40 Under Forty Feature: Michael Alkaraki

Interviewed by Kenny Matuszewski

Now celebrating its 20th Anniversary, the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin’s 40 Under Forty recognizes rising stars in the legal community. Past winners come from all practice areas and settings, including the government, private practice, and in-house. The one thing they all share is their commitment to excellence and dedication to the legal profession.

Where do you work and what is your practice area?

Michael: I’m a partner at Leahy & Hoste, LLC, where I represent plaintiffs in matters of serious personal injury, medical malpractice, product liability and wrongful death. I’m also an adjunct professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, where I teach Advocacy and Professional Identity Formation.

Where were you in your career when you won the 40 Under Forty Award?

Michael: I was an associate at Leahy & Hoste, LLC.  It was, in some ways, a strange time for us.  Tom Leahy, a founder of the firm, preeminent trial lawyer and leader in the organized bar, had passed several years earlier after a valiant struggle with cancer.  We emerged from the loss of Tom with a string of substantial verdicts and settlements that carried on and built upon his legacy.  The award, which Pete Hoste also won a decade earlier, was particularly welcome during this time of transition.

What was your initial reaction when you found out you won?

Michael: I was proud.  For many years before I received it, the 40 Under Forty Award always stood out to me as somewhat special among the many other legal industry accolades.  I knew I was being considered, but you never know how things like this will shake out and, one way or another, you shouldn’t take it too personally.  That said, it’s a great honor and I sincerely appreciated the recognition, especially given the timing.

What do you believe you did differently from your peers to win this award?

Michael: Frankly, I’m not sure. I have the big case results and demonstrated commitment to the profession and broader community, but those are just sort of foundational prerequisites for eligibility, as they should be. There are a lot of great lawyers in this state doing important work, achieving incredible results for their clients and improving their communities.  Some get plenty of recognition, while others don’t get nearly as much as they deserve. There seems to be a significant degree of subjectivity and sometimes even peripheral factors that go into determining who gets noticed.  I do think it’s fair to say, though, that it’s very hard to outwork me. Grit and dogged work ethic may be the most prominent constants among the great lawyers I admire.

Did you have a mentor or sponsor who helped your career trajectory?

Michael: Yes, more than I can name. My parents, neither one of them a lawyer, had profoundly different backgrounds but shared, among other things, a strong and true sense of justice. I know this isn’t exactly what the question is getting at, but it would be a mistake for me to not mention them.  Judy Dever and Jim Ciesil, who’ve both held various leadership positions within the City of Chicago Law Departments, supervised me in my first series of legal jobs before and during law school, and continue to be excellent models for how to approach the practice.

Tom Leahy, without question, had the biggest impact. If there’s a blueprint for how to make the most out of a career in law, and personal injury trial work in particular, he was not only a student of it, but one its more recent contributing architects. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t consider how Tom might approach an issue, whether it involves a case, an aspect of the business or something in life generally. My partner, Pete Hoste, is one of the very best medical malpractice lawyers in town and about as well-rounded and solid as a person can be. Jerry Latherow, with whom we’ve shared office space for my entire career, has been a powerful presence.  Conrad Nowak is a true renaissance man, a superb trial lawyer and a dynamic leader in numerous communities of people with diverse interests from virtually all walks of life.  There are many more, but those are some of the most important ones.

Knowing what you know now, what would you tell a younger version of yourself?

Michael: In general, I’d say, “Be yourself and trust yourself.”  That’s not to say that you shouldn’t endeavor to respect and learn as much as possible from the experience and wisdom of others. You absolutely should, and doing so will be critical in your development as a lawyer and person.  You also have to recognize, however, that it’s your license, your career and your life, and that you’re best served by integrating the qualities of those you admire into your character authentically rather than trying to be someone else.

I’d add a bit on the importance of civility, which is not properly characterized by mere politeness, superficial courtesy or as some hollow call to patiently tolerate injustice, but by conscientious engagement in the vital social, political and legal processes which provide the best opportunity to resolve our fiercest conflicts without violence, chaos or further catastrophe.  It’s a tricky idea, especially for younger lawyers, who may tend to conceptualize the practice of law, and perhaps litigation in particular, in terms of “war” or “a game.” It’s neither.  Lawyers are not soldiers facing death, and we’re not players in some amoral contest with essentially theoretical winners and losers.  Legal matters have consequences that are real, direct, often life-changing for the parties, and which contribute to the values and structure of communities and society at large. The practice of law is special. It’s its own thing, and civility, housing both zealous advocacy and respect for the parties and process, is its cornerstone.

What are you most proud of accomplishing so far in your legal career?

Michael: Soon after the 40 Under Forty publication, I received a congratulatory note from a veteran trial lawyer I’d always admired, but knew only as an acquaintance and by reputation, saying that the recognition was “well-earned and just a start.”  That meant a lot to me, but the sense of accomplishment that comes from achieving justice for individuals and families, particularly those trusting you during what may very well be their most difficult times, is hard to top.  I’m fortunate to experience that over and over again.  Clients occasionally send “thank you” letters and cards that are deeply moving and highly motivating.  Several from early in my career, including one from parents of a young man I represented in a wrongful death case over ten years ago, are displayed at home in my kitchen, where I see them every day.

What advice would you give to our readers who are looking to excel in their careers?

Michael: Hard work is the one thing that anyone can do regardless of intelligence, skill, experience, connections or even support, so do it.  Beyond that, it’s generally wise to find good mentors, to diversify your experience, network and give back through bar associations and professional and community organizations and, of course, to put your clients first.

About Michael:

Michael Alkaraki is a trial lawyer and partner at Leahy & Hoste, LLC, where he represents plaintiffs in matters of serious personal injury, medical malpractice and wrongful death, and is an adjunct professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, where he teaches Advocacy and Professional Identify Formation.  Michael holds leadership positions in several professional and community organizations and serves the Chicago Bar Association as a member of the Judicial Evaluation Committee Hearing Division, Trial Practice Committee and as the Chair of the Media Production Committee.  

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