By MaryBeth Matzek
When Joseph Russell isn’t working for BP on Deepwater Horizon-related cases, he’s handling smaller, pro bono cases on behalf of the mentally ill.
It’s a balance that Russell, a shareholder in the litigation and risk management practice group at von Briesen & Roper SC, finds rewarding.
“It’s a definite mix,” he said. “But when you have an epic case like the one with BP, it’s nice to be able to focus on just one person and their case where you can see the immediate benefit.”
Russell, who this year moved from Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago to von Briesen & Roper in Milwaukee, continues to work on BP lawsuits related to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and anticipates he will for the next several years.
“There are literally thousands of lawsuits out there,” Russell, who focuses on environmental law, said.
His desire to give back through pro bono work stems from his Jesuit education first at Marquette High School in Milwaukee and later at Georgetown, where he earned his bachelor’s degree.
“I was always encouraged to give back to my community,” he said.
Russell was pursuing an English doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with plans to teach, when he met his wife, who was in law school. He decided to pursue law, as well, and earned his degree from Northwestern University School of Law.
“I liked teaching, but I wanted to be in the courtroom more than the lecture hall,” he said. “I decided to go from educating kids to educating judges and juries.”
He also was interested in working on cases involving the mentally ill. Those two interests – pro bono work and the mentally ill – came together on Williams v. Quinn, a U.S. District Court case out of Illinois in which Russell successfully served as class counsel for more than 4,000 mentally ill people living in state-funded institutions that wanted to move into community-based housing where they could receive services.
Not all of his pro bono cases are on such a large scale, however.
“It’s good to also take a step back,” he said, “and work on smaller cases where you can directly help someone.”
Wisconsin Law Journal: What song is on heavy rotation on your iPod?
Joseph Russell: ‘Big Butter and Egg Man’ by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five. I had a trial in New Orleans this fall and couldn’t stop listening to it. The lyrics are ridiculous, but it always puts me in a good mood.
WLJ: What was your least favorite class in law school and why?
Russell: State and Local Government. I went to law school in Chicago, so the focus tended to be on Chicago politics. We ended up studying the tabloids more than the casebook.
WLJ: What was the first concert you attended?
Russell: The first true concert I went to was the Grateful Dead at Alpine Valley in the mid-‘80s. My mother warned me not to drink from any open containers offered to me.
WLJ: If you could live anywhere, where would it be?
Russell: Wisconsin aside: Los Cabos, Mexico. Never a rainy day.
WLJ: What is one food or beverage you couldn’t live without?
Russell: Sauerkraut. Flanagan’s Krrrrisp Kraut to be exact. It’s made by my father-in-law in Bear Creek, Wisconsin.
WLJ: What app couldn’t you live without?
Russell: Sonos. I can play any music I want in any room in my house.
WLJ: What’s your favorite thing to do in Wisconsin?
Russell: Vacationing with my family in Door County – winter or summer
WLJ: What activity could you spend hours doing outside of work?
Russell: Reading stories to my kids