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.
In July 2018, John C. Sciaccotta found himself in Rome, far from his life-long home of Chicago. But he wasn’t alone. Together with several fellow Chicago Bar Association (“CBA”) members, he was taking in the sights and obtaining CLE credit through the CBA’s CLE Abroad program.
Rome has many exquisite sights and sensations. But it’s often the ordinary moments in life that are extraordinary and most meaningful. On their way to dinner one night, John and then CBA President, Judge Tom Mulroy decided to take a humble mode of transportation: the cab. Never ones to miss a good conversation, they soon bonded with their cab driver, sharing hopes, dreams, and philosophies. More than anything, John remembered the cab driver’s life motto: “There are only four important things in life. Family, friends, faith, and food.”
It almost shocked John to hear that. While it was the first time he heard such a philosophy, he realized that those same four things were most important to him. With regard to family, John has four grown children, and a wife, Esther. Significantly, John and Esther will celebrate 35 years of marriage on May 17th. John is also blessed with a variety of friends, not only from bar associations such as the CBA but also his classmates, particularly those at Fenwick High School.
His faith as a practicing Catholic was reinforced by attending St. Giles, Fenwick High School, Creighton University, and DePaul University. While the schools differed in terms of religious Orders, John was able to apply the lessons he learned at each of these schools in life.
Finally, John has been surrounded by food his entire life. His family owned an Italian restaurant named Papa Milano’s on State & Oak streets (1951-2007) and Milano’s at State & Division streets(1948-1978). Before closing in 2007, the storied restaurant was owned by 4 generations of John’s family. Over the years, the restaurant had a wide variety of prominent guests, including many movie stars, politicians, star athletes like Michael Jordan, President Ronald Reagan, Oprah, Jay Leno, Sid Caesar, and Ralph Kiner, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis & Bob Hope to name a few.
But John added a fifth category in things that were important to his life: Fenwick HS. Since the age of 4, John wanted to be a lawyer and constantly worked toward that dream. While his other schools prepared him well, John realized that it would not have been possible for him to be a lawyer without Fenwick. Even though the coursework was challenging, the environment nourished both him and his classmates. To give back to the school that gave him so much, John became a member of the school’s Board of Trustees, co-started the Fenwick Bar Association, and ultimately the honored designation of Life Trustee.
Another institution would soon become a major fixture in John’s life: the CBA. When John was in law school, his mentor and friend, Richard Culver (“Dick”) told him that the key to a successful career was to establish relationships and make friends in the practice of law. The best way of reaching that goal was through the CBA and bar associations.
Soon after that, Dick invited John to join him for lunch at the CBA building, then located at 29 S. LaSalle St. That launched a series of meetings at both formal and informal CBA events, which allowed John to meet experienced peers at a young age. Whether it was the Judicial Evaluation Committee or the CBA’s bowling league, John could always count on Dick to introduce him to a new friend in the legal profession. As a result, it was only a matter of time until John met Don Hubert. Similar to Dick, Don was one of the first people to push John as a person and in his legal career. Specifically, he encouraged John to become a founding member of the CBA’s commercial litigation committee. Judge Mulroy along with Dick & Don’s prior mentoring, inspired John to become a Co-founder of the CBA Business Divorce & Complex Ownership Disputes Committee in 2018. While it was difficult to start a committee from the ground-up, thanks to Judge Mulroy, Don & Dick’s guidance, John excelled as a chair.
While running a committee may not seem related to the practice of law, many of the qualities needed to run a successful committee correlate with successfully practicing law. As a result, John’s star began to rise. John still considers Dick and Don to be his greatest mentors, thanks to their efforts to push him outside his comfort zone and to grow.
Despite knowing a large number of attorneys at a young age, John had a humble start to his career. His first job out of law school was at a small firm for several years. At its largest, the firm only had 10 lawyers. He then founded his own firm. Over the years, that firm grew to 7 attorneys.
John was working at his own firm when he was among the very first class of lawyers to win the 40 Under Forty award in 2000. After seeing an ad for the award in the physical version of the Daily Law Bulletin, Dick immediately called John and encouraged him to apply. John heeded Dick’s advice and reached out to opposing counsel, encouraging them to either nominate him or give a recommendation. John’s well-developed collegiality and relationship-building skills paid off when he received a call from Bernie Judge, a Fenwick alumnus, and then-editor and vice president of the Daily Law Bulletin. John had won the 40 Under Forty Award.
