Being the daughter of a successful and prominent politician can have its perks. Cooney & Conway attorney Kathy Byrne received a valuable advantage from having her mother, Jane Byrne, serve as Chicago’s first (and so far, only) female mayor.
“Her greatest legacy to me was that there is no ceiling,” Kathy said. “You talk about a glass ceiling, but I’m unaware. I’m sure there probably is one, but I’ve never felt there was anything that I could possibly be prohibited from doing.”
Kathy used that principle to help her become a highly successful attorney and a powerful voice in asbestos and mass tort litigation. In addition to her thriving practice at Cooney & Conway in Chicago’s Loop, she is a sought-after speaker and writer, and a mentor to the next generation of trial lawyers. She is listed in the prestigious Who’s Who in American Law and Who’s Who in American Women.
Kathy Byrne grew up in the Sauganash neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side. Among her earliest and fondest childhood memories were playing outside with her friends every day, all day, all summer.
“We would hang out and play Kick the Can until the street lights came on, and it seemed like summer went on forever,” she recalls.
Her father, Lt. William P. Byrne, died in a military airplane accident when Kathy was an infant. This tragedy led to a special bond between Jane and her only child, though Kathy was not always made to feel like an only child. After her father’s untimely death, Jane and Kathy moved into Jane’s parents’ house, where there was never a shortage of family around.
“My mother was one of six children,” Kathy said. “She had two younger sisters, and one of them was actually closer to my age than my mother’s. So, it was as if I had two big sisters. Then my great grandfather moved in and he was a huge influence on my life.”
“I Didn’t Want to Do It, I Wanted to Write About It”
A sense of civic responsibility was instilled in Kathy at a very young age. She recalls her mother taking her to job fairs for the residents in the Lawndale and Woodlawn neighborhoods on the city’s South and West Sides as part of Jane’s work with the Department of Economic Development and the War on Poverty. Visits to those neighborhoods gave young Kathy a view into a lifestyle that was very different from the rows of houses with lawns on the tree-lined streets of Sauganash. Those visits opened her eyes to an experience lived by many Chicagoans every day.
Kathy’s mom instinctively knew the impact that the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April, 1968, would haveon the fabric of American society overall, particularly onChicago’s minority population. It was a distressing time that seemed to come out of nowhere for the Byrne family.
“My mom said, ‘This is going to be a tragedy for the city,’” Kathy recalled. “I didn’t understand what she was talking about. I was little, I didn’t get it. Then I learned that, basically, the West Side was on fire. I remember how terrible that was.”
Just two months later, the country suffered another tragedy with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Kathy’s entire family had worked on Kennedy’s presidential election campaign, even taking a volunteer bus to Indiana to knock on doors and canvas neighborhoods during the primary. Kennedy’s death was devastating to the country. It hit Kathy’s generation the hardest, forever changing the way they would think about politics and the country going forward.
“For my generation, we’re not quite baby boomers because we don’t have all those ‘50s memories and we were too little to understand the impact of JFK’s assassination,” she said. “For us, Bobby Kennedy dying triggered the whole “tuning out” of politics in the ‘70s. A lot of people washed their hands of the whole system after that, and I think it was Bobby’s death that really triggered it.”
It was a tumultuous time in America for the daughter of an activist and rising politician spending her formative years in Chicago. The more Kathy Byrne watched and heard, the more intrigued and interested she became. As close as she was to the political scene and cultural climate in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Kathy found herself not wanting to be a part of it as an active political participant. Rather, she wanted to be reporting on the political scene as a member of the media.
“I didn’t want to do it,” she said of any political aspirations. “I wanted to write about it, I wanted to cover it. I wanted to be a political journalist. The heroes of the ‘70s were (Watergate reporters Bob) Woodward and (Carl) Bernstein. I was the editor of my school paper and they were my heroes. Because of my mom, I was also pretty used to seeing TV cameras, and I thought they were in the cat bird’s seat.”
To this day she is a self-proclaimed news junkie, who muses about her eyesight after so many hours reading and scouring the Internet for the latest political news.
Mayor Byrne’s Stay at Cabrini-Green Made Lasting Impact
Perhaps the most impactful of Mayor Jane Byrne’s examples for her daughter and the city of Chicago during her term at City Hall, was her decision to move into the Cabrini-Green housing project in 1981. As Kathy explains it, the move came out of an organic reaction to another shooting death of a girl in the area.
