Bob Clifford, founder of Clifford Law Offices, has built an impressive career and reputation as a leading Chicago personal injury attorney with a deep passion for fighting for his clients as well as giving back to the community. We’re delighted to share this conversation with Clifford, where we learned about how he got his start practicing law, the role of mentorship, his commitment to personal injury law, running his own practice, and what inspires him to give back.
Meet lawyer and philanthropist Bob Clifford:
Make It Better: Thinking back to when you were first launching your career, was there a pivotal moment, or perhaps a particular mentor, that was instrumental in getting you to where you are today?
Bob Clifford: My career was launched by my mentor, Phil Corboy, who mentored so many in the profession. I was fortunate to have learned from him for a number of years before I decided to start my own practice nearly 30 years ago.
I started my legal career by carrying Phil Corboy’s lectern into court. He always had his own podium when he spoke to a jury. As a clerk, even trips walking to and from the Daley Center became invaluable lessons: listening to him strategizing about a case, reviewing jury selection, going over cross-examination or closing arguments.
Many people ask me how I “found” Phil. I was fortunate that he spoke to my torts class at DePaul Law School and I was so impressed by the man that I followed him back to his office. I went to his receptionist and said that I had one more question for him. She allowed me into his office and I asked, “How does one get a job working for you?” He told me then that I was hired, and I never have looked back.
Do you recall the “aha moment” when you felt you were ready to start your own practice?
I knew the minute I was sworn in as a lawyer that one day I would have my own practice. In fact, the day I learned that I passed the bar examination, my boss, Phil Corboy, arranged to have me sworn in individually so that I could immediately take the deposition of then Illinois Supreme Court Justice Kluczynski. It was a case where the judge and his wife were prevented from boarding their flights to Florida in 1976 because Delta Airlines had overbooked but made no amends. It wound up becoming a precedent-setting case with a jury finding that the airlines had acted negligently.
The verdict: $204,000. But we also changed airline policy so that they could never do that again to future air travelers without consequences. It was a proud moment at that point in my career. I knew that after I had absorbed all that, I could learn at the Corboy firm, open my own firm, and learn even more as I took on even greater responsibilities.
Now, I enjoy mentoring younger lawyers. All of the lawyers at my firm come to me on a regular basis to discuss the best strategy for their cases and how best to proceed in litigating the important matters at the firm.
What was it about personal injury law that you were particularly drawn to?
Personal injury work is what I was destined to do. Helping people, being “the David in a Goliath battle,” interests me. It is my passion. I always seemed to be drawn to helping the little guy who may be defenseless against the big guy. I enjoy pitting my knowledge and skills against however many defendants there are in the room and fight for my client till the end.
It’s very satisfying to have a client hug you at the end of a trial or a just settlement and say, “Thank you.” That makes the fight worthwhile. I consider myself very lucky to love what I do every day. It is a noble profession.
What is your best piece of advice to young attorneys who are just getting started?
I tell all young attorneys what I told my daughter, Erin, when she passed the bar exam six years ago: Be prepared. Communicate with your clients. Seek the truth. Get involved. Focus on what you can control — don’t worry about what you can’t. Never stop learning. Be proactive. Make your own opportunities. Give back. Share what you know. Stay honest. Have fun. Do the right thing. Always make time for your family.
You’re very involved in the American Bar Association. As chair of the ABA Fund for Justice and Education, are there any recent developments that you’re eager to share?
My two three-year terms as chair of the American Bar Association Fund for Justice and Education are coming to a close. During that time, I have been very proud of my accomplishments in furthering the mission of this group: supporting the delivery of legal services and increased access to justice and education programs to help serve our nation’s most vulnerable populations. From low-income individuals to those in the military or impacted by natural disasters, the ABA Fund for Justice and Education tries to ensure that those who need legal help are provided pro bono attorneys in order to preserve civil liberties, human rights, and equality under the law. These are very important values that must not be forgotten and our group works to remind those everywhere of these important values that must be preserved.
Has your work representing clients who have experienced profound loss inspired your involvement with any particular nonprofits or causes?
Working in the field of personal injury and wrongful death litigation makes one a very strong person. You come to realize that your clients rely on you for your expertise and help in the litigation process while they try to heal and keep their families together emotionally, spiritually, and physically. That is a large responsibility. After many successes, you begin to realize that you can do so much more. My wife, Joan, and I decided years ago that there are so many people in need who may not necessarily have been involved in a tragedy that involves negligence; it’s just circumstances that put them there. So both of us have become very active in various organizations and donate what we can to help those in need. The Lawyers’ Assistance Program (LAP) helps lawyers in need in the Chicago area. I also have sponsored five students at Cristo Rey High School — paying their tuition and giving them experience working at our firm doing various tasks so that they can be exposed to the legal profession. All of them have gone on to college and as time has passed, a couple of them have now worked at my office in various positions of responsibility for many years.
You and your wife, Joan, are passionate about supporting many local philanthropic organizations. What has been most rewarding about your work and support in this space?
Perhaps the most rewarding philanthropic effort has been our work with the Naples Children and Education Foundation that has helped more than 200,000 underprivileged and at-risk children throughout Southwest Florida with services and resources they need to excel in school and beyond. From hot lunches to eyeglasses, books to medical exams; it is so heartwarming to visit the various organizations and see these children up close who receive this much-needed, basic help. The destruction in 2018 from Hurricane Irma made this need particularly evident and our work even more critical in helping these children. One can see how you can actually make a difference in a child’s life and wonder what their lives would have been like without it.
As a past co-chair of the Naples Winter Wine Festival, which benefits the Naples Children & Education Foundation, tell us about what inspired you and Joan to first get involved with the foundation. Why is the festival a can’t-miss event?
The annual festival has raised over $191 million. It is so gratifying, as I said earlier, to see so many of my neighbors and friends in Florida and those who fly in from Chicago and elsewhere to be a part of this amazing event. All of the money raised under the tent goes to helping the underprivileged and at risk children throughout Collier County Florida.
Tell us about your passions and hobbies; what’s something you’re really into right now?
My passion, aside from the law, is wine. I think I developed an interest in it through the Naples Winter Wine Festival. I realized that there is a real art and science to good wine and I wanted to learn everything about it. I think it adds a bit more fun and interest in the festival as well as in entertaining friends and colleagues.