July 2015 • Volume 103 • Number 7 • Page 22
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An Immigrant’s Tale
Incoming ISBA President Umberto Davi rose from humble beginnings as a 14-year-old arrival from Sicily to success in law and life in America.
Initiatives on law school debt, solo and small-firm CLE, and programs to provide legal forms to attorneys and civics education to non-attorneys will top the agenda of incoming ISBA President Umberto Davi, a solo matrimonial and real estate practitioner in Western Springs who took the helm on June 19.
Davi also would like to explore the possibility of extending to the private sector the 711 license that currently allows third-year law students to practice in court but only under the supervision of public sector legal offices like state's attorneys and public defenders. It's a move he figures might help to address the debt issue in addition to providing practical experience for young lawyers.
"It's a very ambitious plate, but what makes it manageable is the fact that two of the initiatives [law school debt and CLE] are already ongoing," Davi says. "I'm conscious and aware of the fact that you can only accomplish so much."
Among those looking forward to Davi's ascension is Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride. "Umberto is not only a lawyer's lawyer, but he's a gentleman's gentleman. He's one of the most gracious guys I've met throughout my entire life," he says. "He's going to bring a classic combination of leadership, professionalism, humor and most important, the heart and soul of a working lawyer."
From Sicily to Western Springs
Ambitious plates are nothing new for Umberto Davi, whose accomplishments in law and life defy easy verbal description for many who have known him. Davi arrived in Illinois from Sicily at age 14 with a recently widowed mother, two younger brothers, no knowledge of the English language, and little more than the clothing he wore and the change in his pocket.
His father, who owned a successful truck driving business back in Italy, had died in an accident. Shortly thereafter his mother, Renata, took the family to the western suburbs of Chicago, where two sisters were living. "We came here with very, very little," Davi says. "Everything we owned had to be sold, gifted, or discarded back in Italy."
Davi's uncle signed an affidavit that vouchsafed for the family, a required part of the immigration process at that time. "He had to provide that to the government, attesting to the fact that he'd take care of us if we couldn't take care of ourselves," Davi says, adding with obvious pride: "Nobody has ever had to take care of us. No one. Never."
Within two weeks of their arrival, Davi had found a job washing dishes for $1 per hour at a restaurant whose owners spoke Italian. "I was happy to work seven days a week, about 40 hours a week," he says.
Life in the U.S. fascinated the young Davi from the family's arrival in 1964. "The streets were huge, the cars were huge, everything was large," he says. "There was freedom to do what you wanted. You didn't have to be so concerned about what others might think. It was a huge opportunity."
His eventual wife, Jan, remembers first meeting Davi as a teenager, a "sheltered suburban girl" who was five years younger. "Back in the '60s, there wasn't such a thing as bilingual education in Brookfield, Illinois. It was very different," she says. "He was definitely the new kid on the block. I am still amazed at how someone could go through all that [tragedy] and still be so positive and upbeat and driven, which is really what he is to this day. He's just got this effervescence for life. He's passionate about everything." (Read Jan Davi's biographical tribute at www.isba.org/davibio.)
Longtime friend Richard Balsamo, a doctor and attorney who met Davi through the Justinian Society of Lawyers, says Davi works harder than many of the medical residents he's known over the years. "He has had an opportunity in life, and he really has seized it with gusto," Balsamo says.
The winding path to law school
Davi began his higher education at Elmhurst College and initially thought he wanted to be a clinical psychologist. But after obtaining a bachelor's degree in psychology from Western Illinois University, Davi went down a different path that eventually took him toward the law. He and Jan began dating at WIU, and she recalls many Saturday night dates in the school library. "My grades improved, and I graduated with honors," she says with a laugh. "There are two different stories about why he went to Western - his education, or true love. But either way it worked out - he got both."
After graduation, Davi accepted a suggestion that he help with the campaign of a candidate for state representative - and although the candidate lost, he helped Davi land a job as an accountant in the office of then Cook County Treasurer Ed Rosewell. That, in turn, led to a position as a Cook County probation officer, working under then-Chief Probation Officer Richard Napoli in the criminal court at 26th and California.
Davi worked directly for Judge Louis Garippo and received his first exposure to the legal system. "He was a wonderful, great judge, well learned, fair, resolute when had to be," Davi says. "He had a great sense of humor, and he was extremely well liked by prosecutors, public defenders, private lawyers, and court staff."
During this period, when Davi still envisioned getting his master's and Ph.D. in psychology, his uncle, an attorney in private practice in Downers Grove, invited Davi to visit his practice one Saturday morning. "He asked me what I was doing, and he says, 'Have you ever thought about becoming a lawyer?' He suggested that if I were to become a lawyer, I would never have a boring day in my life."
Shortly thereafter, Davi took the LSAT and a year later, he started at John Marshall Law School, working all day as a probation officer and then driving downtown at 6 p.m. to start class. Weekends were spent in the law library. And in the time since, his uncle's words have continued to echo. "He was absolutely correct - I've never had a boring day since that time," Davi says.