“If anyone was going to do anything, she realized she was going to have to do it,” Kathy said. “She went over there basically unannounced.”
Whenever the mayor traveled in the city, she rode in a limousine referred to as “Car 1,” with a tail car following along the route. On this morning, she instructed Car 1 to go to City Hall without her as she got into the tail car. As the car made its way to Cabrini-Green and began to drive around the project, the mayor became increasingly upset to see that no police officers were around, and no investigation of the shooting was taking place.
“Give me the radio,” Mayor Jane Byrne said to the driver. Without identifying herself, she instructed all officers in the area to come to where she was. As the squad cars scrambled to meet her car, an investigation into the shooting began.
In the quiet of her residence that night, the mayor thought about what had happened that day. It struck her that if she were at Cabrini-Green all the time, police would be, too. Soon after that, Jane and her second husband, journalist Jay McMullen, moved into a fourth-floor apartment. During the evening hours, the mayor would sit in the stairwell talking to the young girls who would approach her. She would talk with them for hours, telling stories and sharing her journey with them. The mayor’s stay at Cabrini-Green ended a few weeks later following an Easter celebration which drew protesters who claimed the move was merely a publicity stunt. The mayor frequently returned throughout her mayoral term to visit with the residents. Her stay had a lasting impact on many Cabrini-Green residents, and brought international attention to the project’s many issues and the city’s overall problems with violence and gangs.
Kathy tells a story about the lasting impact of Jane’s time at Cabrini-Green. United Airlines had a community program in which they would take underprivileged children up on a flight in a big jet, and circle the city before returning to O’Hare. For most of the kids, it was their first time on an airplane. Kathy was asked to act as a flight attendant for one of those flights and arranged for some of the girls her mom had met at Cabrini-Green to be passengers. One of the little girls on that flight had spoken with Jane about her late husband, and how grateful he was that the military paid for some of his college. That little girl is now a retired Air Force Colonel after serving for over two decades, and wrote to Kathy after her mother passed away in 2014 to let her know how big of an influence that airplane ride and her talk with the mayor that day had on her life.
“You’re Going to Name a Highway Ramp After Her?”
Jane Byrne faded from public life after her only term in office as Mayor of Chicago from 1979–83, but always received a wonderful reception at her rare appearances. Everyone in attendance was honored and thrilled by her presence at Rahm Emanuel’s first inauguration day in May, 2011. Dignitaries throughout the city and state began to think of ways to honor the city’s first female mayor. Then-Governor Pat Quinn wanted to make sure anything named after her would be on public display at all times. This gave him the idea to name the Circle Interchange in Jane’s honor.
“You’re going to name a highway ramp after her?” Kathy responded.
Jane Byrne’s name is now a major part of the largest transportation interchange leading in and out of the city she loved. Radio stations mention her name all day for “traffic on the 9’s.” The electronic traffic signs display her name continuously, with alerts like “Ten minutes to the Jane Byrne Interchange.” And anytime someone drives in from O’Hare, the Jane Byrne Interchange welcomes them into or around the downtown area.
Another honor bestowed in the former mayor’s honor was the renaming of the Water Tower Park to the Jane Byrne Park.
“It’s a beautiful park,” Kathy said. “When my family first came here in the 1880s, that neighborhood was where they settled. It wasn’t a fancy neighborhood by any means, but they were around the Water Tower. My mom’s house was on Chestnut Street and you used to be able to see that park from her kitchen. So, that was the perfect spot.
“It is a thrill every single time. If I take a cab to work, from my house you can either go up Clark, which would be much faster, or you can take Michigan past Jane Byrne park and hear the radio announcing traffic times to the Jane Byrne Interchange. I always say, ‘Take Michigan, please.’”
According to her daughter, the greatest legacy Mayor Jane Byrne left for Chicago was the creation and proliferation of the city’s music and neighborhood festivals. From Taste of Chicago, Jazz Fest, and Blues Fest, to the local neighborhood music and crafts fairs and festivals, Jane had the vision to see how communities could come together in public celebration with annual events that people can count on every summer.
