Dean and Demon of Defense Lawyers  
 
 
     

 

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DEAN AND DEMON OF DEFENSE LAWYERS


James M. Shellow takes pains. He gives them, too – enormous pains, sometimes inviting wrath that would wither a less-confident man. But, mostly, as one of Wisconsin’s and the country’s most respected criminal lawyers, Shellow takes pains: tremendous, multitiered, cross-referenced, microscopic.

Jim Shellow stands fast among the best of the independent, egotistical, quick-witted, slightly paranoid, wonderfully creative, compulsive and charismatic breed known as criminal lawyers.

A native of Shorewood and resident of legal legend, Shellow can pick the nits and take the pains because he has the equipment: a mind that is rigorous and restless and a resume that would sink a battleship – including the one he served on at the end of World War II. In the open combat of the courtroom, knowledge and details are the weapons of choice. In trying to gain ground for his client, Shellow uses them to disconcert – and if he can – to discredit the opposition.

Shellow needs the armament; public opinion is usually against him. It was against him when he defended the late James Groppi in one of Wisconsin’ most celebrated civil rights cases. It was against when he counseled some of the American Indians after the 1973 takeover at Wounded Knee, S.D., and when he traveled to Alabama and Mississippi in 1963 to handle voting rights and housing cases. It was against him in the police murders trials of James Ray Mendoza, which he lost in the first round in 1974 and won on appeal in 1981.

As nearly always, Shellow believes fervently in his client’s cause. People who respect him and he will be glad to provide anyone with a high-caliber list of 26 – call him brilliant, one of the best 10 or 20 criminal-defense minds in the country.

Bobby Lee Cook, Sr., nationally known criminal lawyer from Summerville, Ga., says “Jim brings to each case an extraordinary scholarship and an unusual dedication. He is a fine tactician, he can read and understand people, and he can analyze and sum up the heart of a case. He’s a man of sterling character. His word is his bond.”

Burke [William A.] adds “If you get to know him when he’s not being Jim Shellow, he’s a tremendously funny guy. He knows more funny stories and does more funny stuff than almost anybody. As the world becomes increasingly gray, it’s like going to see the Wizard of Oz and all of a sudden you’re in this wonderful Technicolor world. There aren’t just that many people who can light the joint up like he does.

Of the other words used to describe him – words such as intense and annoying and thorough – the most apt might be among the least expected for a man of such attainments: playful. He loves to play.

The balance for the pains he takes with the most grinding detail comes in his pleasures of mind and body. He takes them enthusiastically, a dedicated hedonist. And he lives boldly almost without routine.

His on stage, playful approach can be a safety valve for a high-rev, compulsive personality in a high-pressure, big-money business.

His successful practice has made Shellow rich. He believes passionately, his friends say, in the American System, both its freedoms and its rewards. With his late wife, Gilda Shellow, also a successful lawyer, he shared their mansion on Lake Dr., once a seat of the Uihlein family’s Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. Fortune.

His success at times has driven him. He can become so enmeshed in a client’s cause that he forgets to eat. He chugs coffee and chain-inhales his Merit cigarettes to the filter. He recites legal arguments in his sleep, and sometimes he even skips the sleep. Colleagues remember him working around the clock for days on end.

“With Jim’s background,” Stephen Glynn says, “he could be working in patent law or product liability and making a lot more money in a lot less time. He does this because he enjoys it, and because it matters to him.”

The background Glynn mentions invites awe. Jim Shellow took a degree in 1949 from the University of Chicago, Phi Beta Kappa, in science and math, then pursued a Ph.D. in Cybernetics – comparing the engineering of the nervous system with complex electronics – at Chicago. There he met Gilda, a native of Long Island, doing doctoral work in psychology, and they married in 1950.

His first jobs, as Senior Systems Engineer at Chance Vought Aircraft Corp. and an Operations Analyst at the Institute for Air Weapons Research, were hardly liberal. Among other things, he worked on guidance systems for air-to-air missiles. Then he became Director of Long-Range Planning for a research affiliate of Standard Oil of California in 1953.

His social conscience, he says, finally took him out of weapons work. He became a Certified Public Accountant and began working with his father, a path taking him to union organizing in Chicago.

The Shellow fortunes coincided almost perfectly with social change after his graduation from the MU Law School in 1961. He made his name while still a student with an analysis of the Apalachin (N.Y.) organized crime conspiracy case in the Marquette Law Review “The Tea Party Theory of Conspiracy.” The title came from the prosecutor’s statement to the press: We don’t have to prove they were doing anything illegal. We just have to prove that they were lying about what they were doing. They could have been holding a Tea Party.”

Shellow’s arguments became the basis for a successful [appeal] of the case and brought him national notice. His reputation grew from there.

Drugs became his specialty. Shellow has lightened the penalty in a dozen cases by knowing more about drug chemistry than either prosecutors or their paid experts.

Because of his association with the Tea Party case and alleged organized crime clients such as Frank Balistrieri, Shellow is sometimes lumped with “mob lawyers.” But organized crime always has been a common battlefront for civil rights law.

Some of the country’s best criminal defense lawyers seem to have Shellow on beepers. One recalls phoning him in despair, ready to give up the law, and finding his faith renewed. Another tells of the time he was failing on a case and called in Shellow – who flew out and quickly saw through to the heart of the matter. He accepted payment only for his expenses.

Top-flight lawyers mention him in the introduction to their books as an inspiration. He will chat with them as easily on the legal language of ancient England as on the chemistry of cocaine.

As his stature and practice has grown nationally, he steps on to the local stage less often.

One of his favourite quotes belongs to jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I think that, as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.”

Whatever verdicts his friends and enemies may return on Jim Shellow, that judgment will not be one of them.

The Milwaukee Journal, Tim Norris (excerpts)

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