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Leaders in Litigation Recipient: Force of Nature

There are born lawyers, and then there’s Ron Elberger of Bose McKinney & Evans LLP. The sought-after defense attorney and litigator says he never once considered another profession—and after just a few seconds of conversation with him, it’s obvious enough why. You pick up immediately on his toughness, his sense of fairness, his incredible recall of detail, and his tenacity when he believes he’s right.

To illustrate: Elberger was stricken with a severe case of Crohn’s disease halfway through college at George Washington University, but refused to take his prognosis at face value. “I was told by my physician that I would never make it through college, let alone law school,” he says. “So I fired my physician and got new ones. My new doctors said I might have to walk around with IVs in my arms, but I could go to law school.”

Not a bad call, as it turned out. Despite his illness, at American University he became president of Phi Delta Phi fraternity, joined the law review, became co-editor-in-chief of the law school newspaper, and founded the school’s Legal Aid Services program. He also won two national awards from the American Bar Association for the Best Student Bar Project in the United States, took second place for the Best Law School Student Newspaper, and was awarded a Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowship. Ultimately, he was selected as one of only two American University students to participate in a seminar headed by then-Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, an exclusive and highly competitive appointment.

“Of all the activities you could have in the law school, I headed up most of them,” Elberger says, “and it was the first time anyone had ever held more than one of those positions. So the dean said, this is not good, we ought to have another vote. So I reluctantly agreed—and I won every single vote again.”

Hey—the guy is persuasive. We’re talking about someone who negotiated three months’ paid vacation, no questions asked, when he started at Bose McKinney & Evans in 1972 and then proceeded to show up the first day to ask for two months’ advance pay because he was taking off for the Caribbean.

He got it.

“They wanted me to come back early to help them prepare a case, but I knew I could do it in the time I had left, and I was right,” he says. “So I came back, prepared the case, and it turned out to be the largest churning verdict in the history of the federal courts.”

Elberger, a native of Newark, New Jersey, had arrived in Indianapolis in 1970 to complete the second year of his fellowship and work for the city’s Legal Services Organization. Within a year, he’d become the president of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, prosecuted a number of successful suits, and was elected to the national board of the ACLU. Then the offers started pouring in from local firms. “I was intending to only stay eight months and then go back,” he says. “But I just enjoyed it here. I mean, they had these things out here that they didn’t have on the East Coast—things like parking spaces. And instead of having five deadbolt locks on the door, they had one. Or none. Your neighbors came down and introduced themselves. The change in lifestyle was a real eye-opener for me, so I stayed.”

And he stayed with a purpose, winning a long string of lawsuits and awards in his practice of litigation, criminal defense, constitutional law, entertainment and sports law, appellate law, and professional responsibility/disciplinary law. (He did leave Bose McKinney & Evans a year after he was hired because two partners requested he cut his hair—it was the 1970s, after all—but he returned and has been with the firm ever since.)

“He is tenacious, but he’s also compassionate and interesting to be around,” says litigator and former colleague Sarah Steele Riordan, now of Frost Brown Todd. “He’s also very loyal, incredibly loyal, and that to me is a great characteristic in a lawyer.”

He’s also got the ability to laugh at himself. He’s always quick with a quip about his height—he’s 5’4” on a good day. Riordan still remembers their first encounter: “We’re about the same size, which he noted immediately,” she says. “My initial impression was that he was pretty funny. And a little feisty.”

In the Spotlight

Conducting ACLU press conferences early in his career, Elberger would be approached afterward by local journalists—not about the topic at hand, but for advice about their own contracts. “They’d ask me a question and if I didn’t know the answer, I’d look it up and get back to them the next day, just for the hell of it,” he says. Before long, he was proficient in entertainment law, an area of practice that blossomed for him into a high-profile specialty.

That means he’s worked with and for lots of well-known people over the years. Here’s what he has to say about some of them:

On celebrity client David Letterman:

“Letterman is an extremely compassionate, thoughtful individual who really takes care of his employees and his friends,” Elberger says. “He’s somewhat shy and in many respects a perfectionist. I helped Letterman publish his first two books of top ten lists. And anything else I know about him would either be confidential or totally boring.”

On Helen Thomas, the late and famously irascible White House correspondent, a fellow George Washington alum with whom Elberger was elected to serve on the school’s National Council for Media and Public Affairs:

“I remember one day when I created a ruckus at the first meeting I attended,” he says. “I was walking back down the aisle after I gave my opinion on something directly into the face of the person I was opposing. And Helen Thomas says to me, ‘I don’t know who you are, young man, but I like you.’” (Thomas was the only council member, Elberger notes wryly, shorter than he was.)

