Edward Genson's legal education began at age 6, as he tagged along with his father, a bail bondsman, and hung out in courtrooms.
Dan Webb talked a dean at Loyola University into letting him start law school a year early, an unheard-of feat. He still doesn't have an undergraduate degree.
The sixth of seven children, Patrick Collins displayed an intense work ethic, getting his first job in 2nd grade pulling nails out of boards at a warehouse and eventually paying his way through a Catholic high school by running a lawn-mowing business.
The historic trial of former Gov. George Ryan promises to be an epic courtroom battle, lasting four months and pitting Webb and Genson, arguably Chicago's two most sought-after courtroom lawyers, against Collins, a star federal prosecutor.
While they share much in common--tireless devotion to their work, attention to detail and an ability to connect with jurors--their styles in the courtroom are starkly different.
And style could matter a great deal in a sprawling case like the Ryan trial, where jurors face a daunting array of facts. The lawyer who can grab and keep their attention, while earning their trust, could have a decisive advantage, while a less likable attorney faces an uphill battle.
Webb, Ryan's lead lawyer, is the attorney of choice for many of America's major corporations--a polished, methodical questioner who is legendary for being a quick study and meticulous in his trial preparation.
Genson, who represents co-defendant Lawrence Warner, brings a flair for the dramatic, relying on instinct, experience and emotion in the courtroom, playing a charming rascal for jurors.
Collins, who has led the Operation Safe Road probe to spectacular success, is a straight-forward and serious prosecutor who employs a just-the-facts approach in court, scoring high on credibility with jurors.
"It's a fascinating contrast in styles," said Ronald Safer, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice. "Genson is the ultimate showman, Webb the ultimate tactician and Collins an exhaustive investigator and careful prosecutor."
Opening statements are expected to take place by mid-week. Ryan and businessman Warner are on trial on charges the former governor took cash, gifts and vacations for himself and relatives in return for steering state contracts and leases to Warner and other friends.
3,000 billable hours
A former U.S. attorney who spearheaded the groundbreaking Operation Greylord probe of judicial corruption in the 1980s, Webb turned 60 earlier this month, but he had completely forgotten the milestone until a daughter reminded him.
In an interview, Webb insisted he has an active family and social life--when he isn't preparing for or on a trial.
Those moments can be rare, though, for the Winston & Strawn partner with a lucrative national practice, a lawyer who often approaches a staggering 3,000 billable hours a year.
Just three months ago Webb finished an 8-month trial in Washington, D.C., leading the tobacco industry in a multibillion-dollar battle with the Justice Department. Almost immediately after, he began preparation for the Ryan trial.
Attorney Mark Rotert, a former Webb partner, recalled one exhausting workday in which he and Webb toiled for 16 hours. After returning to a hotel, Rotert invited Webb for a beer to unwind, but Webb begged off. He went jogging. It was after 11 p.m.
In preparing for trials, Webb labors countless hours pondering every possible question, as well as the answers it would elicit, honing his examination until it is "so precise there's no way a witness can play dodgeball with him," Rotert said.
"The trick is to get through a mass of detail and figure out how to explain it to a jury, consistent with the facts, and in a way that will make sense," Webb said.
His cross-examinations are usually aggressive, but Webb knows when to ease up. James Schweitzer, who prosecuted the Marquette 10 police corruption case with Webb when he was the U.S. attorney, recalled how delicately Webb handled the questioning of an officer's wife, prefacing many of his questions with: "Could you help me understand this?"
While acting as an independent counsel in an Iran-Contra trial in 1990, Webb softened his questioning of former President Ronald Reagan out of deference, in part, to his office. Then, realizing the approach wasn't working, he stayed up the entire night, redid his examination and came back far more aggressively.
"That turned out to be a big part of the trial," said Webb, who won a conviction of Adm. John Poindexter, national security adviser during the Reagan administration.
Genson, 64, has been a trial lawyer in Chicago for four decades. For at least half that time, he has been the preferred choice of more high-profile defendants--accused politicians, mobsters and businessmen--than probably any other attorney in Chicago.
Among his noteworthy trials have been the cases of Scott Fawell, Ryan's former right-hand man, and former U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds, who faced sex charges. He is currently representing singer R. Kelly against state child-porn charges.
Afflicted with a neuromuscular disorder since his teens, Genson has used a cane for years as he hobbles about a courtroom.
Over the years, some courtroom foes maintained that Genson's condition worsened during trial in a transparent attempt to win a jury's sympathy and that the cane was nothing more than a prop.
