Illinois Bar Journal

July 2018Volume 106Number 7Page 20

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A Leader’s Leader

James McCluskey wants the ISBA to prove its worth to members; provide resources relevant to the daily practice of law; and support attorneys who struggle with emotional, financial, and mental health issues.

James F. McCluskey
James F. McCluskey

JAMES F. McCLUSKEY IS A SUCCESSFUL, VETERAN COMMERCIAL attorney who has taken 60 jury trials to verdict. He, along with Edward T. Momkus, built one of DuPage County's largest law firms. His friends and colleagues describe "Jim" as knowledgeable, hardworking, well-respected, gregarious, honest, loyal, a supportive mentor, a good listener, and a consensus builder.

Starting July 1, the name partner at DuPage-based Momkus McCluskey LLC will apply those characteristics as the ISBA's 2018-2019 president. During his term, McCluskey will advance practical goals such as assisting firms with business and succession planning and helping lawyers who struggle with stress, mental health issues, and substance abuse.

McCluskey credits his success to the work ethic he learned as a young adult. Growing up in Melrose Park, Illinois, he worked various part-time jobs, including caddying for five years at the Oak Park Country Club and delivering newspapers every afternoon for the Chicago Daily News. After graduating from Holy Cross High School, McCluskey attended Elmhurst College where he majored in accounting, competed on the wrestling team, and worked as a cashier at Jewel to pay for his education.

While in college, McCluskey's father inspired him to be a lawyer. McCluskey remembers his father, a cable splicer for Illinois Bell, returning home one day wearing a suit, delighted that he had been mistaken for a lawyer while contesting a traffic violation. McCluskey recalls thinking, "If my dad thinks being a lawyer is pretty special, then maybe it is. [From then on,] I didn't see myself preparing tax returns as an accountant for the rest of my life, so I decided to attend law school."

After graduating from Elmhurst College in 1976, McCluskey enrolled in Northern Illinois University's College of Law, graduating in 1979. McCluskey went on to obtain his LLM in taxation from The John Marshall Law School.

Onward and upward

After law school, McCluskey began his professional career as in-house counsel for CNA Insurance, defending its insureds. In 1981, McCluskey transitioned from CNA to Hubbard Hubbard O'Brien and Hall, an eight-attorney firm, where he defended policyholders in personal-injury litigation.

In 1986, he moved to DuPage County to become an associate at Wylie Wheaton & Associates, a small, general-practice firm that included AIG and its insureds among its clients. Upon joining Wylie Wheaton "[I was] immediately inundated with cases in Kane, DuPage, and Will counties," McCluskey says. "Here I was, 32 years old, trying cases against lawyers with 25, 30 years of experience."

At the time, McCluskey struck Bonnie Wheaton, Wylie Wheaton's name partner and now presiding judge of the DuPage County Chancery Division, as affable, knowledgeable, well prepared, and well grounded. "He has a good sense of the cases he takes, and if there is something that should be settled promptly, he works very hard to achieve a settlement rather than prolong the time and expense to the client," she says. "He's also very good about getting talented young attorneys into his firm and then mentoring them."

Ron Sutter, a friend and former colleague from Wylie Wheaton and currently the presiding judge of the Law Division in DuPage County, recalls that McCluskey mentored him in civil litigation when Sutter joined the firm after eight years as a prosecutor in the DuPage County State's Attorney's Office.

"Jim took me under his wing, took me to depositions. We had lunch together often and talked about things like how to take care of clients," Sutter recalls. "He was very good to me. His philosophy at that time was, 'We're probably going to know one another for a very, very long time.' That's one reason he's going to be a great bar leader. He believes in mentoring young lawyers."

After McCluskey and Sutter moved on from Wylie Wheaton, the two remained friends, shared some clients, and tried cases together. Sutter later recommended McCluskey to State Farm Insurance during that period of time. "He still has State Farm business at his firm today," Sutter says. "It shows how well he can work with people and clients."

Thomas Ryerson, who met McCluskey at a DuPage County Bar Association function and later recruited him to join Clausen Miller in 1988, says McCluskey's career trajectory speaks for itself.

"Jim is like your best friend from the old neighborhood, except Jim is smarter than that guy was," says Ryerson, a partner at Clausen Miller. "He is approachable, he has common sense, and he is a hard worker. And as his career developed, he distinguished himself as-this is no exaggeration-a blue-chip client originator and developer. [His clients] are household names."

