Founding & History
Graduating from University of Chicago in 1929, Mr. Despres left the ranks of a large Chicago law firm in 1934 to start his own general practice. This practice allowed him the freedom to handle the labor and civil rights cases that he was passionate about during a critical period in the history of the American labor and civil rights movements.
In 1937, Leon M. Despres began to represent Willard Saxby Townsend and the International Brotherhood of Red Caps, a fledgling union representing baggage handlers at railroad stations. From these beginnings, Mr. Despres built a stellar reputation as a labor and civil rights attorney at the forefront of social justice movements in Chicago that lasted until he retired in his 90s. He represented a great number of employee groups, became one of the most prominent and knowledgeable practitioners of real estate law relating to housing co-operatives, and served as counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1940s.
Pictured: Red Cap ushers or porters line up in front of the Madison Steet Terminal of the Chicago & North Western Railway, ca. 1920. via NIU’s Illinois Periodical Online
“Throughout his career, he has been in the forefront of just about every decent, worthwhile effort made to improve life in this city.”— Mike Royko, 1972
Mr. Despres was proudest of his work as a civil rights lawyer and as an alderman advocating open housing and opposing racial segregation. He was elected to the Chicago City Council in 1955, the same day that Richard J. Daley was elected mayor. For the next twenty years, Mr. Despres represented his constituency in the Fifth Ward, as well as the voices of many marginalized citizens across the city, with independence and zeal. He became famous for “fighting the Daley Machine” over civil rights and open housing, later recounted these experiences in a memoir by the same name published in 2005. His often solitary battles against the machine earned him the moniker “the liberal conscience of Chicago” and made him a legend in progressive circles in Chicago and in his lifelong home of Hyde Park.
Pictured: Group with 5th ward alderman and activist Leon Despres on bikes riding in protest of cutting down trees near 50th and the Lake. | Sun-Times archives
“Through two decades on the Chicago City Council and a long lifetime of activism, Leon Despres was an indomitable champion for justice and reform. With an incisive mind, rapier wit and unstinting courage, he waged legendary battles against the corruption and discrimination that blighted our city, and he lived every one of his 101 years with purpose and meaning.”— Former President Barack Obama, 2009
- Challenging the Daley Machine: A Chicago Alderman’s Memoir (Chicago Lives), by Leon M. Despres and Kenan Heise, published Apr 20, 2005
- “The Only Alderman Who Stood Up to Richard J. Daley,” WTTW, by Daniel Hautzinger, February 25, 2019
- “Age 97, and Still at War With the Old Daley Machine,” New York Times, by Jodi Wilgoren, May 31, 2005
Thomas Geoghegan joined the firm in 1979 and quickly established himself as a prominent labor lawyer in his own right, representing the United Mine Workers and the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, among others. He also continued to build the firm’s employment law and civil rights practice as well as its reputation for using creative approaches to tackle challenging and socially significant cases. Like his mentor, Mr. Despres, Mr. Geoghegan gained recognition for his work outside the law firm. He is a prolific author of books, many of which are about his experiences as a labor lawyer, as well as editorials and articles about democracy, labor, civil rights, and constitutional law. Over the years, Mr. Geoghegan has served as a guiding light through many different transitions and eras and played an immense role in the firm’s longevity.
In 2008, Michael Persoon joined Mr. Geoghegan at the firm. Since then, Mr. Persoon has further developed the firm’s practice covering union disputes, first amendment litigation, voting rights, the protection of public education and non-profit organizations, wrongful termination of employees, and sensitive transactional disputes. Mr. Persoon now serves as the firm’s president.
Most recently, Will Bloom became a firm associate in 2019, bringing with him a strong affinity for the labor movement and issues surrounding union democracy. Together with Mr. Geoghegan and Mr. Persoon, he has continued to advance the firm’s connections to its Chicago community, its successes fighting back against wage theft, discrimination, retaliation, and unfair labor practices, and its commitment to social justice and the public interest.
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