Within a year of graduating law school, Davi had established his own office, primarily doing criminal work based on his contacts at 26th and California, which he did not particularly enjoy but it paid the bills. "It was just one of those things that seemed to make sense, given what I was learning on the job" as a probation officer, he says.
About a year later Davi bought the building in downtown Western Springs that houses his law office, which has the feel of a large, well-appointed old home; he credits Jan, who works as his paralegal and secretary, with bringing about the homey feel of the space.
"It did not look like this when I bought the office," he says, gesturing around the conference room. "My clients love the building, the office." And Davi loves the location, in a town he describes as having "children everywhere, a small-town feeling with a great butcher shop, fruit store, and bakery within a block or two."
Over time, his practice gravitated toward matrimonial and real estate law, although he's handled many different types of matters over the years. His first family law case came from "a friend who had some difficulties, and he asked me to represent him. And I found I liked that work. I liked the opportunity to try to instill some reason in an area that had very little of it. Because of the nature of divorce cases, they're fraught with emotion. I found that conciliatory part of me, that mediator in me, that 'want-to-make-peace' in me, came out."
Clients recognized how well the practice suited him and began to spread the word. "I've never really advertised," Davi says. "Most of my work has been referrals from clients, referrals from spouses of clients, referrals from other lawyers. So it was a natural fit, whereas I was not totally comfortable doing the criminal work, which I had a lot of but started to refer out."
Balsamo has never been in the room with Davi "when he's working out sticky issues with parents" but can imagine how well his friend does it. "His levelheadedness and his perspective about opportunities would make him able to say to people: 'Look, don't get crazy here. You've got to take the long view here. Don't say things or do things today that are going to have a bad impact on your family.' I can't help but think he brings that perspective, that optimism, and that energy," he says.
Davi had learned to do real estate closings at John Marshall and says that's a nice complement to the often emotionally fraught matrimonial work. "Everybody's happy," he says. "They're either happy that they're selling or happy that they're buying. So it kind of balances out. When they stop arguing about the toilet seat being missing, or the doorknob or light bulbs being taken, it's generally a good time."
Judge Linda Davenport is among those who appoint Davi as a guardian ad litem for children whose parents are in the midst of custody battles. "I don't know anybody who has had as many challenges as Umberto has, who has come so far," she says. "I appoint him as guardian because he gets along with kids. He really listens. He is committed; he is focused."
Belleville solo practitioner Jack Carey, who led the ISBA in 2008-09, says Davi's natural empathy serves him well as a guardian ad litem. "The children are in the middle, and Umberto tries to bring some judgment, some common sense about what's in the best interest of the child or children, and how to best minimize the trauma to his ward," Carey says.
Early bar involvement
Not long after he began law practice, Davi joined both the Justinian Society of Lawyers and the Illinois State Bar Association at the encouragement of past ISBA president Leonard Amari, whom Davi considers a mentor. "He was absolutely correct," Davi says. "The relationships that you generate through [bar memberships] become your networking opportunities, and the more you participate, the more your opportunities grow."
Davi became an officer of the Justinian Society, which is the Italian-American bar association, in 1990 and rose to president in 1995. Around that same time, he was elected to the assembly of the ISBA. "It was nice to run into people not only in the social arena but also often in the professional arena, meaning in court, or the other end of a transaction," Davi says.
Along the way, he chaired the Justinian Society golf outing and scholarship committee, and he also joined the West Suburban Bar Association's board of governors. "I spent a lot of nights going to bar meetings," Davi says with a laugh, adding: "It was a very understanding wife - a very understanding wife - who allowed me to do all of that."
Family, friends, and pastimes
Davi has four sons, three of them with Jan, all of whom have followed his professional footsteps in one way or another. His first son, Dion, went to John Marshall, heads up the Davi Law Group, and is married with two children. Umberto and Jan's eldest, Michael, attended WIU and works as a clerk in the paternity division of Cook County Circuit Court. Their middle child, Ryan, is pursuing a master's degree in psychology from Elmhurst College, while their youngest, Evan, just graduated from Purdue University and would like to go to law school.
Davi's friends, many of whom he met through the Justinian Society and ISBA, talk about his devotion to family. Attorney Len DeFranco, chair of the ISBA's investments committee, has run several races with Davi, including the first marathon for both of them, and their families have taken ski vacations together. He recalls Davi spending one day skiing backward all day long to teach his son, Evan, how to ski. "I don't know that his back has ever been the same," DeFranco says.
When the two men meet for drinks, DeFranco will be coming from home after dinner-and Davi, not infrequently, from the office. "He's one of the hardest-working lawyers I know," DeFranco says. "He really goes at pretty much everything he does with the same intensity and persistence. He'll call me on a Sunday morning, and he's in the office."
Davi is also very empathetic to his client base, he adds, particularly those going through difficult economic times. "He and I were born in lower-middle-class circumstances. Whatever we achieved in life, we never lost our blue collar, so to speak."