Both proud and very humbled to win the award, John recognized that the award showed just how much confidence others had in his legal skills. Receiving the award confirmed that John was doing the right thing, which empowered him to continue on the path that he dreamed about since childhood. Northern Trust Bank even sent him a coaster emblazoned with the 40 Under Forty inaugural class logo. To this day, it occupies a prominent place in John’s office and reminds John to always believe in himself.
While John enjoyed the people he worked with, the small firm environment could be difficult. John sought work from a diversity of law firms, including larger firms, but he ended up referring out business to those firms on more occasions. With a growing business, John knew he needed the resources at a large firm to thrive. It was then that he merged his law practice with Shefsky & Froelich (“Shefsky”). Shefksy was the perfect fit for John. An entrepreneurial and business-centric law firm, Shefsky had great lawyers and even better people. It was the largest firm John had worked at so far. While Shefsky started with 38 attorneys, the number grew to 75 at its peak.
Judge Brian Crowe, then a prominent partner at Shefsky and co-head of the litigation group, perfectly embodied the business-centric perspective of the firm. He told John to consider becoming a mediator and arbitrator because the experience gained in those roles would be the most rewarding over time. Once again, John found his mentor’s advice was proven right.
Arbitration and mediation now make up a strong part of John’s practice, which he enjoys. Particularly, he likes resolving disputes for the lawyers and their clients. While arbitration and mediation are often seen as alternatives to litigation, John has found that he must develop certain strategies to posture & convey that are most compelling and persuasive to the respective sides in order to move parties off a particular position, similar to advocacy. During these proceedings, John asks himself what he can do to convince the parties to look at the common interests and resolve the dispute from a business perspective.
When John acts as an arbitrator, he also acts as the decision-maker. He must look at both sides and make a determination based on the facts and the law. As an outsider, John also finds it interesting to see lawyers advocating for their clients, and the positions they take based on their interpretations of the facts and law. Observing what lawyers do and do not do well from the opposite side of the bench has only made John a better attorney.
On January 2, 2014, Shefsky merged with Taft, Stettinius & Hollister (“Taft”), a move which boosted the total number of lawyers to more than 400. Not long after that, John entered the 40 Under Forty Hall of Fame. Entering the 40 Under Forty is already rare. But entering the Hall of Fame is another story. The Daily Law Bulletin has only inducted one set of attorneys into the 40 Under Forty Hall of Fame. As a result, the attorneys who are in the Hall of Fame are in the absolute highest echelon of the legal profession. To this day, when John goes to court and approaches the bench, judges will tell him that “40 Under Forty” “is entering or in” their courtroom.
However, John didn’t rest on his laurels. While working at Taft was a great honor, John decided to go back to a more entrepreneurial firm, like his days at Shefsky. In 2015, John did just that by joining Aronberg Goldgehn Davis & Garmisa (“Aronberg Goldgehn”). Since John started working at Aronberg Goldgehn, the firm has grown to over 50 lawyers and has added several practice groups. He’s found the firm to be a perfect fit because it’s very similar to Shefsky. Aronberg Goldgehn has an environment that allows John to build relationships with his partners, both on a business and personal level. He not only knows many of his colleagues’ hobbies but also their families.
As a result, fit is key to John when choosing a law firm. While it can be difficult to determine fit during a job interview, John finds that asking about a firm’s culture and philosophy is a good shorthand. John gives this advice to every young lawyer that he meets, including his own son Michael, a Managing Associate at Dentons in Chicago. But fit doesn’t just apply to workplaces. It also applies to every organization and relationship a person has with others.
Determining fit can be difficult, especially if young lawyers do not have much work experience or do not know what environment they want. Meeting older lawyers allows young lawyers to know themselves and figure out where they fit in. Recalling the older lawyers who helped him along the way, John makes diligently mentors and speaks with younger attorneys who reach out to him.
