When New Haven lawyer persuaded a Hartford jury earlier this month to award a disabled Amtrak foreman $1,581,116, word spread like wildfire throughout the railroad community.
The verdict came May 12, a Friday, and all that weekend and his two partners received calls at home from people offering congratulations and thanking them for helping a member of Connecticut’s close-knit railroad family.
It wasn’t the first time they’d gotten that kind of response.
The law firm of Cahill, , & DiPersia handles only railroad-related cases, only on a contingency-fee basis and without the help of any associates. In eight years they haven’t lost a single case, and they can’t remember a jury ever returning a verdict of less than three times’ the amount of the last settlement offer made by the defense.
George J. Cahill, and , both 38, and John D. DiPersia, 37 form a trio of proud, often playful plaintiff’s lawyers who credit their success to an intense focus on ” the three Cs” — confidence, control, and credibility. Each also lives in mortal fear of being the first member of the firm to lose a case, and they say it is that self-imposed terror and good-humored competition that keeps them winning.
The firm is the only one in Connecticut handling Federal Employers’ Liability Act suits — a workman’s compensation system for railroad workers that dates back to the turn of the century — and one of about a dozen like it in the country. The idea is Cahill’s brainchild, and his partners consider him to be their “anchor.”
Although Cahill comes across as being ultra-calm, often deferring to his partners — DiPersia, a flashy, feisty ex-boxer, and , a courteous, even-tempered intellectual — those same partners, also very close friends, claim “the ol’ Cahill fire is hidden just beneath the surface, and when it comes out, watch out!”
Reared in New Haven, the son, grandson, nephew, brother and cousin of more than a dozen railroad workers, Cahill followed suit. Even during law school he moonlighted as a conductor, and after joining a firm in Boston, he saw no reason to stop.
When Cahill returned to New Haven and opened an office on the second floor of his father’s house, he continued working as a night conductor, taking runs between New Haven and New York’s Grand Central Station.
“The money I earned handling criminal cases and divorce work, probate matters and real estate closings all was used to finance the personal injury work I was doing because at that time I really had no money to obtain medical reports and paper depositions and so forth.” Cahill said. It was his work with the railroad that was feeding his family, he said.
But then, in November 1978, he got his first trial. The case was very similar to the one that led to ‘s latest victory. A 55-year-old conductor had slipped and fallen on an icy crossing at the New Haven passenger station during a blizzard the previous year. In one of Judge Ellen Bree Burns’ first cases on the federal bench, the jury awarded Cahill’s client $600,000.
It was a pivotal moment for Cahill. Business immediately took a dramatic upswing, and just as quickly Cahill was fired from the railroad for disloyalty.
What upset the railroad was not so much the fact that I hit them up for $600,000,” Cahill said, chuckling at the memory. “But when they heard I worked the train as a conductor that evening and picked up an additional $65, that was more than they could handle.”
The story is a favorite among all three partners, since it was at that trial that Cahill met , a Harvard Law School graduate and Burns’ clerk at the time. And Cahill had enlisted the help of a law school chum, DiPersia, then an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board, in preparing witnesses for the trial. The two had attended the New England School of Law together.
Little did they know that within a few years they would become a highly specialized team using FELA on behalf of a very distinct and loyal clientele.
A Small Corner of the Law
The partners recognize the vulnerability of such a highly specialized practice, noting that Congress has posed serious threats to FELA in the past. It appears as if the law will survive, but in the event that it is wiped off of the books one day, Cahill, and DiPersia said they would persevere, but they would be forced to change the nature of their practice, they said, and would miss it tremendously.
The three said they understand the perception of the narrowness of their practice as a weakness, but they see it as a strength.
“Because we specialize and can focus intensely on what we’re doing, it’s a tremendous strength and no one [with a broader-based practice] can compete with us in this field,” DiPersia said.
“The railroad is a subculture,” said. “They have special laws that apply only to the railroad. There’s FELA — that’s totally different from the workmen’s compensation scheme that everybody else lives by. They have the Railway Labor Act, which is its own special labor statute, different from the Labor Relations Act. They have the Railroad Retirement Board which replaces Social Security — these people aren’t covered by Social Security.
“It goes on and on,” said. “There are special rules, laws, practices and customs. It’s a very special and distinct culture. Ninety-nine percent of the lawyers that I talk to kind of scratch their heads when I mention FELA. It’s a small corner of the law where, if you don’t work with it, you have no idea what it’s all about.”
While Cahill always wanted to represent railroad workers and DiPersia’s interest in law was always labor-oriented, railroad law is the last thing ever expected to be doing.
He had intended to teach law, and applied for a clerkship with Burns only because he believed “the best teachers had some experience in the real world.” It was through clerking that he caught the trial bug, but after about a year at Tyler Cooper & Alcorn, he was pleased to get a call “out of the blue” from Cahill, who was looking for a partner.
“I liked [Tyler Cooper], but it was being a cog in a wheel,” said. “It was frustrating because I wasn’t getting the opportunity to try cases.”
On their Own
Now, working with a staff of two secretaries in an airy vintage brick house, and his partners each average about 75 cases a year, about 95 percent of which are settled, they said. But they are quick to emphasize, as said, that “every case we take has the presumptions it’s going to trial, and we treat it accordingly.”
Treating it accordingly means one partner handles every aspect of his case from beginning to end. They claim that their secretaries, Marilyn Donroe and Denise Boyer, are “the best in the world.” But they said they “don’t believe in associates.”
“I personally could not imagine somebody else doing any of the work on one of my cases and just handing something to me, as I see all the time with my opposition,” said DiPersia, nicknamed “The Torpedo” because, as said, “you point him in one direction and he’s going to go and sink the target.”
“It would be so-nonproductive because I’d be in here late at night checking through everything, duplicating all the work,” DiPersia said.
Most partners might be inclined to believe that without the help of associates they’d be in the office all hours anyway. But these partners seem to believe that taking on the entire burden of a case themselves streamlines the work and leaves them better prepared at trial than an attorney with a dozen associates at his or her disposal.
At trial last fall in which secured a $1,650,000 verdict against Metro-North, his opposing attorney was dying to know ‘s “secret”.
“He was very perplexed,” said. “He saw I didn’t have any associates and he couldn’t figure out how I was so well prepared. I told him, “If you did the work yourself in the beginning and limited yourself to a reasonable number of cases so that you can maximize your effect in those cases, then you’d be able to do it.”
At a trial, Cahill, & DiPersia appear with their own self-written “bible” — a 4-inch thick binder containing 21 meticulously organized sections containing everything from “Things to Do” to “Depositions.”
“When [the opposition] sees this, the sense of fear and awe is there,” DiPersia said. “You can see the fear in the other guy’s eyes. It’s like being in the ring. You just know when the other guy doesn’t want to get hit anymore. You just see it in his eyes that he’s afraid.
“That’s what preparation does for you in the courtroom,” he said, banging on the trial book. “You just feel that you’re in control. And I don’t think I could ever feel that way if somebody else was doing work for me and handling it over for me to rely on.”
Still, for all the confidence, control and credibility — enough to have gained an enviable track record with juries throughout the Northeast — Cahill & DiPersia said they always feel the treat of that first inevitable lost case.
They don’t want to be on the receiving end of the calls they are certain they will get when it happens. And for all their teamwork and friendship, each of them dreads the ribbing he will have to face from the others should he be the one to strike lead first.
In the meantime, said, they will “just try to stay