The Life and Career of Kathleen Zellner, Founding Partner, Law Offices of Kathleen T. Zellner
by Regan Morris
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One of the most successful trial lawyers of our time, Kathleen Zellner is known for winning multi-million dollar medical malpractice settlements for her clients and freeing innocent people from Illinois' death row. A made-for-tv attorney, Zellner once saved a man on death row by coaxing a woman on the stand to confess that she, and not Zellner's client, had committed the murder.
Zellner is fiercely competitive in law and sport - Masters Swimming, in particular, and a bit of pistol shooting, as well. In 1999, she tried six cases in less than a year ''and they were all multimillion dollar verdicts,'' she told LawCrossing.
Three of those cases involved medical malpractice, one was a rape trial, one a civil rights case and one a murder trial. The five civil jury verdicts totaled $15.8 million.
''I think I'm the only person in the United States who has done this,'' she said of the six trials. ''I really didn't have any choice, because I was made no offers on any of them and they were ready for trial.''
Did she ever sleep? How did she manage?
''I really like the trial process — the preparation. I have a system for getting ready for trial and it was great. I had so much fun,'' she said.
Her system involves mainly ''organizing, cross referencing and documenting things and having total control of the exhibits and the records and the medical records and the experts,'' which she concedes can be ''labor intensive and sometimes mundane.''
But thorough preparation is key to winning, she says, and Zellner hates to lose.
''I think that trial work is much more intensely competitive than most of the things that lawyers do. You see lawyers on the transactional side putting together deals, but there's not competition in it in the sense that they actually have an adversary. They're usually just trying to persuade somebody or put a deal together.''
She says trial work, on the other hand, is comparable to race car driving.
DNA has drastically changed Zellner's practice, making it easier to defend people on death row who have been wrongly accused. Her firm has gotten seven men released from death row and is in the process of helping two others she believes will be released.
Her success has been noticed. In 2000, she was selected as one of the top ten trial attorneys in the United States by the National Law Journal. And the same publication, in 2001, named her one of the top women trial lawyers in the United States. She has also been awarded for her pro bono work.
Zellner says the secret to her success was having the courage to start her own firm, to stay idealistic and to only take criminal cases when she believes her client is innocent. She worked for several big firms after graduating from Northern Illinois Law School and defended hospitals and insurance companies. That training gave her an understanding of her adversaries in medical malpractice cases, which make up about 90 percent of her practice.
Big firms, she feels, are good boot camps for attorneys, but soul destroying after too long.
''Defending corporations and helping Exxon or Shell Oil raise their stock price, most people find, over a lifetime, is not satisfying,'' she said. ''And that's the wonderful thing about the legal profession. There are many people who need help, there are many creative ways to help them and there are many causes that are extremely worthy of effort and you can find something like that and devote yourself to it.''
Zellner dismisses arguments that attorneys can't afford to leave the big paychecks at big firms.
''People always say you can make so much money in the big law firms, and I always say you can make much more money - and money isn't the goal - but you can do so much better by caring about what you're doing,'' she said. ''I make more than 99.9 percent of all lawyers. I feel like I've earned that and I feel like it's a byproduct of what I'm doing, it's not what I set out to do.''
She declined to say how much she makes.
''There's a certain point in your life when you have to say 'I'm off of this treadmill and I'm going to go out in the world and I'm going to be idealistic like when I was 18 and I'm going to fight these causes for these people who are victims,''' she said. ''And you know what? It all works out. It's just amazing how it works out when you're doing things like that….I'm telling you: you're [such a better] attorney when you're standing there telling the truth. You're so much better when you stand there talking about something you believe in.''
She says she often gets mad when she hears a potential client's story - and that's when she decides to take the case. In one record verdict, she was outraged to hear of a woman's suicide after being turned away from a hospital emergency room. The woman was mentally ill and depressed. She was briefly examined and discharged, which Zellner believes happened because she didn't have insurance. The woman hanged herself in her family's home and her brothers came to Zellner with the story.
''We won a $13.5 million verdict and changed the law - a lot of laws in the United States - about depressed people coming into an ER,'' Zellner said. ''When they came to my office, they'd been turned away by three other law firms.''
Zellner, who is 52 and started her firm in 1990, originally thought she'd become a history professor. Her husband, a commodities and bond trader, encouraged her to go to law school. When she graduated from Northern Illinois, she was unsure about where her career would go.
''When I finished law school, I didn't know I'd be a trial attorney,'' she said. ''I just took different opportunities as they developed. I ended up working for two firms that did a lot of litigation. At the point when I started working for them, women were sort of relegated to preparing the cases and maybe second chairing them, but they weren't really given the opportunity to try the case or be the lead counsel on the cases.''
She believes women often make better trial lawyers than men.
''I think women are better listeners and I think they're more perceptive about sizing up potential jurors. Men tend to get sort of caught up in their egos and talking about themselves... And the art of successful voir dire is listening.''