The life and career of Phil Corboy Personal Injury Attorney

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In a career that has spanned more than 50 years, Phil Corboy has made a name for himself as (arguably) the most legendary personal injury attorney in Chicago history. Many aspects of Corboy's career make him stand out as a model to other attorneys, not the least of which is his overwhelming success. Corboy and his law firm have tried more than 300 cases to verdicts in excess of $1,000,000, including countless verdicts in excess of $5,000,000 and $10,000,000 for a single client. He has personally been involved with some of the more significant cases in the past 25 years, including several high profile airline crashes, the Tylenol case and has presided over some of the largest personal injury cases in Illinois history. What makes Corboy's career remarkable, however, are two less noticeable aspects of what has brought him to prominence.

First, Corboy has always remembered where he came from and has embraced his not-so-perfect history throughout his rise to fame and fortune. In short, Corboy exemplified resilience and making perceived negatives into positives. Corboy has also come up against limits and does not have a perfect history. The fact that Corboy knows who he is not only provides him a sense of psychological security, but it also gives him a broader base of appeal to people. This is important because, in this author's opinion, it has greatly assisted his rise to prominence because he is able to identify with the people he is assisting in his work.

Second, Corboy has a very defined sense of what it takes to be good at what he does. In simplistic terms, Corboy can focus intensely. This ability is simple but endearing. Corboy knows the power of concentration and doing one thing well. He has shown this consistently through his ability to concentrate to an extreme and eliminate external stimuli during trials and trial preparation.

Ten years ago, when I was doing a paper on personal injury attorneys in a law school torts class, I called Corboy and he took my call. The fact that an attorney of his stature would agree to take my phone call and then meet with me for over two hours in his Chicago offices is a testament to the strength of his character. Corboy is a teacher who believes that, through the practice of law, he has helped make the world a better place. My interview with Corboy had an impact on my own career. I have used Corboy's model of intense focus and being connected with your past adversity to my benefit. I believe these two lessons that Corboy taught me are lessons most attorneys could benefit from. While an article about Corboy could easily be expanded into a book, these few simple values Corboy teaches are more meaningful for what they teach than most textbooks I ever picked up.

Corboy's Rise To Prominence Via an Unlikely Path

Corboy spent his early years growing up in a flat in Rogers Park in Chicago. His father was a policeman and when Corboy was 13 years old, he lost his house. Corboy was raised Irish Catholic and attended Catholic St. George's high school. In numerous interviews, Corboy has credited the values that this education instilled in him, such as his attention to details, as a reason for his success. Corboy continued his education at another Catholic institution, St. Ambrose College, in Davenport, Iowa. His education was put on hold, however, to serve a two-year stint in the army.

When Corboy left the army, he enrolled at the University of Notre Dame. Corboy was interested in playing basketball for the team and the Notre Dame coach did express some interest in him. Although Corboy had played basketball at St. George, when he saw the size of some of the players that he would be competing with at the collegiate level, he decided that his relatively small frame would not match up well. In lieu of joining the basketball team, Corboy wrote a sports column for the newspaper at Notre Dame.

At this early stage in Corboy's life, one can see a pattern of sorts emerging in what would ultimately motivate him. The police officer's son, Corboy suffered from at least somewhat of an economically troubled existence in his young life. Having spent some time with Corboy, he does not strike me as the sort of person who would ever readily admit to a troubled childhood, though. Through his army service, one can only presume that Corboy learned some of the values of discipline and being part of a team. While one can never delve too deeply into the psyche of someone without actually knowing him for a significant period of time, there does seem to be at least a modicum of possibility of an early Napoleonic complex developing within Corboy. One can imagine someone who truly wants to play basketball being forced to write about this experience from the sidelines. Like many high achievers, Corboy probably took a lesson from this that he never wanted to be on the sidelines of life. Certainly, in choosing a career as an attorney, Corboy could be more valued for the quality of his intellect than his height.

Following Notre Dame, Corboy enrolled at Loyola Law School in Chicago — another Catholic institution. It is interesting to step back and examine why Corboy chose Loyola. Then, as now, Notre Dame was considered a better law school than Loyola. Because Notre Dame is such a well-respected Catholic school, one can only presume Corboy made an unsuccessful attempt to go there. In one of his earlier cases where Corboy was representing Randy Block, a paralyzed accident victim who had scored in the 99th percentile on his LSATs, Corboy stated to the opposing counsel in the courtroom that one thing the two agreed on was that Block's LSATs were higher than Corboy and the opposing counsel's put together. Whether or not he was simply joking is a matter of debate. Nevertheless, one can presume that, at this point in his life, Corboy was coming up against some limits in what the outside world and the establishment was telling him he was capable of doing.

