Belleville’s Tom Keefe Jr. and Son Thomas III of Keefe & Keefe PC

May 4, 2015 | In The News

BELLEVILLE — Around their law office they are known simply as T-2 and T-3. Files are labeled that way and messages recorded thusly.

T-2 is Thomas Q. Keefe Jr. T-3 is Thomas Q. Keefe III. They are father-son partners in the venerable Belleville, Illinois personal injury law firm of Keefe & Keefe PC, regarded as one of the most successful law firms south of Chicago. The Keefes have overcome not only the pressures and challenges of remaining successful law partners, but the additional rocket fuel of a father’s expectations and a son’s search for his own identity. It takes only moments to realize neither are a factor.

What binds this potentially volatile association is the enormous and evolving respect for each other that transcends any dispute. “I have a father’s pride and a lawyer’s respect for Tom,” says Keefe. “I could not have asked for a better mentor,” says his son. “One hundred percent of the lawyers in this area would love to have (this opportunity).” Thomas Keefe Jr. has secured more than $750 million in verdicts and settlements in his civil law practice. Such success can create an invisible barrier, a father’s shadow from which a young lawyer can never escape.

“That never bothered him at all,” says federal criminal defense attorney John D. Stobbs II, of Alton, himself a Leading Lawyer. “The guy’s an absolute genius and one of the best criminal defense trial attorneys in the St. Louis area.”

The path to the ultimate collaboration was not straightforward. Although he practiced essentially alone for many years as he built an outstanding practice just 30 minutes from St. Louis, Keefe wanted his son to know there was a spot for him in the firm after law school, if he wanted it. “I did not recruit him,” he says. “I was aware there could be a familial expectation, an (anticipation) of a father- son medical malpractice law firm. But it was his choice. I felt I would be lucky to get him because he is a very talented attorney.”

The younger Keefe says he had a vague plan as he labored through law school. “I called the Madison County Public Defender’s office to see if I could get on there because I wanted to learn how to try cases,” he remembers. “I thought that maybe after I had worked in the public defender’s office for a few years, I could get hired by a (large criminal defense) firm. Then maybe eight or so years and 20 to 30 trials later, I could join my dad in civil law.

“They did not get back to me, but the St. Clair County (public defender’s office) did and I began trying criminal cases for them.” The Madison County Public Defender eventually did offer young Keefe work. Within a year of graduating from law school, he already had tried several cases. “It’s very hard for young lawyers to get trial experience these days,” says Edwardsville attorney J. William Lucco, himself one of the premier criminal defense lawyers in southern Illinois.

“The number of cases in the court system these days almost requires that most of them settle. (Thomas III) has worked very hard to try as many cases as he could and to great success.”

Practicing Criminal Law in a Largely Civil Firm

Taking litigation experience to his father’s firm seemed to be the background he would need to launch his career in one of the top civil practices in Illinois. But like many career paths, this one veered in a different direction.

“He didn’t like civil law,” Keefe says without a shred of disdain. “No, I hate it,” his son says frankly, his father chuckling softly in the background. “There’s way too much paperwork and endless delays. I cannot read pages and pages of written discovery and the collection of interrogatory questions (punctuated) by objections to the form of the question. It moves too slowly. And there was a difference between working here during law school and having an ARDC number and a law license. I was now responsible for every piece of paper. I knew I would rather be in the courtroom.”

There was more at work as well, something the younger attorney acknowledges as reality that might cause less confident attorneys to bristle — client expectations. “Clients who come to this firm are here for him, not me. They want senior, not junior. I never worried too much about practicing in his shadow. It was the fear that I would let clients down. I realize now in retrospect that really didn’t matter because I am very confident in my abilities,” he says. As often happens in nascent partnerships, Keefe & Keefe thus faced an inflection point, the union resting on a knife’s edge. But a crisis never occurred. Three years ago, Thomas Keefe Jr., the namesake of the politically, socially and legally powerful law firm, told his son to follow his heart.

