Kenneth McCallion – Transcript
Louis Goodman 00:06
Welcome to the Love Thy Lawyer podcast, we talk to attorneys about their lives and careers. I’m Louis Goodman. I’m a lawyer. And today I’m talking with attorney, author and professor Kenneth Foard McCallion. Professor McCallion tried federal cases as an Assistant United States Attorney and prosecuted organized crime for the New York State Attorney General’s Office before turning to civil litigation. He’s written a book called Saving the World One Case at a Time about his work with some of the most important and high profile criminal and civil litigations in modern times. Kenneth McCallion, welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.
Kenneth McCallion 00:51
Oh, thank you very much, Louis for inviting me.
Louis Goodman 00:55
Appreciate you being here. Where are you talking to us from right now? Where are you located?
Kenneth McCallion 01:00
Well, actually I’m on a sailboat right now in Stonington Harbor, Stonington, Connecticut, and it’s kind of my floating office.
Louis Goodman 01:10
How’s the wind been?
Kenneth McCallion 01:11
I was picking up today, 16, 20 knots and the sailing’s been very good.
Louis Goodman 01:16
What sort of practice or work are you doing these days?
Kenneth McCallion 01:22
Well, a lot of our work really has been in the civil rights and human rights area over the last few years. So, we’re also doing environmental law, employment discrimination cases, but a lot of our major cases really have dealt with, really dealt with international human rights violations, particularly against Germany on behalf of two tribes in Namibia. It’s really not taught in most US educational systems, but it was the first genocide of the 20th century actually before the Armenian genocide. And of course, long before the Holocaust, about 80% of these tribes were really wiped out. So, we’re seeking reparations and an apology from Germany. And it’s been a long, long haul.
Louis Goodman 02:18
How long have you been practicing law?
Kenneth McCallion 02:21
Well, I had my 50th anniversary of my law school graduating class of 1972 at Fordham Law School. And I’ve been practicing since graduating law school.
Louis Goodman 02:35
Where are you from originally?
Kenneth McCallion 02:36
I was born in the Bronx, New York and grew up primarily and went to high school in Pelham, New York, which is a small community in Westchester County, nestled between Mount Vernon and New Rochelle. And that was a very nice, kind of a small town feel, although it was very close to New York City.
Louis Goodman 02:56
So where’d you go to high school, at Pelham?
Kenneth McCallion 02:58
Pelham High School. I did pretty well academically and also did well at track. Attracted the attention of the Yale coach who happened to be the Olympic coach at the time. And I think that may have helped me get a scholarship up at Yale.
Louis Goodman 03:15
What was your experience at Yale like? Wow was that, going to school there?
Kenneth McCallion 03:20
It was pretty exciting back then. Back in ’72, most of the students had come from private schools. I was one of the public school kids, but I did pretty well. And my roommate across were some prep school kids. One of them was George W. Bush and I also got to know his father, George Bush senior, who was president before him. In fact, my first recommendation for a government job was from the elder George Bush.
Louis Goodman 03:50
When you graduated from Yale, you ultimately went to law school. Did you go directly to law school or did you take some time off?
Kenneth McCallion 03:58
No, I did not. I was a community organizer. Nobody knew quite what a community organizer did ’till maybe Barack Obama had to do some explaining. He was, he did it in Chicago. I was out on the west coast and I worked, had the opportunity to work with the farm workers’ union, Cesar Chavez, and others.
Louis Goodman 04:18
When did you first start thinking, I wanna be a lawyer. I wanna go to law school. That’s where I want my career and my life to go?
Kenneth McCallion 04:29
Well, pretty early on it was really a family trade. My father was a trial lawyer and at the dinner table and after dinner, he’d recount, you know, some of the cases he was involved in, he’d give us fact patterns and get our comments.
Louis Goodman 04:46
So I take it when you announced that you were going to law school, that your family was pretty supportive, especially your dad.
Kenneth McCallion 04:52
Louis Goodman 04:54
Do you think that having taken that year off and doing some community organizing focused you for going to law school?
Kenneth McCallion 05:01
It certainly strengthened my belief in commitment that the importance of union organizing, community organizing really for the disenfranchised was an important part of, you know, my family’s ethos growing up, it was a strong union family. And also both of my parents were quite active really in civil rights issues. And to some extent the anti-war issues in the 1960s.
