Philip Corboy, a nationally known personal injury attorney, died early this morning at his home in Chicago. He was 87.
“Phil was a kind, compassionate and marvelous lawyer, and a wonderful husband,” his wife, Mary Dempsey, said in a statement issued by the law firm. “I want him to be remembered as someone who cared about people he loved and people he represented.”
Corboy, who co-founded the law firm of Corboy & Demetrio, had practiced personal injury trial law for more than 50 years.
The National Law Journal listed Corboy as one of the top 100 most influential lawyers in the country since beginning its survey in 1985.
Thomas A. Demetrio released a statement calling his partner “an extraordinary lawyer but an even better human being. His accomplishments in the courtroom pale in comparison to his contributions to his fellow man. His life was long and filled with much love, happiness and success –at all levels. While he’ll be missed greatly, his spirit and legacy will live on for generations.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel released a statement expressing his condolences and praising Corboy’s work.
“Chicago has truly lost one of its most outstanding citizens and a giant in the legal community,” the mayor said. “Throughout his long career, Phil’s commitment to seeking justice for the people he represented and public service never wavered and it was always his guiding principle.”
Appellate Court Judge Terrence Lavin said he was hired in 1981 to be Corboy’s law clerk and served in that capacity for two years, then worked as a lawyer in the firm for another four years. The two men became close friends, and when Lavin was sworn in as an appellate court judge two years ago, his mentor was “right there in the front row,” Lavin said.
“He was just an amazing man, the word legendary is over used but it was aptly used for him,” said Lavin. “He was the Jack Nicklaus of trial lawyers, he was a guy who was great across the decades.”
Corboy was trying million-dollar cases beginning in the 1960s and extending through four decades, said Lavin. He said Corboy had a record verdict when he was well into his 60s.
“He was the kind of guy who was always a cutting-edge person,” said Lavin.
Corboy was among the first to do research on picking a jury in personal injury cases, a practice that is now common for trial lawyers. He also championed using computers in law firms for management purposes, said Lavin.
“On a human level he was probably the most empathetic person that I’ve ever met,” said Lavin. “As a lawyer he could explain the plight of somebody who was brain-damaged or rendered a quadripeligic in such a light, a jury could really understand how it must have been to be that person.”
Corboy grew up in an apartment over a tavern in the Rogers Park neighborhood and was the son of a Chicago police officer, Lavin said. He attended St. George High School and attended Loyola Law School.
Corboy was trained by legendary trial lawyer Jim Dooley, who went on to become a state Supreme Court judge.
Corboy was an ambitious man whose goal was to take away the negative stigma attached to personal injury lawyers as ambulance chasers. “When he was coming up, it definitely was a backwater kind of practice,” said Lavin.
When he was hired, Lavin remembered Corboy handing over his own resume that listed the associations, boards and charitable organizations Corboy sat on or wrote for.
“He said if you want to be perceived as a great professional, do what I do here, try cases, give speeches, write articles. . .Be active in your community and care about charitable affairs,” said Lavin. “He was president of everything he wanted to be president of … a very, very accomplished guy.
“He was properly perceived as being probably the best trial lawyer in Chicago and maybe one of the best in America,” said Lavin.
He said Corboy had two children who died. Robert was killed at the age of 12 when a driver hit him as the boy was on a sidewalk riding his bicycle. Joan Corboy, a Circuit Court judge, died in 1999 in a freak accident in Corboy’s condo in Florida.
Lavin said he had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
In 2010, he and his wife made the largest single gift ever to the Loyola University Chicago School of Law. In recognition, Loyola renamed its law school building the Philip H. Corboy Law Center.
In a 2004 profile in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, Corboy contemplated his legacy and said he was proud of having represented “people who are in need at the destitute time in their lives.”
“When I’m gone, I hope people will say two words,” he said. ” ‘He cared.’ “
A spokeswoman for the law firm said Corboy died at his home at 3:30 a.m.
Survivors include his wife, three sons, Philip Harnett Corboy Jr., John R. Corboy and Thomas M. Corboy; eight grandchildren; and a brother. His only daughter, Judge Joan Marie Corboy, died at age 45, and his youngest son, Robert J. Corboy, died at age 12.
The funeral will be held at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago at 10 a.m. Saturday.
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