Momkus McCluskey LLC

In 1991, McCluskey joined Edward Momkus and James Ozog to form Momkus Ozog McCluskey LLC, which later became Momkus McCluskey LLC when Ozog left in 2003. Ozog, now a partner at Goldberg Segalla in Chicago, first met McCluskey at Clausen Miller.

Ozog says he and Momkus welcomed McCluskey into their new firm in part because they saw him as someone who could give the firm a foothold in DuPage County. "We immediately changed the name of the firm, and the rest is history," Ozog says. "We grew pretty fast…. When we were in practice together, we were a pretty good team. He was a great marketer and a great rainmaker. He also knew where to go for talent to get the best people for a project."

"The vision and the game plan were to grow the firm and offer a variety of legal services to small businesses and consumers," McCluskey says. He characterizes his 28-lawyer firm as "a mini version of a large Chicago law firm. That was my goal-to provide a variety of affordable legal services to the DuPage County public."

The firm's focus broadened considerably over the years, from insurance defense to transactional work, commercial litigation, estate planning, family law, criminal defense, and other practice areas. In McCluskey's first commercial jury trial, he defended Walmart in a multi-million-dollar breach of lease case. After the jury returned a $2.2-million verdict against his client, McCluskey successfully appealed to the U.S Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, was granted a new trial, and won the case on summary judgment.

Since then, "I've tried minority shareholders' cases, trade-secret cases, probate litigation, will contests-every kind of civil case other than personal injury," McCluskey says. "Today, I still supervise five attorneys in various aspects of commercial and insurance litigation. Our firm continues to provide high-quality legal services to DuPage County. I accomplished the goals I set in 1991, when I first joined Ed (Momkus) and Jim (Ozog)."

A mentor and friend

Jennifer Friedland, managing partner at Momkus McCluskey, says McCluskey was a mentor and strong supporter of her career. "I have grown to respect him immensely," she says. "Initially, he taught me to be a lawyer who is diligent in knowing the law and procedure, and who is respectful of other lawyers and the profession. Then he taught me how to handle clients with compassion, honesty, and persuasion when necessary. Finally, he taught me how to manage our firm."

McCluskey supported Friedland early in her career by giving her the opportunity to take the lead on arguing cases as a young associate, including before the seventh circuit. "I was scared as hell, but he gave me the confidence to do it," she recalls. "These experiences are priceless and not easy to come by."

More importantly, she says, when the first of her three children was born eight years ago and diagnosed with Down syndrome, McCluskey wrote Friedland an e-mail that read, in part: "We are with you all the way." And he backed up his words a year later when Friedland asked to take Fridays off so that she could transport her son to various therapy appointments, a routine that lasted for four years.

"While on this alternative schedule, I was promoted to partner with the support of Jim," Friedland says. "Also, at the suggestion and insistence of Jim, I was promoted to managing partner in 2016."

A bar association natural

McCluskey's involvement in bar associations began in the early 1990s when Bill Scott, the president of the DuPage County Bar Association (DCBA) asked him to chair the tax law committee. Although McCluskey did not practice tax law, his LLM degree qualified him for the post. "I realized that getting involved with the bar association, you make other connections," he says. "You start dealing with other attorneys, people connected to lawyers, and organizations like the IRS and the Illinois CPA Society who deal with many fields of practice. I met a variety of lawyers from different fields of practice. This allowed me to set up a system of cross-referrals."

McCluskey then served on the DCBA board for two years, ran for third vice president in the late 1990s, and became president in 2001-2002-right after Richard Felice, a former ISBA president who has been friends with McCluskey since law school.

Although they never practiced together, Felice has regarded McCluskey highly since the beginning of their friendship. "Although he makes it look easy, it looks easy because he's so well prepared," Felice says. "He presents himself very well, and he doesn't leave much to chance. He's very tenacious, and he's always concerned that he makes sure to cover his bases. That kind of work ethic and preparation…will serve him well. Plus, he's been involved in the local bar and other organizations, and he has a lot of experience in bar-related matters."

McCluskey credits his professional success to his active participation in the bar association. "The more I got involved, the more I met other lawyers, and I started to receive referrals in a variety of areas of law that our firm could handle." he says. "Most firms out there don't have the whole kaleidoscope of talent we provide. That's how I developed my practice beyond insurance defense."

After years of volunteering for the DCBA, McCluskey moved on to the ISBA, where he served on the Assembly for eight years, the Board of Governors for six years, was a member of the Civil Practice & Procedure Section Council and the Allerton House Committee, and chaired the Assembly Agenda Committee. He was elected ISBA secretary in 2013 and then third vice president in 2016, which placed him in line to be president in 2018-2019.