I really wanted to go to law school because, I could see the critical role that the justice system and lawyers played really in the important movements, civil rights, unionization issues that was important to me and other family members.
Louis Goodman 05:50
Now was your first real job as an attorney at the United States Attorney’s Office?
Kenneth McCallion 05:53
Yes. Well, when I was in law school, I was actually interned with the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York and got to work on some cases and involved in arguments. Watching arguments, for example, the Pentagon Papers was very active then in the early seventies.
After graduating law school, I was invited by the special prosecutor for nursing homes, Joe Hynes of New York State to work for him for a while, which I did, there’s a chapter in my book on that. But I still really didn’t have any major trial practice. There was plea negotiations and discovery and motions and hearings, but still no trials. And my real desire was to be a trial lawyer. So I got a call from the Brooklyn strike force of the Justice Department, a small group of prosecutors under Tom Puccio and Brooklyn, kind of the Brooklyn equivalent of what Juliani had going in the Southern District at the time. And that group of 12 or 13 lawyers was a wonderful experience for me. All the lawyers were more experienced than me when it came to trial practice. So really under their tutelage and then trying cases by myself and investigations, I was really able, I think after a few dozen trials, to develop into a fairly skilled trial lawyer, and some of the cases we had are legend. The movie Goodfellas, as you might know, is based on the Lufthansa heist case that the Brooklyn strike force had, the Abscam cases, the political corruption cases, and others came out of the Brooklyn strike force. So it was really quite exciting.
Louis Goodman 07:40
After you worked in the US Attorney’s Office, you went to the New York State Attorney General’s Office. What prompted that move?
Kenneth McCallion 07:48
Well, the Attorney General, Bob Abrams and his chief assistants, I worked on some joint investigations with them. And basically the Brooklyn Strike Force, maybe we kind of worked ourselves out of a job. The US Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn and elsewhere were somewhat jealous of us. So the strike forces were being phased out and integrated into the US Attorney’s Offices. So a number of us looked around, you know, for other positions. And I was given both an executive position, in the State Attorney General’s Office as well as pretty much a free reign to investigate what we had really started in Brooklyn doing, which was racketeering and corruption in the utility industry, Long Island Lighting Company in the construction of the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant in Eastern Long Island.
Kenneth McCallion 08:43
You ultimately left government service and started a very successful civil practice. Can you tell us a little bit about the transition and what prompted that and how you went from the government work to the civil side?
Kenneth McCallion 09:02
For some lawyers it can be an abrupt change, for me it was kind of a seamless transition because the first private firm I worked for actually became special counsel to Suffolk County, which took the lead on the investigation and prosecution of LILCO. So, although I was in private practice, I was still representing a governmental entity, Suffolk County. And although it was a civil prosecution, it was a major civil RICO case. So, I felt very comfortable as a former prosecutor working in that space. And then when that case was over, we got a call from Alaska where we had an affiliated firm up there and they said, you know, a ship called the Exxon Valdez just ran the ground up here. Can you get up here to help us out on that case? And I was up there within 48 hours and the Exxon Valdez was still spilling oil. Still, really no relief ships around it. I actually was able to leave New York, go up to Anchorage, get on a private plane to fly over the wreck. And we took photos actually, when the waters were still pretty calm there. And the cleanup unfortunately was only just starting. The containment of the oil was only really just starting given the lack of proper preparation. That case spoke for a good part of my next five years or so as I shuttled back and forth between Anchorage and New York, trying to juggle cases back in New York while being part of the team that represented the native Alaskan corporations in the Exxon Valdez litigation.
Louis Goodman 10:48
Were you satisfied with the ultimate settlement in that case?
Kenneth McCallion 10:52
Well, not really. We felt great. The jury verdict in the punitive damage case was 5 billion, which seemed like a pretty nice round number. However, in the appellate process, we were not so successful. Every appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and ultimately to the Supreme Court, every step seemed to knock a billion or so off the amount. And personally, it was a very, very exciting time. I got to, you know, participate in the trial teams, both at state level and the federal level. And Alaska’s a great place. I’m kind of an outdoorsman, I love fishing, running, mountain climbing and biking. So it was, it was great for me. Although my family was thousands of miles away back in New York, they joined me for a while. But it was a long and difficult case and somewhat disappointing at the appellate level. The trial level, as I mentioned, was really exciting and very productive.