On Aron Ralston, the hiker who amputated his own arm after becoming pinned by a boulder in the Utah wilderness in 2003, on whose behalf Elberger has negotiated book and film contracts based on the ordeal:

“Aron is a young man navigating the entertainment industry and having to learn—sometimes the hard way—what the business of it is like. I educated him about his business and assets and trained him in public speaking, and he’s now one of the most sought-after speakers in the United States. Aron told a magazine once that what I taught him cost him more than if he had gone and gotten a master’s degree, but he learned a hell of a lot more from me.”

Seeking Justice

But the clients who have left the biggest impression on Elberger during his career, he says, aren’t necessarily the ones with recognizable names. He specifically mentions the plaintiffs in Mozee v. American Commercial Marine Services, a racial discrimination case in which Elberger represented William Mozee, an African American crane operator working for the shipbuilder Jeffboat. Jeffboat, Elberger says, had a demonstrable history of racist hiring and firing practices. “They were just fighting for the right to be treated equally,” Elberger says of the plaintiffs. “The company wanted to settle, but after one telephone conversation, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen because the company wanted to perpetuate racism. And this short kid and his clients weren’t going to allow that.”

The case was one of the longest in Indiana history—sixteen years, five judges and more than one million pages of documentation, to be exact, from 1977 to 1993. Nearing the end, in the midst of another long day of trial, one of the attorneys for Jeffboat asked the judge for a clarification. Elberger remembers the request (made respectfully, he notes): “’This case has spanned a period of 15 years,’ the attorney said, ‘and during that period of time, the minorities involved have been referred to as colored, Negro, Afro, Afro-American, black, and African American. We’re just asking the court what would be the appropriate way to refer to these people.’”

“And so the judge looked at me,” Elberger says, “and he said, ‘I believe we’ll ask Mr. Elberger to answer that question since he represents these people.’” The judge, The Honorable James Parsons, was the first African American ever appointed to the federal district court in 1962 as one of President Kennedy’s nominations.

“And I said, ‘These people, counsel, are referred to as Bill Mozee, Joe Malone, Harold Barnes, and Fred Williams,’” Elberger says. “’You ought to get to know them—they’re good people.’ And after that I asked the court for a recess. I would say that was one of the most powerful moments of the whole case.”

His clients received a $3.9 million settlement.

Man of Steel?

Elberger’s health has been a constant issue since his college days. He’s had a portal, splenic, and superior mesentery vein thrombosis, a proctocolectomy (removal of rectum and colon), a partial ileectomy, ileostomy, metastatic prostate cancer, and kidney failure, during which he characteristically taught himself to do dialysis at home. Desperately needing a kidney transplant in 2009, he found that friends and colleagues lined up to answer the call. “The hospital at one point asked me to tell people to stop calling because so many people were willing to donate a kidney,” he says. “That was a very humbling experience.”

Elberger’s son became the eventual donor, but one of the colleagues willing to go under the knife was Riordan, who volunteered for testing and was determined to be a match. “I always joke that compared to his, my disposition is pretty sweet, so I thought having my kidney might make him nicer,” she says. “But really, my thinking was this: Ron hired me and trained me and supported me professionally, so that left me in his debt. But more than that, he completely, totally adores his wife and children, which was a very unique and worthy relationship that spoke to me—I was about his kids’ age when my dad died. I didn’t want that to happen to them.”

Elberger, meanwhile, has managed to outwit and out-tough every condition that afflicts him. “I feel like my wristwatch,” he jokes. “I just keep on ticking.” Through it all, he’s successfully maintained multiple areas of practice—including taking on ethics cases for attorneys and medical licensing cases for physicians—that require total command of deep and disparate bodies of legal knowledge. How does he keep up with it all?

“Very carefully,” he quips. “There’s a lot to read.”

To stay buoyed through his considerable health challenges, Elberger draws energy from the people closest to him—his wife of 40 years, his son and daughter, and his grandchildren. “I have a very, very supportive family,” he says. “They provide the impetus for me to keep doing what I do.

“Besides, if you enjoy what you’re doing,” he says, “it’s not work.”

Leaders in Litigation is an advertorial series created by WKW to feature some of Indiana’s most interesting and accomplished lawyers. We hope you enjoy learning more about these fascinating lawyers as we did interviewing them.

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