Beyond his family and friends, many of Davi's personal passions revolve around moving quickly: in addition to skiing and running, he rides (and fixes up) motorcycles and muscle cars. "We're both what you would call gearheads," Carey says. "Umberto enjoys auto racing and motorcycle racing. He has a number of motorcycles that he rides recreationally."
ISBA agenda: old business
In starting the engines for his agenda for the 2015-16 year as ISBA president, Davi emphasizes that he intends to work closely with other key bar leaders, including Judge Robert Anderson at the Illinois Judges Association, Judge Jessica O'Brien at the Women's Bar Association of Illinois, and Jay Laraia of the DuPage County Bar Association.
The initiative to address law school debt began during the 2012-13 year when John Thies served as ISBA president. The committee headed by Justice Ann Jorgensen presented an interim report in June 2013 that noted the lack of services for those who can't afford legal representation and the inability of many young lawyers to potentially help out with that issue "because of the money they need to generate to take care of their debt," Davi says. "It's a vicious circle of sorts."
The earlier report identified issues and asked questions like whether law school needs to be three years long, whether all of the required classes are necessary, and whether the profession needs a bar exam. The committee will report back again to the ISBA's Midyear Meeting in December 2015 with further conclusions and questions, he says.
Davi could see the expansion of the 711 license to the private sector, changes to the law school curriculum, and debt counseling closer to the beginning of law school as potential points of discussion and debate. Of the latter issue, he says it could help "students understand what it is to borrow, not only for tuition and books for also for room and board, and living expenses. That's how these staggering amounts of debt get created because you're living on borrowed money."
The second initiative that Davi is continuing, which began under outgoing President Rick Felice, is the ISBA's Solo & Small Firm Practice Institute Series. He expects to have one-day events in four different parts of the state, probably Rockford, Chicago, Bloomington, and Fairview Heights. One issue that Davi could see addressing in a CLE session, which Laraia also has expressed an interest in covering, is law-practice succession.
"How do you get out of your practice, especially if you are a solo [practitioner] or small firm?" Davi says. "What information can we give the lawyers or make available to help them sort that out? It's protecting your clients and protecting your family - your clients because who takes over if you're not there, your family because this is the source of your income."
ISBA agenda: new business
Something that is underway but will be given increased emphasis by Davi is a document-assembly based legal forms project that should launch sometime in 2015. The forms likely will be centered on family law, real estate, and probate practice. "Just the kinds of forms lawyers and can use and reference - either use as they are, or customize - to help their practice," he says.
Davi also would like the ISBA's law-related education section council to build upon its past work in bringing mock trial competitions to high schools and bring similar civics-oriented programming - not necessarily mock trials - to adult audiences at organizations like the Jaycees and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "We'll try to bring this to them in the interest of continuing to show people that lawyers do a lot of good things and try to improve our image overall," he says.
The potential initiative around the expansion of the 711 license would provide a "modicum of experience" for beginning attorneys that firms all want but few seem to provide. "Where is that person to get the experience?" Davi says. "I got mine the hard way, by just jumping into the water and figuring out how to swim. That's not the preferred way to do that. It really isn't. I did it out of necessity more than anything else."
Third-year students would be able to go to court under the supervision of private-sector attorneys, expanding greatly the options for doing so under the 711, Davi says. "They could begin to experience, again closely supervised by the senior attorney, what it's like to go to court, what it's like to do the things lawyers do, and to get some credit for that in school," he says.
Building up the bar
More than anything, Davi would like to encourage Illinois attorneys, especially those of the digital generation, to experience what he has gotten out of bar membership over the decades.
"You can't just get up in the morning, go to work, and then go home," he says. "Even in this age of electronics, in the age of e-mails, text messages, Facebook, LinkedIn, and all those other media we have, there is no substitute in my mind for the personal contact. None. There never will be. The personal contact afforded to you by the bar membership and bar involvement has no peer."
He's apparently convinced Maria Sarantakis, a 3L at John Marshall who has interned in his office. "Umberto has shared with me the value of being active in our professional organization. In this industry, reputation with our clients and colleagues is our stock-in-trade," she says. "There is a narrative, which is especially endemic amongst young lawyers, that the career outlook for attorneys is bleak. Umberto is the personification of the American dream. He is a testament to the notion that with hard work, determination, and integrity, it is possible to accomplish great things."
After 35 years of bar membership, "It's an honor that I'm able to become the president," Davi says. "Coming from Sicily, not speaking any English, that's pretty good. I am an immigrant. I am the quintessential American success story. That has nothing to do with money. It has to do with your place in society and more importantly in your community."
Davi's place in his community also has included serving as a trustee and police pension board president in his hometown of Willowbrook. "I'm totally convinced that, beginning with my participation in the Justinian Society of Lawyers and then moving on to the ISBA, that's what's enabled me to do all this," he says. "I'm a firm believer in that. America is indeed a wonderful country. It's been an incredible opportunity, starting with that dishwashing job 50 years ago."
Ed Finkel is an Evanston-based freelance writer.