Louis Goodman 11:55
I’d like to ask you about one of the cases that you talk about in your book, which was the, the Cornell Bridge case. I think one of the things that really interested me about it is living here in the San Francisco Bay Area, there’s been a great deal of discussion for years about putting in additional safety systems on the Golden Gate Bridge, where, you know, obviously many, many people have jumped to their deaths as a result of a suicide. And I’m wondering if you could talk about that Cornell case because it brings up some of the issues that have been discussed here in the Bay Area.
Kenneth McCallion 12:32
Absolutely. And in Cornell, we carefully followed the developments on the Golden Gate Bridge, which of course is America’s really iconic, iconic bridge. And the Gorge bridges over the Gorge and rivers that bisect the Cornell campus are similar iconic bridges in the east. And Cornell got the unfortunate reputation of being a suicide U because over a period of decades, there was resistance to putting safety, suicide proof barriers on the bridge by really the architecture departments and others of Cornell, which felt that the aesthetics of the bridge should not be impaired by putting up larger railings.
Meanwhile, there were a spade of suicides. Ultimately the turning point came when my clients, a young man, a freshman named Ginsburg at Cornell was one of three students who jumped from the bridges in a relatively short period of time. This precipitated really an emergency measures by the city and Cornell really to block off the bridges, which really had been unprecedented for the time being. And then ultimately the speed of suicides was so shocking that there was ultimately an agreement entered into the safety railings, which we had been advocating all along would be installed on these Cornell bridges and also sometimes called a McCallion netting, it’s underneath some of the bridges, which, you know, changed the aesthetics somewhat, but it saved a number of lives.
You would tend to think, well, if somebody wanted to commit suicide, they’ll just try it again or they’ll try a different way. And studies show that the overwhelming majority of those who survived a first suicide attempt, never tried it again and sought counseling and other alternatives. So the studies which we helped with and the legal cases we worked on with psychologists and in the courts, I think turned the corner. And colleges, universities, and towns are taking a much greater focus on safety measures for our iconic bridges or iconic spaces.
Louis Goodman 14:56
What do you really like about practicing law? I mean, you’ve been doing it for a long time. You’ve had a very varied career. You are someone who is bright and can do a number of different things, but you’ve stayed with the practice of law. I’m wondering why that is?
Kenneth McCallion 15:14
A law license is certainly a tool. It’s a trade, but it also gives a lawyer a great deal of flexibility. And unlike other professions, if I was a dentist, for example, and worked on the kind of projects I’ve worked and the kind of causes people would say, you know, why is a dentist, you know, working in the environmental area and public corruption, et cetera. But if you’re a lawyer, we are really considered to have such a broad range or spectrum of skills and interests that we can segue and reinvent ourselves in the litigation and other other areas.
Louis Goodman 15:53
If a young person were coming out of college, would you recommend the law as a profess?
Kenneth McCallion 15:59
Oh, yes. And I do it on a regular basis. And if they’re interested in pursuing a career in law, I like to help give them a boost, some guidance into it, and some of them have done well in law school or out practicing law.
Louis Goodman 16:15
What sort of advice would you give a young attorney just starting out in his or her career?
Kenneth McCallion 16:21
Look at your interests. If you wanna be a trial lawyer, like I wanted to be, being either prosecutor or a legal defender or working at a personal injury firm, a plaintiff’s firm is really the only way to really get a lot of court experience, trial experience and investigative experience.
Louis Goodman 16:42
What do you think is the best advice that you ever received?
Kenneth McCallion 16:45
Well, really from I’d say both my father and really my legal mentor, both of them really were fearless trial lawyers, but they told me, you know, really follow your instincts, do what you wanna do, what you like to do and the rest will follow. Follow your bliss, follow your instincts, follow your conscience. And if in fact the law is not just a way to make a living, it’s a honorable profession where we all try and leave the world a little better place than we found it, then us as lawyers are doing our job. And we’ve upheld the highest, really the highest aspects of, and traditions of the profession.
Louis Goodman 17:34
Do you think the legal system is fair?
Kenneth McCallion 17:36
Largely not. Contingent fee cases have leveled the playing field somewhat in this country. To a large extent, the federal courts have, I hate to say this, become really a dispute resolution venue for large corporations to settle their differences between themselves.
A lot of the judicial system is I think the resources are taken up in inter corporate disputes. With regard to plaintiffs, particularly in employment discrimination cases, civil rights cases, there are significant barriers now to the successful prosecution of those cases. And I see more and more lawyers kind of giving up, because it’s hard to make a living in civil rights cases against the government, against police officers when there’s qualified immunity and so forth as almost a 90% or a hundred percent bar against recovery.
