Deep Roots, Real World Vision
“I grew up on the Southwest Side of Chicago. My dad was a mechanic at International Harvester and chairman of the local union. He also worked a number of part-time jobs and was involved in local politics,” said alumnus Joseph G. Bisceglia (1970 criminology, law and justice). “It was a classic immigrant story. Dad’s influence was sometimes gentle, sometimes not so gentle. His ethic was that our job was to get a good education; his job was to provide for us and give us access to whatever we needed in that regard. In those days you could be working class and provide a good life for your family in ways that are no longer as possible for many today.
Joseph Bisceglia. Photo courtesy of Jenner & Block
As a partner with the 100-year-old national law firm of Jenner & Block, Bisceglia now enjoys the fruits of a successful career and a satisfying life influenced by his father’s vision and commitment, but also built by his own hard work and perseverance. It is a life grounded in principle, community service, and deep roots in his beloved hometown.
“I sometimes feel guilty about my privilege,” Bisceglia admitted. “It is clear that there is a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots and I make a really, really good living. That is part of why I am involved in a lot of pro-bono work and charity work.
“I went to the Chicago Public Schools through eighth grade and got a darn good education there. I had some excellent teachers who pushed me and encouraged me,” he said. “My dad sent my brother Paul and me to St. Ignatius College Prep in the West Loop for high school. We took three buses to get there, but it was worth the trip. It forced me to get out of my Southwest Side ‘hood,’ and the rigorous Catholic Jesuit education made a huge difference in my life.
“The rest of my entire formal education, from high school on, was within a one-mile radius—down the street to Circle for my undergraduate work and DePaul downtown for law school, commuting from home the whole time. That was the culture then, as I expect it still is for others at UIC.”
Arriving at UIC, Bisceglia took advantage of the broad range of choices available in LAS. “In my opinion, lack of exposure to liberal arts courses simply stunts you both personally and professionally—no matter what career path you choose,” he said. “If you haven’t taken psychology and literature, sociology and history, you will hamper your ability to understand people and communicate.”
During his junior year, Bisceglia’s interest in law was sparked through criminology courses with attorney Stephen A. Schiller, who went on to become a circuit court judge. “He was a great teacher, and used some of the same textbooks I later had in law school,” Bisceglia explained. “I have to admit that my dad also pushed me in the direction of becoming a lawyer. I always felt that if he had a different life, my dad would have gone into the law. He really respected and admired lawyers.”
William Kunstler greets students on campus, fall 1970. Photo by George Philosophus.
Bisceglia’s college experience was shaped by the politics and social upheaval of the late 1960s. “My four years at Circle were a period of further awakening,” he said. “I definitely demonstrated against the Vietnam War. Like many of us during that time, I grew my hair long. I still have attorney Bill Kunstler’s autograph in one of my law books from when he spoke on campus about the Chicago Seven trial. My liberal beliefs, which I still maintain, were being formed and this continued throughout my time at DePaul Law.”
As a new law student, Bisceglia grappled with issues of self-esteem and doubt. “I am not any kind of genius, I am an over-achiever,” he explained. “I had a great education at UIC, but I’m a local guy, a ‘Southsider,’ and some of the other kids in my class already sounded like lawyers on the first day of class. They had grown up on the North Shore, gone to elite schools. I spoke a different language and was concerned that I couldn’t compete and would flunk out.
“I considered throwing in the towel, but instead I just worked my butt off and wound up graduating first in my class. That’s the main reason why I’m here at a prominent law firm like Jenner & Block 39 years later.”
Bisceglia was admitted to the bar in 1973 and recruited by Jenner & Block in 1975. “I chose them because it was the only big firm that handled criminal cases and, at the time, that was what I wanted to do,” he said. “I came here to work with great criminal lawyers like Tom Sullivan, who went all out to defend their clients.
“After a time, however, I realized that I really couldn’t handle a steady diet solely of criminal law. I have this great passion and sometimes I would throw myself into a case with such vigor that the lines between the professional and personal would begin to blur. You need to know that you can represent your client to the gates of hell but you don’t walk in with them.” Bisceglia took this important lesson to heart and shifted his primary professional focus to commercial, real estate, and construction litigation.
Despite Bisceglia’s grueling work schedule at Jenner, he helped raise three daughters, and also immersed himself in activities outside the firm. An active member of the Illinois State Bar Association, he served as president from 2007-2008, during which time he sponsored bar association resolutions to abolish the death penalty in Illinois and in support of legislation permitting same-sex unions. He was particularly gratified that both became the law in Illinois a few years later. He is a long-time participant in his law firm’s extensive and nationally recognized pro-bono legal assistance program that provides representation to indigent individuals and not-for-profit organizations. He also co-chairs the largest Chicago fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which has raised more than $7.9 million since its inception in 1994.
“I do try to give back as much as I can. It may be trite, but I really consider myself to be one of the luckiest people you can imagine,” Bisceglia said. “I have a wonderful, supportive family—which includes my three daughters, one of whom is also a lawyer—and while I have worked hard, I would not be where I am without the blessing of my father’s strong guidance and my mother’s unconditional love. No one earns it all himself.”
Regarding his Chicago roots, he believes that “trees grow best where planted. I have a lifetime of friends in the Chicago area, including friends from grammar school who I see regularly. I love to explore and I've done a lot of traveling, but I am a rooted guy and I love this city—that is who I am.
“My advice to students today, to my own kids and grandkids, is: find out who you are, what you are good at, what your passion is, and stay true to that. Then abide by the two most fundamental values: hard work and honesty,” Bisceglia said. “After that, if you can find something that gives you a decent living and that you actually enjoy doing more than 50 percent of the time, you are way ahead of the curve. Don’t look only at the Wall Street guy making millions because money does not always equate with happiness or personal fulfillment. Keep your vision in your own world and do the best you can.”