices and relentlessly seeking justice for their harms. “I feel very fortunate to have found my calling,” he says. “Throughout my legal career, I hope that I have helped many people in ways that others could not.”

Lawdragon: What first drew you to a practice in personal injury and wrongful death cases? 

Robert A. Clifford: Since I began practicing law more than 40 years ago, I have focused my practice on plaintiffs’ personal injury and wrongful death law. I have always had a great interest in tort law and have taken it on as my life’s work to help those in their greatest time of need.

My mentor, Phil Corboy, spoke to my Tort Law class at DePaul University College of Law. I found it so fascinating that I followed him back to his office and called his secretary from (then) a pay phone and said I had one more question. She said to come to his downtown office, just blocks away. I immediately went over, and she led me into his offices where I asked him, “How does someone get a job with you?”

He was so impressed with my boldness, determination and credentials that he hired me as a clerk and ultimately as a lawyer at the firm. After several years, I opened my own firm continuing the fine traditions he started in this complex area of law.

LD: What continues to keep you excited about your practice today?

RC: I wake up every day as excited to do my work as I did the very first day I started. I consider it a privilege to represent those who are in need of holding those responsible for their wrongful conduct accountable and many simply don’t know where to turn.

I also find it professionally satisfying because every day I am working on different matters – tort law is an exciting practice area that requires one to always be on their toes. One day I could be working on a case involving a railroad derailment, the next day a horrific plane crash. The next day, I am helping a family who lost a major wage earner in a catastrophic, preventable scaffolding collapse and the next day I am working for a family whose baby became brain damaged at the hands of negligent health care workers. It is never boring and always satisfying to build my level of knowledge and expertise in a variety of fields. It is an area of law in which you are always learning, but you continue to develop a level of expertise that is built over the years and that clients come to rely upon.

LD: Out of all those varied cases, which stand out to you as particularly memorable?

RC: There have been so many cases that have fascinated me it is difficult to identify just one. I take every client’s case to heart; they become part of the Clifford family. But as I think back over 40-plus years of my legal career, the trials are perhaps the ones that stand out as the most challenging.

One was the month-long trial of an internationally acclaimed violinist who was severely injured when her violin case and other bags were trapped by the manually operated doors. The conductor did not take a required second look to ensure that no passengers were on the platform, and the train took off, dragging her for some 300 feet. Through a miracle she survived and has gone on to play concerts around the world, but the trial became the most highly publicized civil trial in Cook County court history. Everyone in the Chicago area was talking about it for weeks. Securing a $29.6M verdict that later became a $35M settlement was very satisfying for this client in need. 

I consider it a privilege to represent those who are in need of holding those responsible for their wrongful conduct accountable and many simply don’t know where to turn.

Then there was the trial in federal court involving a plane that crashed on Halloween night in Roselawn, Indiana. Just as I was about to begin my opening statements, the defense decided to begin settlement talks in earnest. With the jury in the box, we negotiated for a week while the jury was told there were other issues at hand – not being allowed to tell them the case may settle. When we reached the $110M settlement, the clients also demanded that the most responsible party offer a public apology in open court to the families who were there anxiously awaiting justice. It was a very moving moment for everyone in that courtroom.

Another stand-out trial was in 1999, when I represented a woman who was hit head-on by a truck as the driver bent down to pick up a pear he had dropped while driving. She suffered life-changing injuries that forced her to be in a wheelchair the rest of her shortened life. It was quite moving when, at the end of the trial – after the jury returned a verdict for $14M – the woman hugged the truck driver and told him she forgave him for his negligent actions. She passed away a few years later knowing that her life had been permanently altered through no fault of her own, but she was able to forgive the wrongdoer after the jury had spoken.

There are so many more cases and so many more stories that have stayed with me over the years. I have developed familial relationships with these clients because you speak to them every day, you fight for them every hour because it is all they have. I have always said that personal injury law is one for the strong; you cannot be faint of heart.

LD: What cases are keeping you busy at the moment?

RC: For nearly three years, a great deal of my time has been taken in achieving justice for the victims of a Boeing 737 MAX jet that crashed in Ethiopia. I was appointed Lead Counsel in the pending litigation in federal district court in the Northern District of Illinois. People from 35 different countries came to us for help, knowing that we would figure out what went wrong – a real David versus Goliath situation where, ultimately, it was found that Boeing had been hiding the dangers of the plane, yet continued to fly the aircraft across the world until the two fatal crashes that grounded the planes for years.

