PART 1 – Tom Funk – A Sense of Awe
Top trial lawyer Tom Funk still gets emotional when a verdict is read
Litigator Norman T. “Tom” Funk of Krieg DeVault LLP is a lawyer’s lawyer—he doesn’t shout from billboards and he never toots his own horn, but he’s the one other lawyers call when they need a complex case handled by somebody they trust.
“He is the best trial lawyer I know,” says Doug Hill, Funk’s law partner for 30 years before Funk joined Krieg DeVault. “His presence and abilities in the courtroom are superb.”
Funk is an Indiana native, hailing from the small town of Garrett, a division point along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. “My dad was a railroader,” Funk says. “His formal education ended in eighth grade, but he had a great lifelong desire to learn. I’ll always remember him for his voracious reading of history, theology, philosophy, and world travel. He was a great inspiration to me.”
Although his father had passed away by the time Funk was fifteen, he bequeathed his son a very precious asset: a curious mind. “Garrett was about five miles from the county seat of Auburn,” Funk says, “and before I was old enough to drive a car, I used to ride my bike from Garrett to Auburn and watch trials in the DeKalb County Circuit Court.”
Thus a lawyer was born. “I was hooked,” he says.
Funk actually followed in his father’s footsteps for a time, working his way through college as a railroad telegraph operator. His job included aligning tracks so that trains took the correct path at crossings and delivering messages to trains about what rail cars to pick up and kick off as they passed through to the next stop. “This was before cell phones and computers,” Funk says, “and the only way to get a message to the train was to tie it on a piece of string that was strung between two wooden fingers on a stick about six feet long, and I’d walk from my position in the railroad tower down to the track and stand in the ballast along the edge, extend this stick upward, and wait for a brakeman or fireman on the front engine to lean out the window and hook the string in the crook of his arm as the train would be passing by.”
It makes for a great story, but Funk doesn’t take a romantic view of the job. “It was unsettling,” Funk says. “The trains came within a few feet of us operators each time.”
Good practice, perhaps, for the challenge of law school at Indiana University’s Indianapolis campus (now Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law), and the rigors of studying under professor (later dean) William Harvey, whom Funk identifies as a key figure in his early training. “He introduced us to the formality of the courtroom by requiring us to stand whenever we were called upon to recite,” he says, “and then he would engage us in a dialogue of questions and answers. Professor Harvey had a piercing intellect—he was always courteous but very exacting. He did a wonderful job of teaching us to think like lawyers.”
Funk started his career out of law school as the director of Indiana’s Civil Code Study Commission, moved on to his first firm, and then in 1982 joined Doug Hill at his firm, which shortly thereafter became known as Hill Fulwider McDowell Funk & Matthews. Funk remained there for 30 years before moving to Krieg DeVault in 2012. His commercial and tort litigation practice has found him on both sides of the courtroom, depending on the needs of his clients—in fact, Funk would say his career path has evolved organically as a response to those needs. He has tried cases across a spectrum of specialty areas, including product liability, gas explosions, real estate, legal ethics, and breach of contract.
Funk says that after 42 years of practice, he still gets a lump in his throat when a verdict is read. “I don’t think I’m alone in that,” he says. “Those of us who do this kind of work invest so much of ourselves emotionally in the process of preparing for trial. I can remember a number of cases where juries have deliberated late into the night and the counsel have walked around the courthouse square for hours looking up at the lights in the jury room, or fallen asleep on the hard benches in the back of the courtroom waiting for the verdicts to be announced.
“I have done both,” he laughs. “In both federal and state court.”
Hill says a particular strength of Funk’s is his ability to manage cases that other lawyers would find intimidating. “Tom has handled a lot of complex cases both in trial and pre-trial matters and on appeal,” Hill says. “He is very modest about it, but he’s able to manage complicated cases and does a terrific job preparing for trial.”
Funk declines to name a legal victory that became a benchmark for his career for two reasons: one, sensitivity to the privacy of his clients, and two, a sense of pragmatism about the larger meaning of case outcomes. “The trial process has inherent risks,” he says. “In most cases tried to judgment there is a winner and there is a loser, and any lawyer who tries cases understands that sometimes his or her client will finish second. It’s inevitable. But the system we have is still the best process to resolve conflicts that otherwise wouldn’t be able to be resolved.”
Because he speaks with such equanimity about both successes and failures, it isn’t surprising that he received the Civility Award from the Indiana State Bar Association for his grace and professionalism in dealing with judges, witnesses, and opposing counsel. Nor that he is a stalwart for his clients, many of whom have secured his services repeatedly—including none other than Donald Trump, who recommended Funk to his wife, Melania, after being represented by him in a business dispute.
“Tom has lots of regular clients who stay with him for years,” Hill says. “But he also gets a lot of referrals because he’s justly recognized as being a very good trial lawyer. Fellow lawyers recommend him for tough cases or for cases where they have conflicts of interest, because they’re comfortable with him and know the clients will be well represented.”
For example, a trial judge Funk greatly admired, Ernest E. Yelton, once asked Funk to represent his court in a contempt case he filed against a member of the bar, a gesture of respect from one lawyer to another. (Yelton is now executive director of the Indiana Gaming Commission.) And Funk also had the opportunity to represent at trial two generations of the same family, 25 years apart, in unrelated cases—a testament to the regard in which his clients hold him, although Funk jokes that it’s more a testament to his age. “It reminded me that I was no longer a young lawyer, as if I needed reminding,” he says.
Currently the Indiana State Chair of the American College of Trial Lawyers, Funk is still active in his practice but has moved from Indianapolis to Bloomington along with his wife, Sharon, a retired teacher. As Indiana University alums who met as undergraduates, they now make a point to enjoy all the cultural attractions that Bloomington offers. Funk serves on the board of a children’s camp in Brown County and enjoys cycling when he’s away from the office.
He continues to try cases because he’s moved by what he does. “I’m still in awe of walking into the Indiana Supreme Court for an oral argument,” he says. “That’s why we went to law school—to be part of a process that at its best does justice.
“This is a more fulfilling way to have gone through life than I could ever have anticipated,” Funk says. “Every once in a while a case comes along where you make a difference in someone’s life, whether it’s an individual or an institution. Not in every case, but every once in a while. And that’s the high calling of what we do.”
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