Sept. 7, 2022 – Unlike many lawyers, Claude Covelli had no childhood dreams of becoming a lawyer. He turned out to be a pretty good one anyway.
Covelli, a 1972 graduate of U.W. Law School, was born in Kenosha but grew up in Racine. His father, a Coast Guard veteran, worked as a telephone lineman before becoming an insurance agent with his own agency.
After a decorated career as a high school athlete, Covelli attended Carroll College in Waukesha. He made the football team and played middle linebacker and right guard.
“It was a good place to be,” Covelli said of Carroll, citing the quality of the faculty and small class size. He double-majored in political science and economics and graduated in 1969.
Path to Law School
Covelli applied to law schools after taking the law school entrance exam on a lark with several fraternity brothers.
Unlike his friends, Covelli had no burning desire to be a lawyer. But he aced the entrance exam and was admitted to U.W. Law School and waitlisted at the University of Michigan Law School.
“They told me they slept with their light on so that people thought they were up studying all night,” Covelli said of students at the University of Michigan Law School, so he chose the University of Wisconsin.
“I didn’t want to be up studying all night, and I didn’t want to sleep with my light on,” Covelli said.
The early 1970s were a turbulent time at U.W. Madison. Students regularly staged large demonstrations to protest the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War.
Clashes between protestors and club-wielding police were common. In August 1970, a small group of anti-war radicals bombed Sterling Hall, destroying half the building and killing a researcher.
On some mornings, Covelli had to wade through choking clouds of chemicals on his way up Bascom Hill to class.
“They were using foggers for tear gas then,” Covelli said. “A lot of tear gas, and a lot of kids running around.”
Move to La Crosse
After graduaing from law school in 1972, Covelli moved to La Crosse to work for Alan Cole, a sole practitioner.
Cole had worked at Boardman Law Firm (now Boardman & Clark LLP) in Madison, where Covelli clerked as a law student.
Cole was a CPA and “one of the best lawyers I have ever worked with,” Covelli said. “He could do anything.”
Joins Boardman & Clark LLP
After one year with Cole, Covelli returned to Madison and joined Boardman Law Firm.
Jeff M. Brown is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6126.
Covelli, who had a general practice during his time working for Cole, said the reason for the move to Madison was simple.
“When I came back to Boardman, it was to try lawsuits,” Covelli said. “I tried my first lawsuit within the first month of coming back to the firm.”
Covelli’s interest in trial work was stoked during his days as a clerk at the firm.
“I fell in with Henry Field. He was kind of my mentor,” Covelli said. “Henry headed up the trial department. I just seemed to be a good fit with the trial lawyers.”
One aspect to that fit, Covelli said, was the competitive nature of trial work – old hat to someone who spent his college years flattening would-be tacklers on the gridiron. Another was the short feedback loop.
“It’s not like writing a will or a contract, where you don’t know what’s going to happen for thirty years,” Covelli said. “You got results.”
‘It Was More Professional’
Covelli said it was the variety provided by trial work that he enjoyed the most.
“I liked dealing with different people, different witnesses, different issues, different juries, different judges,” Covelli said. “Your fate is always in the hands of somebody else – either the judge or the jury.”
According to Covelli, the trial bar was a smaller and more collegial group in the 1970s and 1980s than it is today.
“It was more professional, when the primary goal was getting to the truth,” Covelli said. “[Other lawyers] would actually help you out, as a young lawyer.
“Not that they weren’t trying to win – they certainly were – but if you made a mistake, they’d tell you ‘I don’t think you wanted to say that.’ That obviously no longer exists.”
For instance, Covelli said he doesn’t remember having to routinely grapple with discovery disputes until the mid-1980s.
In the early part of his career, Covelli said, “a plaintiff’s lawyer would say to me, ‘You can come over and look at my file.’ Now, the ancillary issues have become so time-consuming that it becomes very expensive to litigate anything.”
It’s not like writing a will or a contract, where you don’t know what’s going to happen for thirty years. You got results.
Changes Meant Fewer Trials
Another change that occurred during Covelli’s career was major revisions to Wisconsin’s insurance code enacted by the legislature in 1975.
Covelli said that judicial interpretations of the new law eventually shrank the number of defenses in personal injury cases, which meant that more cases settled and fewer went to trial.
The result was less trial work for both lawyers and judges, Covelli said.
“Judges were trying jury trials every month, if not every week … they were very knowledgeable about how to conduct a jury trial,” Covelli said.
“Now, jury trials – particularly civil jury trials – are few and far between and the judges just don’t have that experience.”
‘Not My Bailiwick’
Covelli handled one criminal trial in his career – a federal case in front of U.S. District Court Judge James E. Doyle.
His clients were businessmen charged after inspectors found several mouse carcasses and some mouse droppings in a food warehouse big enough to enclose five football fields.
Covelli’s clients waived a jury trial and opted for a bench trial after one of the jurors made an obscene gesture to Covelli in a courthouse hallway.
Doyle acquitted Covelli’s clients. The government appealed but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled for the defense on double jeopardy grounds.
“I decided that was not my bailiwick,” Covelli said of criminal trial work. “It’s totally different from civil practice. It’s just a very different animal.”
Covelli said the experience was not wholly without merit.
“I did learn this: You could have one mouse [dropping] per pint of raw wheat but none in flour.’
‘What Happens if you Lose?’
Covelli also handled 100 appeals during his career, which except for that year in La Crosse was spent exclusively at Boardman & Clark LLP.
In 1984, he argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case,
Town of Hallie, et al. v City of Eau Claire, involved a challenge under the Sherman Act.
Covelli’s clients, the petitioners, were several unincorporated towns outside Eau Claire. They claimed the city was violating federal antitrust law by establishing a monopoly over the provision of sewage services to town residents.
Worried at the prospect of victory for Covelli’s clients, local government organizations filed 33 amicus briefs with the court. They also engineered the introduction of a bill in Congress that would have resolved the issue in favor of the city.
“It was an uphill battle,” Covelli said. “But it was quite a remarkable experience.”
Covelli said the nine justices took a different approach from other appellate panels before which he’d appeared.
“Unlike the Wisconsin Supreme Court or the underlying appellate courts, they were not as interested in talking about case law as they were the implications.”
Covelli said the first question launched at him from the dais was “What happens if you lose?”
“I had to come up with what the actual ramifications would be for the people in the towns if they lost the case,” Covelli said. “It was very practical questioning, and they were very animated.”
So animated, in fact, that Covelli’s wife, who was watching from the gallery, told him after the argument that he was going to win because the justices had asked him far more questions than they had his opponent.
Not exactly, Covelli told her.
“I said ‘Well, that’s because they wanted to know why I shouldn’t lose!’” Covelli said.
Covelli was right – the justices ruled unanimously for the city.
Family Keeps Him Busy
Covelli is retired now. He reads a lot and stays busy traveling with his wife, J.T., to visit their six grandsons, two of whom live on the West Coast and two of whom live in the South.
Covelli keeps one foot in the courtroom by serving occasionally as an expert witness. But he misses the esprit de corps that prevailed among trial lawyers earlier in his career, when the litigation bar was smaller.
“You don’t see the same people regularly … there isn’t that litigation community anymore,” Covelli said. “And everything seems to have become more complicated.”
Still, Covelli looks back on his career with fondness.
“Trying lawsuits was a lot of fun,” Covelli said.