That matter is still pending in federal court and there is much work to be done as our legal team travels from Europe to Kenya, Israel to Ethiopia in the pursuit of justice, but I find great satisfaction in figuring out the complexities of the matter while helping each individual family get what they deserve for highly wrongful conduct in an avoidable crash.

LD: What kind of trends are you seeing in your practice currently?

RC: As the head of a busy practice of complex cases, I find that I must be able to jump from one matter to another in an instant. In one moment you are mediating a complex medical malpractice case and the next you are mentoring a young lawyer as to the next steps of a case. The real trend is anticipating what’s next so that you can make the best use of your time in the most efficient and effective manner.

People from 35 different countries came to us for help, knowing that we would figure out what went wrong – a real David versus Goliath situation.

LD: What challenges are you coming up against day-to-day?

RC: Key challenges today are getting back on an in-person trial schedule following Covid-19, which shut the courts down for months. I was on a program with the Presiding Judge of the Cook County Law Division, James P. Flannery, Jr., discussing how things will be getting back on track for large tort cases with which we deal. We are ensuring that clients understand that we are doing all we can to continue to move their cases along when the courts were closed is an important matter and how we are returning to “normalcy.” 

The greatest challenge always will remain to get the defendant(s) to admit their wrongful conduct. Certainly no one expects personal injury and wrongful death law to be simple, but when defendants actually go out of their way to hide wrongful actions and prolong litigation, it is not good for the clients or for the civil justice system. Justice may be delayed, but it will not be denied when lawyers continue to pursue the truth and work hard to uncover what really happened in each case.

LD: Looking back, did any experience from your undergraduate work push you towards a career in the law?

RC: I was the first in my family to graduate from college and the first to graduate law school. I met my wife while a senior at DePaul University earning a degree in Business Administration. I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer, just getting there seemed like an impossible feat. She encouraged me to attend law school full time even though we just got married and wanted to start a family. Without her support, I would not have been able to attend law school full time for three years and take the rigorous bar exam. I was sworn in the day I learned I passed the bar because my mentor and boss, Phil Corboy, wanted me to take the deposition of a sitting Illinois Supreme Court justice who was suing an airline for flight issues. It was a baptism by fire, for sure.

LD: Why did you choose DePaul for law school as well as your undergraduate degree?

RC: DePaul Law School was the most conveniently located at the time to where we lived, but ultimately, I learned it was one of the finest law schools in Chicago. I have done much to give back to a school that gave me so much. Nearly 30 years ago, I endowed a fellowship to the school to start the Clifford Symposium on Tort Law and Social Policy. Every year more than two dozen academics and judges gather to debate and discuss a topic of interest to consumers in the area of tort law.  Each panelist is asked to contribute an article that appears in a special edition of the DePaul Law Review, which has now become the most quoted publication in this area every year on the topic.

More recently, I initiated the Clifford Scholar-in-Residence program whereby a committee of leading civil justice faculty examine the work of professors nationwide who have contributed to the field of tort law and name a national “rising star” in civil justice. That academic then participates in classes at the law school within her area of expertise, culminating in a presentation to the entire DePaul community that features a response from a senior commentator.  I feel it is always necessary to advance the discussion of tort law so that there is a greater understanding on all sides and especially in the public arena of what tort law does and what it means to them.

LD: Does your practice now look like what you envisioned it would while you were in school?

RC: When I entered law school, I was unfamiliar with all of the various areas of law, but the first time I sat in my tort law class, I knew this was the area of law that I would practice my entire life.

LD: Did you have any professors who really inspired you?

RC: Professor Bruce Ottley was my Torts Law professor who obviously had a great impact on me. He taught the various nuances of the law and also how to think like a lawyer.  His words of advice and approach to the law have stuck with me my entire career.

LD: What advice do you have now for current law school students?

RC: Law students today must be committed. Today’s generation of students in general seem unable to commit; their choices on the internet seem dizzying. One must really love the law and commit to the rule of law to complete law school and live a lifetime career embracing its truths and principles.  One can do a lot with a law degree, but wherever it leads, one must always uphold the principles of being a lawyer.