McCluskey's priorities

As president, McCluskey intends to sharply focus on initiatives relevant to the daily practice of law. "If someone is paying dues, they want value from their bar association. Bar associations must be relevant. Younger lawyers today want immediate results."

One of McCluskey's initiatives is the creation of continuing legal education programs addressing business and succession planning. The ISBA will invite various professionals in areas of finance, business organization, accounting, lifestyle planning, etc. to provide guidance to Illinois lawyers, young and old," he says.

"Baby Boomers today are asking themselves what to do when their career comes to an end," he says. "They don't sit down and put together a plan." This is especially true among smaller firms, which represent the majority of ISBA's membership. "If a lawyer from Carlinville runs his own practice and has a stroke, what's going to happen to his business?" he asks. "Who is going to represent his clients?" Because of this immediate need, McCluskey plans to have presentations designed to educate lawyers on how best to sell one's law practice; how to plan for a firm's succession; how to handle financial matters and budgets; how to select the best small-business software tools for financial forecasting; how to better market, sell, and collect capital; and how one's employees can help maximize their firm's profits.

"A second priority will be helping attorneys manage the stress of practice," McCluskey says. "We have an urgent need to assist lawyers in Illinois," he says. "There's substance abuse, a lot of financial stress, and overall psychological and emotional stress. So, I'm looking to bring in professionals for a series of seminars."

"Lawyers, like anyone else, have to be cognizant of alcohol and drug abuse," he says. "It has been reported that one in five lawyers in the United States has a substance abuse problem. That's high. We have to look at the causes of this problem."

With that goal in mind, McCluskey is forming a committee on wellness that will include the director of the Illinois Lawyers' Assistance Program (LAP), psychologists, judges, and lawyers in different areas of practice who will plan wellness-related offerings.

"It's not only going to be people who, from a professional standpoint, are psychologists or other medical professionals," he says. "You need a community of lawyers looking out for the well-being of one another. There needs to be more programs that reach out to lawyers to evaluate and counsel them as to the many causes of substance abuse. The problem is not getting better; it's getting worse. Therefore, I have made it a priority to increase the funding available to LAP."

The confidence of friends and colleagues

McCluskey's friends and current and former associates are confident he will tackle these issues and provide the ISBA with excellent, steady leadership. "He knows how to work with people, and that's what it's all about," Sutter says. "He wants to help lawyers, and he wants to help our profession."

"He will be everybody's friend," Wheaton says. "He's very gregarious, he has a good way with crowds, he's a funny guy, and he's very persuasive, too."

Ryerson notes that, given McCluskey's broad practice background, he understands the needs of a diverse spectrum of lawyers.

"Being an owner of his own firm for a long time, he understands the issues facing a majority of lawyers from all parts of the state," Ryerson says. "He has tried cases in personal injury, and in business litigation, and in other areas of the law, chancery matters.… He's approachable, he has common sense, he's a hard worker, and he's a listener. That's an important skill for a leader. He makes people feel comfortable in his presence."

McCluskey knows how to try a case-and how to solve problems more generally, Friedland says. "Whether in our business, in his bar association activity, or in our cases, Jim has a knack for getting down to brass tacks and solving problems efficiently," she says. "He is able to make all involved feel good about themselves and whatever decision they are facing, yet he effects compromise."

Ozog says McCluskey enjoys leadership and agrees he has a knack for building consensus.

"Leaders have a gift," Ozog says. "He will, in a professional and polite fashion, visit with people and express his views, and try to-I don't want to say win them over-but get them on his side of an issue. And he'll listen to others, too. He will listen to criticism. And he will adapt if need be. He's never one to say, 'It's my way or the highway.'"

As an example, Ozog recalled his decision to leave the firm in 2003: "It was the best parting that you could have. Jim and I, over the years, have remained very close friends. He's extraordinarily friendly and outgoing. He's interested in what you do and will make you feel good. That's why clients as well as other lawyers like him."

McCluskey, two years younger than Ozog, has been like a younger brother, Ozog says. "And I am extraordinarily-and I underline extraordinarily-proud that he is going to be president," he says. "He deserves it, he'll be good at it, and I'm proud to see somebody get involved and be dedicated for so long, and then be elevated to the position of president."

Ed Finkel
Ed Finkel is an Evanston-based freelance writer.

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