Clients come first says ultra-successful personal injury attorney Keefe

Ann Knef May 15, 2008, 1:37pm

You won't find his name among the crowd of Yellow Page lawyers. The quality of his performance is such that he only accepts one in 40 cases that come by word of mouth or referral from other lawyers.

In a courtroom, medical malpractice and product liability defendants may fear him, but Belleville personal injury attorney Thomas Q. Keefe Jr. says he's only doing his job as an advocate for his clients.

"This is not personal," he said. "It's business."

You might say Keefe, who has been working as a lawyer since 1978, is his own big business.

He's won 150 verdicts or settlements valued at more than $1 million, and approximately 10-15 of those cases were valued in excess of $10 million, he said.

Hard work, fair play and joy of profession are reasons for his success, he says.

"The reason I enjoy practicing law is that it's the closest thing I can get to a ballgame," he said. "There are two teams on the field...and you go to bat.

"I'm trying to win for my clients. I am supposed to be an advocate for my clients.

"If I do my job and (my adversary) does his best and the judge does his job, then we will achieve justice."

Keefe established his own practice in 1992 after leaving his longtime pal and mentor Bruce Cook at Hildebrand, Cook, Shevlin & Keefe, because, he said, "I am too crazy."

"No one should have to work with me," he said.

Today, he works with his son, attorney Thomas Keefe, III and daughter Kelli, a legal assistant. He also employs five secretaries.

Richard Hudlin Award

Keefe was awarded the Chief Judge Richard Hudlin Memorial Award at a Law Day breakfast in Belleville May 1 for embodying the "best aspects of the legal community and its relationship to society at large."

By virtue of his success, Keefe and his wife of nearly 30 years, Rita, have been generous donors to charitable causes. He said they have given away "millions" not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because it feels good.

Some of those recipients include the Land of Lincoln Legal Aid Society, the Griffin Center in East St. Louis, St. Louis University School of Law, Women's Crisis Center in Belleville and Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis.

Keefe said he was grateful to receive an award named after someone he deeply admired.

Hudlin, the first black chief judge in St. Clair County, died in the late 1980s of a cerebral aneurysm. He had been appointed associate judge and later was elected circuit judge, going on to become chief judge at a relatively young age.

Keefe said he feels a duty to perpetuate the principles that Hudlin believed in -- equality, fairness and justice.

"When people die young it's important to keep their memory alive," Keefe said.

Keefe said he and Hudlin became fast friends when they first met after Hudlin's appointment as associate judge.

He recalled that Judge Hudlin asked him for a tutorial on product liability law.

"In one hour I taught him about product liability and then he knew it better than I did," Keefe said.

Had he not been stricken at such a young age, Keefe said, Hudlin would have had a "remarkable" future.

"Clearly, he would have gone on to the Illinois Supreme Court, or U.S. District Court or U.S. Court of Appeals," Keefe said. "He was extremely bright."

"He had the perfect mix of temperament, humility and legal scholarship," he said.

Keefe said he sees a lot of similarities between Hudlin and Sen. Barack Obama in their views on race.

"In so many respects it's what I find so appealing about Obama," Keefe said. "He transcends it (racism). He doesn't pay attention to it."

Keefe said Hudlin thought racism was "dumb."

"He couldn't understand racism," Keefe said. "To him it seemed so dumb that people would make judgments based on color. Some thought his position on race was naive. But he truly was color blind. He thought it was so illogical; it made no sense to him."

A true profession

As practitioner in one of the world's four "true" professions, Keefe says he has adhered to a basic tenet his father, Thomas Keefe, Sr., taught him: clients come first.

"My dad taught me there are four true professions," he said.

Besides law the list includes medicine, teaching and clergy.

"In each of these, whether it's the client, the patient, the student or the penitent, they come before you," Keefe said. "They come first."

"What has hurt our profession is that some lawyers have forgotten this," he said. "They've put themselves first and have destroyed the profession."

He said that if lawyers want to improve their image they should "act like lawyers" and not be worried about amassing fortune.

Regarded as one of the state's best workers' compensation defense lawyers, Thomas Keefe, Sr. practiced law nearly 50 years. He founded the firm Keefe and Depauli in Fairview Heights, where three Keefe brothers now work.

"My dad was an amazing man and an amazing lawyer," Keefe said.

The Profession

Keefe makes no apologies for pointing out which lawyers he believes have cast dark shadows on the profession: Thomas Lakin, indicted on charges of sexually abusing a minor and cocaine use, Stephen Tillery who files massive class actions and Randy Bono who made Madison County the busiest asbestos courthouse in the nation.

"This is a free country and I am entitled to my opinion," he said. "When I perceive abuse I am going to speak up."

Representing clients in a civil sexual assault lawsuit pending against Lakin, Keefe said he "didn't care" that he called out a fellow practitioner.

"I went after him because he needed to be gone after," Keefe said. "I understand that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

"I went after him because of how he treated children."

Indicted last year in federal court in East St. Louis, Lakin faces charges he sexually abused a 15-year-old boy and that he used cocaine.

On the class action front, Keefe is a critic of mass litigation, although he believes some cases have merit.

"Class actions as a form of litigation went to hell when the sharks got in the water," he said.

"It's utterly ridiculous when lawyers are getting two-, three-, four-times as much money as what is paid to claimants," he said. "It's wrong. It doesn't make sense."

As for asbestos litigation, "If there is no connection to the (court) the case doesn't belong here," he said.

Family Man

Keefe credits his wife and best friend, Rita, whom he met in between his first and second year of law school, for much of the family's success.

In the early days when "he hung a shingle" in what was probably a more modest setting than the spacious quarters he now occupies, he had no secretary.

"She (Rita) worked during the day and then at night she would do all of my typing and paperwork," he said. She has been with him every step of the way since then.

"We have been very fortunate," Keefe said.

Even though winning in court is gratifying, he said it doesn't match the satisfaction he has received from raising their four children, Tom, III, Kelli, Courtney and Matthew.

"I do love kids a lot," he said.

A devout Catholic, the four kids who arrived in four successive years, "are a gift."

"As much joy and gratification I get from winning a case, nothing ever has (given me) as much joy as raising my children."

"Those are the best days of your life," he said.

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