LD: Thinking back to your early career, how has your practice changed over the years?

RC: Technology has been a real game-changer in the legal profession. Even the rules of professional conduct require one to be well-versed in technology in order to best serve one’s client, and with technology changing so quickly, it is a challenge in and of itself to keep up with reading, attending classes, and exchanging information with experts in this field in order to know that you are offering the very best and most sophisticated methods to your clients.

LD: Having practiced exclusively on the plaintiffs’ side, have you worked with any defense attorneys you admire?

RC: I have come up against some of the best and brightest defense attorneys across the country. C. Barry Montgomery had a firm in his name at the time we litigated the month-long trial of Rachel Barton, the internationally acclaimed violinist who was severely injured in a train incident I mentioned.

We put on mock trials prior to the real trial and found that introducing the case with days with testimony of unrelated people who suffered the train doors closing on them, yet were not as severely injured as the violinist, fell on deaf ears at Metra. These stories had an impact on jurors who began to understand our case even before we put on any evidence directly related to our client.

When it came time to closing arguments in the violinist’s case, I thought that the courtroom would never fit all who would want to view how we would summarize our cases. I presented to the court that we should move closing arguments to the much larger ceremonial courtroom so that more people could view them. Even still, there was a long line of people waiting to get in all day that wound around the courtroom hallway. Deep down I knew that jurors would also think that this case was of utmost importance and their decision was critical to a young woman whose life was forever changed and whose body was forever maimed. It didn’t take long for the jury to return a verdict of $29.6M, attributing just 4 percent fault to her, while defense claimed it was 100 percent her fault in exiting the train. 

One can do a lot with a law degree, but wherever it leads, one must always uphold the principles of being a lawyer.

LD: How would you describe your path to the kinds of cases you work on now, like the case with the violinist?

RC: I feel that I have made some decisions that required foresight as to where the area of tort law was heading in order to handle the types of cases that I do. I am fortunate that I can select the cases that I feel where our lawyers can do the most good. Complex cases that involve the best experts require a lot of time and a great investment of money to be successful. Not every lawyer can handle that. 

Over the years, I have learned that one can make the greatest impact on, not only achieving success in dollars, but in asking each client what it is that they seek from the civil justice system and helping them achieve that as well. Those kinds of results include the creation of the Red Watch Band program for a mom who lost her underaged son when he was overserved alcohol at a party at a large university, or changing the 911 response system in Chicago to better identify where a person is when a young woman died in a blaze when firefighters were unable to locate her despite her cries with her exact location. It feels like making a difference is also what tort law is all about.

LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer?

RC: My style as a lawyer is to relate to people. I have always been good at speaking and relating to others. I think that if you come across as a lawyer who cares about your client, jurors see that. Clients see that. Being a lawyer takes education and commitment, but being a good lawyer takes being a good person. I feel that part of that means to give back to the community whenever you can.

LD: Looking at the firm overall, what do you feel are its principles – what makes it stand out?

RC: We feel that our work speaks for itself. The lawyers at Clifford Law Offices are dedicated to their clients and to achieving the best results possible. When we represent dozens of people injured in a Montana train derailment, 70 people killed in a plane crash in Ethiopia, hundreds of people scammed thousands of dollars with defective windows, we want to be able to say that we are the place to go to help you. We feel confident in knowing that when a person turns to Clifford Law Offices, we work as a team with hundreds of years of combined experience to put their best case forward. We are a team of people who understand that those who turn to us are likely at the worst point in their lives. They need help. We always tell our clients to try to get themselves better while we will worry about the legal part of your tragedy. You try to get on with your lives as best you can, and we will handle the justice system.

LD: Tell me a bit about your role in firm management.

RC: Time is always the greatest challenge for the head of a law firm. There just never seems to be enough of it. I enjoy mentoring the young lawyers, yet at the same time, I enjoy continuing to practice law every day.

I also enjoy giving back to the community and developing professionalism in the community. One of my favorite projects is a CLE ethics program that we offer every year. Despite all of the organizations and CLE “deals” one can get, we still garner nearly 5,000 registrants in our 16th year, considered to be the largest CLE program in the country. I am very proud to offer that free to lawyers across four states to promote civility in the profession through a panel of “experts” in a particular area of ethics. The topic in 2023, “A Refresher on Ethics of Trial Work in a Courtroom,” is necessary as everyone gets back to in-person work as opposed to litigating on Zoom.

