It all started with a man on death row in Michigan City, Indiana, in the early 2000s. John Gallo ’83 helped overturn that defendant’s death sentence as part of a project with students at Notre Dame Law School, where he was teaching Federal Criminal Practice. Gallo, then a partner at the Chicago office of the law firm Sidley Austin, felt his priorities begin to shift.
“There was an increase in the use of the death penalty (at that time) in areas around the country, but particularly in the South, and a lot of people on death row were unrepresented or represented by people who were unqualified,” Gallo says. “There were some horrible cases involving judges in Alabama appointing lawyers to represent people on death row as a ‘punishment’ if, for example, they were late to a hearing. So these stories motivated me. That was the point where I really became sensitized to how critically important access to legal representation is. Access to justice oftentimes equated to having a competent lawyer.”
Since that realization, Gallo has dedicated himself to ensuring that all people have access to equal justice under the law. First, it was through pro bono work at Sidley, representing defendants on death row in Alabama, and today, it is as the CEO and Executive Director of Legal Aid Chicago, which provides essential legal services free of charge to people who otherwise could not afford them and also advocates for people living in poverty.
At Sidley, Gallo created the Capital Litigation Project alongside fellow Domer Kelly Huggins ’96, ’01 J.D., now the firm’s head of pro bono work. Gallo and Huggins wanted to ensure that inmates incarcerated on Alabama’s death row had effective legal representation, and for many of these defendants, working with the Capital Litigation Project was the first time they had a lawyer since their arrest. The project received an award from the American Bar Association in 2007.
“The project is still ongoing, and we have represented 23 people, and not a single one of them has been put to death,” Gallo says. “A few have since been released, for various reasons, whether a finding that their rights had been constitutionally violated or because the state agreed to their release on the basis of information (we) gathered.”
Now, at Legal Aid, Gallo heads up an organization that helps people with low economic means in Chicago obtain legal representation when they are facing eviction, foreclosure, or issues obtaining unemployment benefits, to name a few. Through the support of Legal Aid attorneys, 90 percent of their clients facing eviction in 2019 were able to stay in their homes.
Gallo supervises the day-to-day management of the organization. He is the main liaison with financial supporters, both individual benefactors and foundations that provide them grants, and the community organizations that connect them to clients in need. It’s different from the criminal cases Gallo worked on while in private practice and during seven years as a federal prosecutor focused on eradicating police and government corruption, but he finds it equally rewarding.
“I always thought there’d be another chapter (in my career) after my stint in private practice,” says Gallo, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1986 and then clerked for two years for Judge Ann Claire Williams ’75 J.D., who was the first Black woman appointed as a U.S. district judge in Illinois and is a member of the University’s Board of Trustees.
Gallo reflected for several months before making the shift from private practice to Legal Aid, guided by both his spiritual director at his home parish in Oak Park, Illinois, and his annual silent retreat at a Jesuit retreat house. He also fell back on the spiritual foundation gained at Notre Dame, as a student in the Program of Liberal Studies.
“My undergraduate experience was a pivotal moment in my own spiritual development. I came to Notre Dame from a fairly conservative, racially homogenous place, and I ended up in this major, the Program of Liberal Studies, which turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done,” Gallo says. “I remember pretty vividly — I was initially characterized as the conservative jock from the western suburbs of Chicago in these classes.”
But through the small discussion seminars, Gallo says he was exposed to new ideas and perspectives and embraced a social justice mentality. “My academic experience at Notre Dame became the foundation of my spiritual and philosophical beliefs,” he says.
Gallo is married to his high school sweetheart, Jeanne, and they have four children and two grandchildren — one of whom sat happily on his grandpa’s lap for much of this interview. Gallo’s faith and family are the foundation for his life and work, and he paraphrases a quote from Pope Francis (originally about priests) in describing his commitment to that work.
“The lawyer who seldom goes out of himself misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his lawyerly heart. This is precisely the reason why some lawyers grow dissatisfied, lose heart and become, in a sense, collectors of plaques and partnership shares — instead of being shepherds living with ‘the smell of the sheep.’ This is what I am asking of lawyers — be shepherds with the smell of sheep."