“There’s so little interaction among people now, having something like that is really good for the fabric of the city,” said Kathy.
“It Sounds Too Simple to Be Important”
Kathy graduated from law school in 1988, though a legal practice or career was not foremost on her mind. She still had the journalism bug and planned on talking about the law on television, rather than working in it. Then she entered a court room.
“My first day in trial practice we were in a mock court room,” she said. “I walked up to the podium and before I even said a word I thought, ‘This is what I’m going to be doing. I am going to be a trial lawyer.’”
Kathy started clerking at Cooney & Conway during law school and partner Bill Fahey gave her a copy of Outrageous Misconduct: The Asbestos Industry on Trial. This landmark book is based on a four-part series of articles that first appeared in The New Yorker, which chronicles the attempts of the industry to cover up the dangers of asbestos.
“I stayed up until 3 in the morning reading it,” Kathy said. “I read it all in one night. As I read I kept thinking, ‘These companies knew? They did math and figured it would cost them less to kill people than it would be to put in some machines or pay an extra quarter a ton for a different fiber?’ It was so audaciously horrible. It’s industrial murder, and they knew. By the time I finished the book I was thinking, ‘After law school, I’d kind of like to stay around.’
“You can’t change what happened to those people. In cases of mesothelioma, you can’t make the victims’ lives better. They spent their lives taking care of each other and now he’s not going to be able to do that because he won’t be alive. But you can make their family’s life better, and you can know that you are giving people peace of mind that they have provided for their loved ones. They know that their spouse is going to be okay, their kids are going to have college paid for.
“It can be as simple as a man who had planned the following year to get their driveway repaved. He’s sick, he may not make it, and he certainly can’t repave it. But he can know that the driveway is going to get repaved and his wife is not going to get stuck in a pothole in the driveway when it’s snowing. It sounds too simple to be important, but it is important.”
While there have been major developments in the detection and treatment of the deadly diseases asbestos causes, people generally tend to think the problem is an issue of the past. That is simply not true.
“Asbestos is still a huge danger today,” Kathy said. “If you’re in a house that was built before 1980 and you haven’t abated your house, you probably have asbestos in it. If you routinely changed your brakes, you had asbestos in that until a couple of years ago. If you’re a cable TV installer, you’re probably exposed to asbestos every day. If you wash dusty clothes of a cable TV installer, you’re breathing in asbestos. People don’t know that. They don’t know how insidiously this was used. You’re never going to get rid of everything that has asbestos. What I hope is that people will take it seriously. I don’t think they do.”
“You See the Best in Humanity”
Handling cases involving victims of mesothelioma and other asbestos-causing illnesses can be an intense and heart wrenching experience. Victims who contract mesothelioma have no possibility for recovery, it’s a death sentence. Communicating with the victims’ families can be even harder, but also comes with it a unique kind of satisfaction in knowing those families are being recognized, and their pain and suffering are being tended to.
“It’s rewarding,” Kathy said. “You kind of search your soul. You see every kind of reaction. You see deep denial, you see people who can’t cope. You also see people who are coping incredibly well. You see family members who are afraid of cancer – they know it’s not contagious, but they’re still afraid. You’ll meet a son or daughter and they seem rather flippant, until you find out they should work for hospice because they’re so tender and loving. It’s fulfilling in that, with the plaintiffs, you see the best in humanity. And with the defendants, you see the worst.”
“Take It Personally”
The digital age brings with it both added challenges and greater rewards for the those in the next generation who decide to practice law. Kathy can see the pitfalls of a decreasing reliance on personal interaction, while recognizing the benefits of the litigation process in an electronically-dominated world. The best advice she can give to future legal professionals is to try to keep a sense of humor, and to realize just how personal the business of asbestos and personal injury litigation is.
“My instinct is to say, ‘don’t take it personally,’ but I take it personally,” she said. “I actually think you should take it personally, because your clients are taking it personally and you owe it to them to echo that.”
As for her future, Kathy Byrne loves where she is and what she is doing. She said she gets great satisfaction in making a palpable difference for so many people who are at their worst. However, she doesn’t seem to be ruling anything out, including a potential political future.
“If there were something that I think I would be good at, and I could use my talents for, and they didn’t have anybody else, of course I’d be open to it,” she said.