“I respected the size of his (courage) to do this. He didn’t want to go down my path, and he had the guts to do it (his own way). This law firm has a 35-year history as a civil brand. I respect him for wanting to practice criminal law in what has almost exclusively been a civil law practice.”

The theme of respect runs freely throughout the father-son/partner relationship. So does affection and the ease each feels with the other. T-3’s dog, Trotsky, lounges on an office chair or explores visitors. Neither father nor son enjoys the confinement of suits and ties, preferring instead leisure wear including jeans, moccasins and open collar shirts. The offices are clean and well appointed but comfort takes precedence over opulence. Unlike major Cook County firms with high-rise, lake view offices and large staffs, absent is constant pressure for high fees.

“If you are thinking about billable hours, you are not thinking about the client,” the elder Keefe says. “We don’t worry about that here. We worry about the client.” While civil attorney Keefe turns down many more clients than he accepts, once engaged, he is locked on in a relentless pursuit of a fair judgment and never loses sight of his objective. “If I think a client has been wronged, I get mad,” says civil attorney Keefe. “My default mechanism in a case is not pity. Our clients do not want our pity. They want justice.”

That focused anger at injustice is what binds father and son as both make their way through different parts of the legal world. “I don’t practice law for the money,” young Keefe says. “It’s a leveling of the playing field. It’s about access to justice for everyone. In a criminal trial, the stakes are a person’s life or freedom. The higher the stakes, the better you have to be.” Because of the firm’s consistent civil success over the years, he now has the freedom to pursue that passion without the pressure of making billing a priority. And that is a salutary development since many of Keefe’s clients are economically challenged.

“I get a check for $13.44 every two weeks from the Public Defender’s office (in addition to medical benefits),” he says, for cases he handles out of that office. For the firm’s clients, the fees depend on the accused’s ability to pay, which is often received “$100 here and there.”

Many Criminal Law Clients Are Poor

Many of those clients arrive on Keefe’s doorstep from East St. Louis and Benton, poor and in need of quality legal representation in circuit or often, federal court. “I try to get to know them as a person,” he says. “I try to tease out details about their lives, their economic status and the charges against them. I look for mitigating factors and try to get an overall sense of what we are dealing with. It is less awkward to discuss payment if that is not the first thing out of your mouth. At that point I might tell them that I am getting a sense they will not be able to pay a criminal retainer fee and then throw out a number to see if we can work something out. I want them to know that money is not the most important thing.”

While Thomas Keefe Jr. has secured several million dollars in judgments and the resulting fees, his son’s paywhat-you-can, when-you-can philosophy would strain many partnerships. Does the elder partner need to approve such arrangements? “We only had that conversation once, and it was years ago,” says the defense attorney.

“Look, Tommy is not accountable to me. He is accountable to his clients,” says his father. “I do not question his decisions. He is a partner in this firm. He became a lawyer to answer to his clients, not his partners.” What benefit then, save familial pride, does the patriarch receive from his association with his criminal lawyer son? The most important of all, he says. “I believe there is a justice gap in this country. It is our responsibility as lawyers to give everyone access to justice. Tommy’s work discharges a moral obligation that our firm — and I believe all firms — have to make sure everyone has that access.

We are guardians of justice and of people’s rights. This gives us street cred and more importantly, good karma. The older I get, the more I believe in karma.” Samantha S. “Sammy” Unsell, who both say is on track to make partner in the firm, joins the Keefes in their practice. Unsell, 30, is just five years out of law school and comes from a lawyer’s lineage as
both parents are attorneys. “She put herself through law school at night while working for us during the day, and the last two years combined has secured in excess of $9 million for her clients.

