News

Professor Thomas Geraghty Retires After 41 Years as Bluhm Legal Clinic Director

October 09, 2017

Tom Geraghty law school classroom
Tom Geraghty in 1987

In 1967, Tom Geraghty (JD ’69) was one of a small group of students who, concerned about the state of legal services for the poor, approached Professors Jack Beckstrom and Tom Eovaldi about creating an in-house legal clinic. Five decades later, as Geraghty retires from the directorship he’s held since 1976, the Bluhm Legal Clinic is one of the premier clinical programs in the country, housing more than 20 clinics in 14 centers.

“I certainly had no idea when we started in the basement of Thorne Hall with three or four lawyers that we would now have 35 attorneys and over 200 law students each year,” Geraghty says.

Seemingly everyone who has been involved with the clinic since its inception is quick to note how integral Geraghty has been to its success.

“The mission of the Bluhm Legal Clinic is to train law students to be skilled, ethical, reform-minded professionals. Tom Geraghty is the living embodiment of that,” says Juliet Sorensen, Harry R. Horrow Professor in International Law and Geraghty’s successor as the new director of the clinic. “His integrity, his dedication to his cases and clients as well as his students, his civility and grace under pressure, and finally, his superlative lawyering, are all what have made him not only our leader, but indeed a legend in the Chicago legal community and the clinical community in the United States and around the world.”

Importance of Clinical Education

Geraghty has always understood the dual importance of clinical education: providing law students real-world experience and offering high-quality legal services to often underserved populations.

“Forty years ago, I took my first trip to court with Tom Geraghty when I was a 1L student. This was the start of an incredible journey,” says Northern District of Illinois Chief Judge Ruben Castillo (JD ’79), who serves as an adjunct instructor in trial advocacy at the Law School.

“For fifty years Tom has taken this journey with countless Northwestern Law students. Tom has been a steadfast, model mentor who has shown our students how to practice law while serving the public interest. Every time I see Tom working at the clinic, he inspires a renewed commitment
to the law.”

Geraghty pushed for the clinic to hire tenure-track faculty members and presided over decades of steady growth, especially in children’s law and criminal justice, culminating in the creation of the first two specialized centers, the Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) and the Center for Wrongful Convictions (CWC) in the 1990s.

A Fierce Advocate

“Tom has specialized in the representation of clients in juvenile and criminal court and has never shied away from taking the toughest cases — juveniles at risk of being tried as adults, defendants who have alleged they were tortured by Chicago police officers, and defendants who have been convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to death,” Dean Daniel B. Rodriguez says. “Tom’s tenacity has led to numerous victories on behalf of his clients, including at least three men — Jason Strong, Leroy Orange, and Ronald Kitchen —  who were exonerated after lengthy incarcerations for crimes they did not commit. In all of Tom’s cases, students have played a central role in the eventual outcomes.”

Bluhm Legal Clinic space in 2007
From left: Former Northwestern University President Henry Bienen, Neil Bluhm (JD '62), Former Dean David Van Zandt, and Geraghty at the opening of the new clinic space in 2007.

In 2000, the clinic became the Bluhm Legal Clinic thanks to a gift from Neil G. Bluhm (JD ’62), a life trustee of Northwestern University. The gift gave Geraghty the opportunity to continue to grow the clinic to meet his students’ needs.

“Tom’s vision included giving students a menu of different clinical programs from which to choose. And he gave the students a voice in shaping the clinical program,” says Steven Drizin (JD ’86), clinical professor of law and assistant dean of the clinic. “When students clamored for a Supreme Court clinic or an appellate advocacy clinic or an environmental law clinic or a human rights program, he hired the best people to help make these happen. He expanded the options for students who were interested in doing transactional work or business litigation or complex federal civil rights work. His goal was to engage as many students as possible in the clinic.”

Expanding the Mission

Beyond building a clinic education program that reached clients and educators across the country, Geraghty brought his expertise in access to justice and clinical legal education around the world, opening the Center for International Human Rights (CIHR) in 2006 and leading his own research projects and collaborations in nearly a dozen countries — most notably Ethiopia, where he has helped a group of lawyers and educators build a clinical education infrastructure from scratch.

Geraghty first visited Ethiopia as a student at the Law School, and when he saw an opening for legal reform after a regime change in the 1990s, he reconnected with some of the colleagues he had met at Addis Ababa University School of Law decades earlier. In recent years, Geraghty has accompanied students and fellow faculty members to Addis Ababa over winter break to conduct intensive clinical legal education trainings.

Last year, Geraghty and his wife Diane Geraghty (JD ’72), director and founder of the Civitas ChildLaw Center at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, were honored at UNICEF’s Chicago Humanitarian Awards for their work in Asia and Africa as UNICEF consultants for juvenile justice issues.

Looking Ahead

While he is retiring as clinic director, fortunately for incoming Northwestern Law students, Geraghty will continue to teach in the program. He plans on dedicating some time to research and writing, but primarily focusing on supervising students on juvenile and criminal court cases.

Tom Geraghty
Tom Geraghty in 2017

“I always thought I would enjoy the combination of teaching and practice and I was right — I really have enjoyed it. It’s been a wonderful time for me and I feel lucky to have had this job,” he says.

But his colleagues might feel more lucky.

“There’s an aspect of Tom’s leadership that has always puzzled me: how could a man who is so accessible, so supportive of his coworkers’ personal and professional lives, and so comfortably laid-back and even-tempered manage our complex clinical program so effectively — with all its demanding constituencies, its constant funding demands, its overseeing bureaucratic hierarchies, and its call on everyone’s best professional efforts to meet the challenges of our socially fraught city, and do all of that with such seeming effortlessness?” asks John Elson, professor of law emeritus and director of the clinic’s Civil Litigation Center. “Whatever his secret, he has been able to bring out the best in all of us.”

Drizin, who has worked in the clinic for more than 25 years, likes to tell a story he thinks exemplifies Geraghty’s “humility, selflessness, and devotion to his students.”

When the clinic that began in a single basement room was preparing to take over the entire eighth floor of Rubloff, Geraghty and Drizin went up to inspect the then-barren space.

“I remember [Tom] looking out at the long row of windows facing the Lake. He said something like: ‘This is the nicest space in the law school with the best views. I don’t care if others want to use this space for offices, this is reserved for the students. And I want this to be a showcase space for the clinic and the Law School. I want to host lectures and events here. This should be a space open to the public and to the entire Law School. And as far as my office is concerned, I don’t want my office to be any bigger than anyone else’s. I want the offices to all be the about the same size,’” Drizin recounts. “Now you can understand why I often refer to the Bluhm Legal Clinic as the House that Tom Geraghty built.”