Congress has a lot to do really in helping level that playing field again so that plaintiffs, the little guy, the ordinary American, the small business, have a fair shake in the justice system and that the scales of justice are more even.
Louis Goodman 18:51
You’re speaking to me right now from your sailboat, what other sort of recreational pursuits do you enjoy when you’re not practicing law?
Kenneth McCallion 19:03
Well, I ran 25 New York marathons, a number of triathlons. I tend to have a lot of extra energy, which I need to burn off through sports. I’m on my racing bike for miles every day, I play tennis every day and enjoy the sailing, which is a great, great sport.
When, of course I have an avocation of writing books. I seem to be a compulsive writer and have actually turned out more books than my publisher has been able to catch up with.
Loius Goodman 19:36
How do you define success?
Kenneth McCallion 19:38
Well, I think success doesn’t come from external trappings it, but it really comes from a person’s core.
Louis Goodman 19:46
Let’s say you came into some real money, three or four billion dollars. What, if anything, would you do differently in your life?
Kenneth McCallion 19:53
Well, really, really nothing because I’m doing exactly what I like to do. But with that kind of money, you know, we’re always shorthanded when it comes to experts like to get paid. I don’t like volunteer lawyers. Some lawyers offer their services for nothing, but unless they’re independently wealthy, I’m a firm believer that lawyer’s, law students should be paid for their services. So we have difficulty doing that sometimes. So with those kinds of resources, we wouldn’t have to worry about litigation financing, we wouldn’t have to worry about paying the bills and the salaries. And I think that we’d be able to take on a wider array of cases and hopefully leave a legacy for a future generation of lawyers.
Louis Goodman 20:42
Let’s say you had 60 seconds on the Super Bowl. What message would you like to put out to the nation in that ad?
Kenneth McCallion 20:50
Sure. I would say that, you know, you’ve seen wildfires, you’ve seen temperatures above a hundred degrees, which you’ve never seen before. You’ve seen air, water, your legs drying up. Super Bowls are important, but the survival of our environment of our very being is critical for our children and our children’s children. Wake up, let’s all take action and do our part.
Louis Goodman 21:14
If somebody listening to this podcast wanted to get in touch with you, what would be the best way to do that?
Kenneth McCallion 21:21
Well, they could go to the law firm’s website, www.mccallionlaw.com, or if you would type in my name Kenneth McCallion or the book Saving the World One Case at a Time.
And I respond to all the inquiries to my law firm’s website.
Louis Goodman 21:40
And we’ll get those links in the show notes.
Kenneth McCallion 21:43
Louis Goodman 21:44
Ken, is there anything that you wanna talk about that we haven’t touched on?
Kenneth McCallion 21:49
Well, I think we touched on an awful lot from the environmental cases, the human rights to the bridges at Cornell, which are very close to my heart.
Louis Goodman 21:58
Ken, I’d like to put in one final plug here for your book. It’s called Saving the World One Case at a Time by Kenneth Foard McCallion and it’s really an interesting read. You have had an almost Zelig-like seat at modern American legal history, you’ve outlined it in this book and it’s a very interesting read. So I would recommend it.
Kenneth McCallion 22:27
Well, thanks so much, Louis for your vote confidence. And we’d like to get as many copies out there and if they can, if people can’t afford them, you know, I’d say, go with a paperback. I like the hard copy myself, but one way or the other, if you contact us through the websites, we’ll make sure that you can get it one way or the other.
Louis Goodman 22:50
Kenneth McCallion, thank you so much for joining me today on the Love Thy Lawyer podcast. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.
Kenneth McCallion 22:59
Thanks so much, Louis. I appreciate it.
Louis Goodman 23:02
That’s it for today’s episode of Love Thy Lawyer. If you enjoyed listening, please share it with a friend and follow the podcast. If you have comments or suggestions, send me an email. Take a look at our website at lovethylawyer.com, where you can find all of our episodes, transcripts, photographs and information.
Thanks to my guests and to Joel Katz from music, Bryan Matheson for technical support, Paul Robert for social media and Tracy Harvey. I’m Louis Goodman.
Kenneth McCallion 23:40
Okay. Hold on a second. Let me just consult with my colleagues.