In many past interviews, Corboy has indicated that he worked quite hard in law school. In fact, he finished in two years, graduating first in his class. Despite working hard and achieving a lot of success in school, Corboy did not spend all of his time studying. He has alluded to the fact that he enjoyed the occasional beer in law school and the fact that he was president of the law fraternity at Loyola speaks highly of his social stature. This position also had privileges, as it was during his time in the law fraternity that he met one of the fraternity's alumni, James A. Dooley, considered Chicago's top personal injury attorney at the time.

Instead of going to work for a prestigious Chicago law firm after graduation, Corboy went immediately to the Chicago Corporation Counsel's Office. Here, Corboy was exposed to trial work and a lot of memo writing. This phase of his career convinced him he would rather try cases than write about them. After two years in this position, Corboy spent the next two years working for Dooley. Corboy has said in the past that he did not choose personal injury work; it chose him when Dooley hired him. Here, Corboy got a high amount of trial experience. With this experience in hand, Corboy made the decision to go out on his own and form a solo practice.

Corboy's time with Dooley was obviously important professionally, but it was also an eventful time for him personally. During those two years, Corboy got married and had two children. Today, Corboy has five children. One is a filmmaker in Los Angeles, another is a judge in Chicago, another a neurologist and another is a partner in Corboy's firm, Corboy & DeMetrio.

It is interesting to examine this early point in Corboy's career, because it is marked by a certain amount of instability. Having spent two years working for the government, Corboy did not necessarily appear to be grooming himself for high-level success. Moreover, working for a personal injury attorney after graduating first in his law school class does not seem like an ideal career decision, either. In today's terms, Corboy would have had a next to impossible time ever moving to a large law firm after this experience.

Corboy has stated in past interviews that one reason he left his position with Dooley was that Dooley was quite controlling and Corboy wanted autonomy. This early characteristic — the need for autonomy — is also something that separates Corboy from many attorneys out there. In order to start his own law firm, Corboy borrowed $2,500 from a court reporter and initially had to share his office with two other attorneys. Accordingly, Corboy was not being fed his legal career on a silver spoon. I have little doubt that this early period in Corboy's career was not easy-especially with a new wife and young children.

Today, Corboy's firm occupies one of the more impressive attorney offices I have ever seen. Complete with French antiques and important pieces by well-known artists, Corboy's office is extremely striking, to say the least. Corboy's personal office is majestic, with a regal desk, impressive views and its own bathroom.

The Keys To Corboy's Success

While Corboy's trial accolades are legendary, what is most unexplored about the man is precisely what makes him tick. Corboy is very involved with public speaking engagements, is a major donor to his alma matter and catholic organizations and is of course a very admired figure among Chicago trial attorneys. In fact, Corboy has trained some of the most successful personal injury attorneys practicing in Chicago today. However, there is an anti-establishment theme to Corboy's life that helps solidify who he is. The message seems to be: "You may not think much of me because of who I am or what I do, but you should." It is an "in your face" sort of message. It is something that I believe has motivated a lot of Corboy's passion for what he does.

A passage from a 1998 book, The Litigators, that profiled Corboy is quite illuminating:
    "I'm antiestablishment, but I'm accepted by the establishment," Corboy said in a voice that still carried the lingering traces of the brogue of his far North Side Irish neighborhood. … "I want to be loved. I want to be stroked. I want to be accepted," said the policeman's son who even now acknowledged he was still battling his own family's "outcast mentality." "I tweak the nose of the very establishment that embraces me when they need me! It's fun. I'm immune-there's nothing they can do to me! What can they do to me? My refuge is the jury. That's where I'm safe! Whatever battle I have to fight, no matter who my foe is, is right in that courthouse." Corboy nodded toward the Cook County Courthouse that loomed like a dull brown hulk diagonally across from his own office. "And that's where I can hold my own." P. 298.

When I met Corboy several years ago, one of the first things he said to me was how Lee Iacocca may not admire him and may even think he is an awful man for all the lawsuits he files, but if Lee Iacocca ever comes to Chicago and gets seriously injured he will call Corboy. I have read different versions of this statement before and it speaks volumes to whom Corboy is. It is as if this policeman's son is saying that the rich and powerful may not like him, but they need him.

Visitors to Corboy's office have traditionally been given great reams of literature about Corboy and his victories by his assistants. These are generally copies of news stories chronicling his achievements, both inside and outside of the courtroom. I, too, was given the same information about Corboy when I visited his office. In some respects, it is flattering to receive all of these news stories because it shows you that Corboy cares enough to tell you about himself and demonstrate to you all he has done. In other respects, it is as if Corboy may feel the need to make sure his visitor knows what a great attorney-and man-Corboy in fact is. While Corboy could tell you this, letting others do this for him-in writing, even-is definitive proof.

