When Harry Leinenweber arrived at Montgomery Ward’s corporate headquarters on West Chicago Avenue, the receptionist had a message for him: call your office. Leinenweber was in Chicago that day to take a deposition in a lawsuit he was defending for the large retailer. His life was about to change forever.
Leinenweber called his secretary who informed him that the President of the United States had called, and she gave him a phone number he was to call.
“I direct dialed the President of the United States. President Reagan said ‘Harry, I was about to sign a commission appointing you as a federal district judge for the Northern District of Illinois, but I thought I better get your permission first. Do I have it?’ And I stumbled out ‘yes you do.’”
“What did you do afterwards?” I asked my dad as we sat in his chambers on the 19th floor of the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago.
“I took the deposition,” though he confirmed it was certainly difficult to concentrate.
Harry D. Leinenweber began his legal career in Joliet, Illinois, as a member of a small firm and a part-time city attorney.
“Life,” he explained, “to a certain extent, is being in the right place at the right time.”
His early days as a lawyer were spent in a historic limestone courthouse that once served as a focal point of downtown Joliet. Joliet was once known as the “Stone City,” and its limestone bedrock has provided construction materials for buildings all over Chicagoland. If you have seen the Chicago Water Tower, then you have seen Joliet limestone and can get a sense of what the old courthouse looked like.
In the late 1960s, the powers-that-be in Joliet decided to tear down their courthouse and replace it with a modern concrete building—a decision that can only be described as unfortunate. As City Attorney, Leinenweber had a small role in the lawsuits that challenged the demolition, which ultimately made their way to the Illinois Supreme Court, and the Court upheld Joliet’s ability to demolish the courthouse.
“Speaking of old courthouses, we’re sitting on the site of a beautiful old one. It’s too bad they tore it down.”
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed the Dirksen Federal Building and it was completed in 1964. My father’s office faces southeast and has floor-to-ceiling windows that allow sweeping views of the South Loop as well as the Metropolitan Correctional Center where you can see the inmates play basketball on the rooftop gym. Today there are no inmates out. The roof is covered with wire to prevent escape by helicopter.
When asked about the challenges of being a government attorney, my dad noted that one of the hard parts of the job was telling city officials that they could not do what they wanted to do.
“A big part is providing cover for officials who want it in case the deal they’re working on goes south.”
For example, Leinenweber noted that Joliet officials once tried to surreptitiously pass a tax increase. When he told them they could not do it, they listened.
For those attorneys who have appeared before my dad it may come as no surprise that he identified preparedness, civility, and cooperativeness as key skills for government attorneys. Leinenweber explained that some of the biggest mistakes and arguments he sees occur during the discovery process. He is particularly attuned to government lawyers who proclaim that records are very difficult or impossible to obtain. Those who make such claims, he indicated, had better come with some evidence to support that contention.
“Modern discovery is a lot easier than it used to be. You can just strike a key on some programs.”
Here, I have a bone to pick with my dad and I let him know it. As a former assistant attorney general, I am well aware of the limited resources some government attorneys have at their disposal—especially when it comes to electronic discovery. Leinenweber is not unsympathetic, but notes again the importance of being forthcoming and being able to demonstrate why the request is so difficult to comply with.
The practice of law for government attorneys has changed over the years just as it has for all practitioners. When asked to describe some of the bigger changes he has observed over the years, Leinenweber explained:
“The world is more complicated. Laws are more complicated. And apparently there is more money to devote to litigation. A $50,000 case was huge when I started, now many lawyers wouldn’t even touch that.”
I ask my dad about some of his more memorable cases.
“In 27 years I’ve had a lot of cases.”
But the case that comes immediately to mind is one of his most recent: David Coleman Headley—the Chicago terrorist who was responsible for scouting locations in Mumbai, India and Copenhagen, Denmark for Lashkar-e-Taiba to strike. Between November 26 and 28, 2008, Lashkar terrorists killed more than 160 people, including four Americans and two Israeli-Americans. Headley helped make it all possible.
“What stands out to you about that case in particular,” I ask my dad.
“Headley’s effect. He was completely convinced that those people deserved to die because they were Hindus, and India had killed Pakistanis in Cashmere. The Danish newspaperman deserved to die because they had printed cartoons depicting the prophet.”
We discussed the difficulties of trying a terrorism case in a U.S. court. Leinenweber explained that the national security issues were very challenging to deal with, and he stressed that the case was very hard for the jury.
“We had extra security, bomb-sniffing dogs, metal detectors, and the jurors had to meet offsite and be brought in through an underground location.”
My dad seemed proud of his role in that case and particularly impressed by the work of the attorneys on both sides, as well as the considerable sacrifices made by the jurors.
I closed by asking him an obvious question: “What advice do you have for a young government attorney like me?” His answer comes as no surprise.
“Be prepared. Be on time. Be civil and cooperative. When it comes to discovery, be reasonable and try to keep the courts out of it and resolve the dispute on your own.”
As I leave his office and the beautiful views of Chicago, the inmates have come out to play a pickup game of basketball. I head back to my office with the advice fresh in my mind. Advice that is as true today as it ever was, or ever will be. I hope I can always live up to his example. ■