We always tell our clients to try to get themselves better while we will worry about the legal part of your tragedy. You try to get on with your lives as best you can, and we will handle the justice system.

LD: How has firm management changed since the start of your career?

RC: The practice of law has become much more complex since the advent of technology some two decades ago. Life moves at a much faster pace, and clients feel that they need an answer now because that is what their cell phones and the internet have taught them – instant advice. Law cases are not won by the swift. One must take time to think matters through, to find all wrongful parties, to research every possible angle of liability, scouring the world for the best experts, and to put the case together for trial that is a winning case. So, it isn’t the fastest to the courthouse who wins; it is the one who takes the time to do the work. Getting clients to understand that in the 21st century is a continual challenge.

At the same time, technology has facilitated making it easier for juries to understand a case.  We use the most sophisticated level of technology available to create re-enactments of a plane crash, of a medical procedure gone wrong, of how a product became defective. It is through the visual in motion that juries are able to better picture what actually happened, instead of one-dimensional drawings on a board.

LD: How are you seeing those developments manifest at the firm?

RC: During the Covid pandemic, we took the bold strategy to move to new offices that would have state-of-the-art technology at every desk. It has a CLE center. It has large conference rooms to accommodate streaming live press conferences and more space for mediations and depositions to be going on simultaneously. At a time when most firms were cutting back on office space and allowing those to work remotely, we did that when it was necessary, but when it became safe to return to work, we wanted to offer a wonderful and welcoming space for those who work here and those who come here for our help.

In the coming months and years, we plan to continue to be the very best at utilizing all of the technology that is available, even groundbreaking when possible, to make Clifford Law Offices stand out when representing their clients in every way possible.

LD: Are you involved in public interest activities outside of the firm?

RC: I am. Helping the disabled has been top on my list. When the Chicago public television station, WTTW, came to me some 15 years ago, it was the only major tv station in Chicago not offering closed captioning for the hearing impaired. I immediately offered to buy the necessary equipment, fund the necessary training and offer all locally produced programming to be closed captioned. There isn’t a week that goes by that someone hasn’t thanked me for this gift, but I viewed it as the right thing to do because there are so many wonderful educational offerings that I felt the hearing impaired should have the opportunity to view.

Another public interest close to my heart is children. Joan, my wife of 50 years, and I have served on the Board, and one year as Chairs, of the Naples Children and Education Foundation. Every year we hold a gala that raises millions of dollars for the underprivileged children of Southwest Florida – from eyeglasses to hot lunches, from schoolbooks to psychological counseling. During Covid-19 and the recent devastation of Hurricane Ian, the needs of children have become even more critical. It makes one think that you are doing something of real value in helping people – young people – who are unable to help themselves.

The Chicago Police Memorial Foundation also is a charity that I support. Chicago police officers are issued one bullet-proof vest upon their initiation to the force. After that, they are responsible for buying this expensive piece of life-saving equipment that quickly wears out. I am part of the group that raises funds to replace these vests in an effort to save the lives of those who put their lives on the line for us every day.

There are many more activities in which I am involved, including my involvement and that of my law firm colleagues in various bar associations.

LD: What do you do for fun outside the office?

RC: My favorite activity is to spend time with my family and friends. I enjoy traveling when time permits, and I enjoy entertaining – putting together a wonderful dinner with wines from my wine collection. I take pleasure in seeing the enjoyment of others.

It makes one think that you are doing something of real value in helping people – young people – who are unable to help themselves.

LD: Do you have a favorite book or movie about the justice system?

RC: Of course, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a book filled with lessons about the legal system and about life. My favorite movie is tangentially related to the legal profession – “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  Every year at the holidays, my family and I sit down and watch it again because just when everything seems so bleak to George Bailey, his guardian angel saves him by explaining how the town would have been so different without all of George’s good deeds over the years.  Somehow, I’ve always identified with George Bailey in feeling that I am helping people through good deeds every day. At, least I try.

LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now?

RC: I can’t imagine doing anything other than what I am doing now, and I intend to be doing it for many more years to come.