Another interesting aspect of Corboy's career has been how he studies jurors. While I am not sure if he still does it, for years Corboy relied on a cab driver with 30+ years of experience driving cabs to help him pick juries. The driver would tell Corboy the likely ethnicity and economic strata of the individual based on their name and address. Corboy apparently brings the cab driver in on every case and pays him $100 a day. Here, Corboy is bringing in someone who is presumably uneducated and yet literally "knows the street." This aspect of Corboy's practice serves to me as a vivid example that Corboy maintains a connection with the people in his work and the "common man." To me, trying a case gives Corboy the chance to reach back and reminisce and draw from his experiences growing up in an economically challenged environment. Another interview he gave in a 1988 book, The Trial Lawyers, also offers some insight into Corboy:
    "You have to be street smart, and you have to understand people and human nature and you have to have gone through a lot yourself. You have to have been the beneficiary of some type of hardship, whatever that may be. That doesn't mean you have to be poor. It means you have to have gone through some things in your life that give you the ability to understand the needs of other people, the ability to empathize with them-and to persuade other people of that. You've got to know what it is to suffer." P. 237.

While there is a lot that could be garnered from further study of Corboy, the above passage describes in no uncertain terms a lot of what makes Corboy tick. Many attorneys, of course, rise out of prep schools, elite colleges and top law schools only to join high paying law firms and adopt a "snob attitude" towards others in the legal profession. Corboy does not fit that bill. If anything, Corboy shows a form of resilience against hardship, turning what many might term disadvantages and negatives into positives. Attorneys can draw on this inspiration because not everyone has lived a perfect life. This ability to connect with his past is probably the most notable aspect of Corboy. This ability also makes Corboy human.

While Corboy has stated several reasons why he is so good at what he does, such as his belief that being a trial attorney is akin to being a marketer, and that you should never go anywhere or do anything unless you do it first class, his ability to focus ranks among the highest. As an attorney, Corboy does not do any hourly work whatsoever. In fact, Corboy shuns hourly work and only does contingency fee work representing the injured. When Corboy takes a case, he wants to make sure he likes the client and can really care about them and their predicament. However, probably one of the largest reasons Corboy wants to care so much about his client is because he must-and does-need to get extremely immersed in the client's case. Liking the client makes it possible for Corboy to get inside the client's shoes.

When interviewing Corboy, I remember his reaction when his secretary put a pleading on his desk during our interview. Corboy picked up the pleading and glanced at it for a second. Corboy then noted to me that he believed it was "unbelievable" that the attorney on the other side of the case had misspelled his client's own name. "How can someone care about their client if they do not even take the time to spell their client's name right?" Corboy asked me. He was visibly disgusted by this mistake. Corboy focuses on small details and takes them very seriously.

A lot has been written about how Corboy prepares for cases. In all this writing, one thread is always the same. Corboy has called his method of preparation by various names; however, one of the names I like best is his reference to "filling up the bathtub." Before any case goes to trial, Corboy will often seclude himself in his home and read everything possible about the case and study each and every detail. Corboy will get so immensed in the case, he may walk around the house in a bathrobe in the middle of the day summoning assistants and others to get him this or that file. This level of focus is something that in this author's opinion allows Corboy to get to a level where he is figuratively in the plaintiff's shoes and understands every nuance possible in his case.

When preparing for a trial, Corboy does not even like to read a newspaper because he feels this is a distraction. Corboy's methodology is to just dig and keep digging. He wants to know more about this case than anyone in the world. His reference to filling up the bathtub means than when he takes a case, Corboy will fill his mind with every single detail to the point of shutting out external stimuli. It is only when the case is over that Corboy figuratively "empties the bathtub" so he can move onto another case.

One imagines that when Corboy gets into this level of focus, he is not all that pleasant of a person to be around. Perhaps, even, this trait is something that contributed to his divorce in 1985, when Corboy's trial practice was rocketing to national prominence and Corboy was emerging as one of the greatest litigators of our time. If Corboy is distracted by a newspaper, one can only imagine how distracting the day-to-day business of being a husband must have been. Corboy takes his focus extremely seriously and believes ha has failed if he is not thoroughly exhausted at the end of a trial. Corboy maintains that the secret to his success is simple and can be summed up in one word: "preparation." Corboy does not make assumptions and questions everything when he is preparing for a case.

Corboy has been quite successful from the societal impact he has made in the practice of law. Corboy has also made hundreds of millions of dollars as an attorney. While the fact that an attorney may make a lot of money is not necessarily something that should entitle them to the status of greatness, Corboy's efforts have helped define the limits of the responsibility of various service providers such as transportation companies, drug companies, doctors and others to the public. By pushing the limits of the duties owed others under tort law, Corboy has provided the precedent for meaningful changes in how service providers serve the public.

In 1998, a street in Chicago was named after Corboy outside the downtown courthouse. This was only the second time in history a street was named after a practicing attorney in Chicago. While a street may have made Corboy immortal in some respects, the inspiration he has provided to a generation of attorneys is one of the more notable aspects of Corboy's existence. Corboy's ability to draw on adversity and focus make him the LawCrossing Star of the Week.

Loyola Law School


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