Providing mentorship was one of the reasons why John co-founded the Fenwick Bar Association in 1989. He wanted young lawyers and law students to meet older lawyers. Attorneys of all ages could help with job searches, give direction, advice, counsel, and friendship with at least one common experience. The other reason occurred after John attended a St. Ignatius Law Society luncheon. According to him, if Ignatius could do it, Fenwick could do it better! Cross-referencing both the Sullivan’s Law Directory and Fenwick High School Alumni Directory, John poured many hours into finding as alumni practicing as attorneys as possible. The night before Thanksgiving in 1989, John found his hard work paid off. More than 250 Judges & lawyers were present for the association’s very first meeting at the Union League Club. He later became president of the organization, and-in 2018, was honored with the organization’s highest honor, the Accipiter Award.
Even with all of these accomplishments, John has never forgotten about the CBA. He recently served as the Vice-Chair of the Bench and Bar Committee, which develops collegiality and professionalism between attorneys and the judiciary. Then, in 2018, John proudly co-founded the Business Divorce and Complex Ownerships Committee. The committee addresses transactional and litigation issues that arise when relationships between business organizations of all sizes break down. In other words, a business divorce occurs when a business separation and/or lawsuit are the only possible options. It has featured speakers of all backgrounds, including judges, business leaders, and attorneys at firms of all sizes.
Currently, COVID-19 has put a pause on in-person gatherings, both personal and professional. Among the other uncertainties in the world, it is not known whether traditional institutions and organizations around the world will survive the pandemic. But John is confident the CBA will still serve as a beacon for the legal profession and its members, both during the pandemic and beyond. All lawyers and law firms will face adversity in these times, and the CBA is a great resource to help those facing significant distress, anxiety, and need.
In good times and bad, the CBA has always been around. For example, the organization was around during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. In determining courses of action to take, John finds history to be particularly instructive. Recently, a friend sent him a photograph from a 1918 Notre Dame football home game. In many aspects, the photo appeared similar to a traditional gameday. However, every single spectator was wearing facemasks. Even during the Spanish Flu, people were still able to find ways to get together, whether in-person or through the mail. The bar association, in fact, was the best place to meet and form relationships. While technology might have changed over the past 100 years, the need for people to feel a sense of belonging and friendship has not.
As a result, according to John, it is very feasible for attorneys to reinvent themselves to virtual realities. This can be done by using Zoom and the phone. While creativity and imagination will be required to help bar associations in this next phase, John is up to the task.
When social media emerged, John led the charge by making Facebook pages for his grammar school, high school, college, and law school. Especially during the pandemic, these pages are ways for John to stay connected with classmates and friends, even if they do not always speak. From these pages, he and his classmates have shared all sorts of news with each other, ranging from graduation to their children passing the bar exam or finishing residency. Social media also allowed John and 15-20 of his fellow Fenwick classmates to meet for lunch on the second Wednesday of every month before social distancing began.
Much like Fenwick, the CBA has sustained John over the years, and many of its members are like family to him. No matter what, he’s always been able to go to CBA members for advice, meet for drinks, and talk about family. When times are tough, he knows that can always reach out to his friends from both Fenwick and the CBA. These close relationships are exactly why he’s so confident that the CBA will innovate and survive for generations to come.
Finally, the best advice John ever received was to be around good people and do good for the profession. While it is important to first become a great lawyer when you are young, John finds the best way to do that is to work very hard and get involved in bar associations. He would not be the lawyer he is today without getting involved in the CBA. By meeting members, whether in passing or in more formal mentor-mentee relationships, John honed his craft. John also stressed the importance of connecting to a mentor, because the mentor-mentee relationship is special. Judge Brian Crowe was such a mentor and great example to John. But the mentoring relationship does not have to be one-sided. John still regularly speaks with one of his CBA mentees, who is now a general counsel at a health system in California.
Most importantly, John advised that attorneys don’t try fellow attorneys in a lawsuit, dispute, or negotiation. Instead, they try cases. Over the years, John is proud of the fact that there is only a handful of opposing counsel who have not later become his friend. In fact, some of his closest friends were opposing counsel. By treating others with civility and dignity, John has shown that he truly values the most important things in life: family, friends, faith, food, and Fenwick.
John C. Sciaccotta has nearly 35 years of trial and litigation experience advocating for clients in complex civil litigation, arbitration, mediation and business counseling matters with a special emphasis on complex civil trial and appellate cases brought in federal and state courts and tribunals throughout the United States. John represents publicly and privately held domestic and foreign business entities, lenders, employers, municipalities, government bodies and individuals in transactional matters and disputes. Click here for John’s full bio.