"I didn't disabuse them of the notion," Genson said in an interview. "But the God's truth is I need them bad."
Genson has a bit of the old TV detective, Columbo, in him as well, appearing at times to be bumbling--dropping things, stuttering and misfiring questions.
"It was almost comical," said Schweitzer, who as a federal prosecutor tried a Greylord case against Genson. "His method was very effective. When he rose for cross-examination, everyone was fixated on him."
Even after 40 years and a knee replacement, a spinal fusion and hip surgery in recent years, Genson still brings passion to his work.
He can be folksy, funny or full of fire and brimstone--whatever a cross-examination or closing argument needs.
While questioning Robert Cooley, the corrupt lawyer turned government mole, Genson slammed his cane down on the defense table, enraged at what he considered a lie.
"He is part runaway freight train and part concert violinist," said attorney Jeffrey Steinback, a former Genson partner. "You never know even in the course of a single examination which end of the spectrum he is going to come at you."
Collins' decadelong career as a federal prosecutor in Chicago has been among the most successful in the office's storied history of battling public corruption.
Under his leadership, Operation Safe Road has garnered 73 convictions, exposing thousands of hazardous drivers on the highway who bought licenses with bribes and ultimately uncovering alleged corruption at the highest levels of state government.
For nearly two years, he has also played an important supervisory role in the probe of City Hall's Hired Truck Program and patronage hiring, which so far has snared 23 convictions, and appears far from finished.
"So often public corruption investigations stall at mid-level people who bear the brunt even though they worked for others who really got the benefits," said Safer, the former federal prosecutor. "Collins has done a remarkable job climbing the ladder, prosecuting those who got the benefit of the corruption."
In Collins' biggest courtroom victory yet, a federal jury in 2003 convicted Fawell and Ryan's campaign committee of corruption. Now, in an interesting twist, Fawell will be the government's star witness in Ryan's trial.
The jury deliberated for seven days before convicting Fawell, a nerve-racking experience for Collins.
Collins recalled talking with other prosecutors and agents during that long week, wondering aloud, "Could we have done anything differently?"
At 41, Collins is far less experienced in a courtroom than Webb or Genson, yet he has the advantage of piecing the evidence together each step in the 7 1/2-year probe.
In the courtroom, Collins strikes a straightforward, no-nonsense style and exudes credibility with jurors.
"He is much more low-key [in the courtroom], but is just in his own way as fiery a competitor as Genson and Webb," said Steinback, the defense lawyer.
His big break came when he revived an investigation of point-shaving at Northwestern University that had stalled because of perjury by players.
Investigations "tend to be marathons, not sprints," said Collins, who has run marathons himself. "They require endurance. They do take on a life of their own. It's not as if you know where you're going. You follow the evidence."
Lead attorneys on both sides have plenty of top-notch help
Dan Webb, Edward Genson and Patrick Collins are joined on their legal teams by experienced lawyers.
For Gov. George Ryan:
- Bradley Lerman, a partner of Webb's at the law firm of Winston & Strawn, is a former federal prosecutor who took part in the Whitewater investigation and more recently defended McDonald's against allegations it hid health risks of its fast-food menu.
- Andrea Lyon, an associate professor at DePaul University College of Law, became friends with Ryan through her work on the death penalty.
For co-defendant Lawrence Warner:
- Terence Gillespie, considered one of Chicago's top criminal-defense lawyers, has partnered with Genson for 20 years, though they have rarely worked together in the same trial.
- Marc Martin is among the most experienced younger trial lawyers in Chicago, after teaming up with Genson in numerous high-profile cases.
- Carolyn Gurland is a Genson associate who could be missing from the trial by next month when she is expecting her second child with husband Michael Gurland, an assistant U.S. attorney.
- Marvin Bloom, a veteran criminal-defense lawyer, will play a limited but important role: cross-examining Scott Fawell, Ryan's former top aide. Genson had a potential conflict of interest: He represented Fawell at his 2003 trial.
For the prosecution:
- Zach Fardon, the No. 2 federal prosecutor in Nashville, is on special assignment to help prosecute Ryan. Formerly posted full-time in Chicago, he assisted in prosecuting the Fawell trial.
- Laurie Barsella is in her second stint as a federal prosecutor in Chicago after working for the Justice Department in Rome and as inspector general for the Chicago Transit Authority.
- Joel Levin, a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Chicago, San Francisco and Milwaukee, specializes in complex fraud prosecutions and helped win the conviction of Fawell.
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