Brian Shaw ’93 was something of a reluctant lawyer. Though his father and grandfather were both lawyers, Shaw was never drawn to the profession but felt he needed a graduate degree and law matched his personality.
After graduation, Shaw joined Ross & Hardies, where he had worked as a summer associate after his 2L year. The firm offered him a choice between joining a litigation group or a bankruptcy group as a first-year lawyer and Shaw went with his gut again. Though his law school experience with bankruptcy included just one class (“I probably got a C+,” he joked), he chose bankruptcy because it was a better fit for his personality. It was a fateful decision, leading to a 30-year (and counting) career.
“I chose bankruptcy and started as a bankruptcy lawyer in 1993. Haven’t stopped,” Shaw said with a laugh. “Jokingly, a lot of people who do bankruptcy say it’s the perfect thing for people who have a short attention span, and I would agree. You get to touch on a whole lot of everything…. It’s worked out for me very well; it fits my personality.”
Also fitting with Shaw’s personality is a generous spirit and eagerness to help others. Had he not become a lawyer, Shaw thinks he might have found a calling as a teacher. As a member of the American Bankruptcy Institute, American College of Bankruptcy, and the Chicago Bar Association, Shaw has served in leadership roles and developed programming and mentoring initiatives that have helped others around the country. He’s even added writing quarterly expert articles for Law360 to his plate, an opportunity he found through his current role as a member of the Bankruptcy, Insolvency & Restructuring practice at Cozen O’Connor and one he has come to really enjoy.
Through his extensive work in professional organizations and his writing, there’s no doubt he has helped educate a lot of people. Those he’s helped over his 30-year career might even think of him as a teacher, and it’s a role he embraces.
“That’s probably the work I’m most proud of, because it was the biggest investment of my time and the biggest giveback to the legal community,” he said.
Though his bankruptcy class at Illinois was unremarkable, Shaw’s time here “is one happy memory.” Coming directly from a post-undergraduate job in Boston, he was pleasantly surprised by Champaign. The biggest impact on his positive impression, of course, were the people he met.
Those people, both fellow students and faculty, have played a bigger role in Shaw’s life than he ever expected, especially in the world of bankruptcy.
“One of the things that keeps me going, even today, are my Illinois connections. The UI bankruptcy connection up here [Chicago] is really strong. Some of my closest acquaintances in bankruptcy world happen to be Illinois grads” Shaw said. “The Illinois connection for me is still a constant connection. I’m in communication with Ralph [Brubaker] and Bob [Lawless] all the time.”
Shaw gladly spends his time helping others and sharing his bankruptcy expertise, but he hesitates to recommend becoming a lawyer for everyone. He believes the education provided in law school is excellent but acknowledges that the life of a lawyer can be quite difficult.
His advice to those considering becoming a lawyer was three-fold. First, remember only you own the consequences of your decision; second, make sure to decide based on all the data points—not just dollars, firm name, or area of law—because 40 years is a long time to be doing anything; and third, don’t just say ‘yes,’ be a counselor. Of course, he also recommends giving back as much as possible.
“When you help people better themselves and sit down and take time to talk about things in a collaborative way, it’s incredibly rewarding and it balances all the more difficult things you have to deal with as a lawyer,” he said. “All of that good is a helpful counterbalance not just for the profession, but for your mental health too. It’s incredibly rewarding and it’s what I like to do.”
After serving as president and chairman of the board for the American Bankruptcy Institute, among other leadership roles in various organizations, Shaw enjoys watching younger colleagues in Cozen O’Connor’s Chicago office and throughout the firm take over. As an emeritus leader, Shaw continues to give back, to help where he can, and it’s a certainty that the bankruptcy world is better for his efforts.