Though personal injury lawyers have sometimes been a target of outrage—for winning huge jury awards for supposedly minor mishaps, for example—Bob Clifford argues that certain cases have the potential to bring about needed changes. One example that he likes to cite: In 1987, he represented the family of a woman who died in a high-rise blaze at One Illinois Center because it took firefighters several hours to find her building’s vanity address, despite her frantic calls to 911. As part of a settlement, Chicago agreed to revamp its 911 emergency response system to include vanity addresses. “Not every case lends itself to a public-policy or social-policy goal that’s at issue,” says Clifford. “Somebody blows a red light because he happens to be tweeting at the time—that is what it is. But there are certain cases that come our way where there’s an identified public policy that needs to be pursued, and I do that better than anyone in this town.”

The son of a carpenter and a housewife, Clifford grew up on the Far Southwest Side, in the blue-collar neighborhood known as Mudville—a rough-and-ready place, he remembers, “filled with cops, firemen, and smalltime politicians.” One of only a handful of kids from his neighborhood to go to college, he enrolled at DePaul. He stayed there for law school but felt rudderless going into his second year. That changed after Philip Corboy, the dean of Chicago personal injury lawyers, visited Clifford’s class one day as a guest lecturer. “You could tell he had a passion for the law,” recalls Clifford. “That’s how I felt about it.”

After class, Clifford asked his professor, “How do you get a job with a guy like that?” His professor answered, “You don’t—he doesn’t hire kids from here.” Undeterred, Clifford marched over to Corboy’s office the next day to ask for himself. Corboy appreciated the law student’s moxie and hired him. Clifford started as a law clerk in 1974 and remained at Corboy’s firm for the next ten years.

In 1984, at 33, Clifford struck out on his own. Though he quickly collected a cascade of car accident, medical mishap, and unsafe product cases, the 1989 United Airlines crash in Sioux City, Iowa, turned out to be a game changer. Representing the families of five victims, Clifford won two multimillion-dollar verdicts, and he even got General Electric, the manufacturer of the plane’s engine, to admit responsibility. “After Sioux City, I got a reputation,” he says.

Today, plane crashes make up about 20 percent of Clifford’s firm’s overall business but half of Clifford’s personal caseload. He gets dozens of prospective new cases, of which about 10 percent are aviation cases, a week. Still, he argues that airline travel is safer than it used to be, in part because of the passenger-jet disaster cases that he and other aviation litigators have brought. “When I see a wrong, I want to right it,” says Clifford. “It’s just who I am.”