She’s going to be a star,” the younger Keefe says. Balancing as many as 10 murder cases at once, in addition to federal cases and less serious matters, keeps him sharp and excited about his profession, the criminal attorney says. “Trial is like a game. It’s a chance to test myself when the stakes are the highest. The more important my best efforts are to the client, the more (I pour into the case).” And that, the two men agree, is one factor that keeps the young criminal defense attorney at a firm largely known for its civil law practice: the ability to pursue fair representation for clients who need it the most without the pressure of racking up large fees.

Styles, Skills Complement Each Other, Benefit Clients

But the collaboration yields far more than good karma or personal satisfaction. Like most good partnerships, each complements the other’s skills and together they create a critical mass of legal thinking that benefits both and ultimately, their clients.

“I derive a substantial benefit from this partnership,” the elder Keefe reflects. “He writes very well. He also has a perspective about cases I won’t have because his legal mentality was formed in a different area than mine. He looks at things differently than I would. Plus, he is really smart.”

“Tom (T-3) is a three-dimensional thinker and one of the best in cross examination I have ever seen,” says Stobbs. “One time he and I were co-counsel (defending a client) in a federal drug-induced homicide case. The assistant U. S. Attorney was a very good prosecutor whose technique was to question his witness, allow you to cross examine, and then on re-direct, ask about all the issues you raised. He was essentially getting two bites of the apple.

“When he finished his direct examination, Tom decided that the prosecutor had not provided any showing that a law had been broken. Against my advice, as well as that of his father and Bruce Cook, two of the best trial lawyers around here who were watching the trial, he didn’t cross-examine and instead moved for a directed verdict.”

After a lengthy reading of the law and review of the testimony, the judge ultimately denied that motion. But Keefe still prevailed. “That was the one count I was responsible for, and it was the one count the client was acquitted on,” Keefe remembers. As a criminal defense attorney, the younger Keefe learned that calling on his father’s vast experience with juries and trials was more beneficial than talking to his peers in the criminal bar. “We are in the business of persuading 12 people to our position,” he says. “If you know the law and try enough cases it really does not matter what area of law you are in.”

The two often confer on preparation of cases and in the selection of a jury, something both agree is the most crucial phase of trial preparation. “I look for two or three themes when I prepare for trial,” the younger Keefe says. “And I hope these will resonate with the jury during the selection process and throughout the trial. What I learned from my Dad is that I need to take them part of the way there and let them get the rest of the way on their own. I can tell them what to think, but if I let them discover it for themselves, they own it and it is harder to disabuse them of that conclusion.”

“Tommy has learned that going to trial takes confidence, courage and a lot
of lost weekends. Showing that willingness pays dividends for you clients, criminal or civil. As a result, he gets settlement offers that are far better than what other attorneys might get,” his father says.

In a recent murder case out of East St. Louis, Keefe’s 21-year-old client faced a minimum of 45 years in a shooting death. Because of Keefe’s track record at trial, the state first offered reduced charges, then reduced jail time in exchange for a guilty plea, both of which he refused. The prosecutor finally asked Keefe what it would take to settle. His client pleaded guilty to a reduced charge and will be home in just over six years.

“People come to me for money — a settlement,” says Thomas Jr. “They come to Tommy for years of their life. I can get them $4 million, let’s say. But Tommy can give people years. How much is that worth?” The two enjoy their lives as lawyers and their relationship as father and son.

Thomas Jr., who grew up in East St. Louis, never forgot his working class upbringing and works tirelessly for local, state and national candidates who represent that view. His son lives in the Benton Park neighborhood of St. Louis, a largely gentrified but still wholly urban setting, which keeps him in touch with the vibrancy of the city and the people he represents. “I’d say we are best friends. We talk about the law and cases all the time. We are both always thinking about our clients.”

“Sometimes my wife, Rita, will ask me how Tommy is doing because I see him every day,” says Keefe. “I ask her ‘you mean as a lawyer or as our son?’ But my answer is always the same: He is doing great.”

– Leading Lawyers insert in Chicago Daily Law Bulletin’s Law Day edition, 2015 

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