This month we highlight the distinguished career of Bernard B. Rinella, a trailblazer in the field of domestic relations, a revered past Justinian president (1978-79) and a highly respected and successful practitioner.
Rinella has long been one of the nation’s leading divorce lawyers, but even that description doesn’t capture his unique stature in the profession. Now in his early 70s, Rinella upholds a family tradition of leadership in matrimonial law.
In fact, at a recent luncheon honoring him and other distinguished members of the Illinois State Bar Association, Bernard was recognized for his outstanding contributions to his community and the profession with its prestigious Senior Counsel recognition.
The Rinella brand dates back to the 1930s: His father was a founder of the prestigious national American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. His mother, Kathryn Barasa Rinella, was a leader in Chicago divorce law before most women had the opportunity to attend law school and practice law.
Quite apart from that pedigree, Bernie Rinella — confident, gregarious, energetic — rightfully earned his own stand-up reputation over the last four decades. Today he’s one of the profession’s “better angels,” as a colleague put it. With a warm, charismatic presence, and a quick study of people, Rinella is the prototypical shrewd dealmaker, at once cajoling contentious groups to the table and in turn crafting a durable accord.
They are qualities he thinks are in short supply today, as law schools crank out pedants and legal technicians by the score, and as divorce law offers up new layers of alternative methods. Yet he’s evolved with the times as well: his clients now come from the world over, reflecting the global culture that is Chicago — and America — today.
Rinella stands out for a rare decency. Truly revered in the profession, Bernie stands as a senior member, role model and statesman in the 93-year-old Italian American bar association, The Justinian Society of Lawyers.
Rinella’s personal and family story is not complicated. His parents met at DePaul Law School; a few years into a trial practice, they took on divorce cases of Chicago business people, the salacious stories splashed on the front pages of The Tribune and The Sun-Times. “Divorce was so rare in those days, it was, then, big news especially among the rich and famous.”
In 1932, they launched what was arguably the nation’s first national practice dedicated to matrimonial law. Meanwhile, the Rinellas, living in Northbrook, paid out-of-town tuition so Bernard could attend New Trier Township High School, where Bernard was a standout athlete and president of his senior class. (No surprise!)
He went on to the University of Michigan, where he was a competitive swimmer and majored in what he called “pre-divorce law”: political science and psychology. The dinner table, Bernie remembers, was his first classroom. “You could say I became a divorce lawyer by osmosis.”
While Rinella is first to admit, “I got a running start,” he assumed leadership of the family practice relatively early on: his father died in 1982 when Bernie was barely 40. The practice could easily have withered. Instead, Rinella, probably the tallest Justinian at well over 6 feet, and with a commanding presence, asserted himself in the profession. He chaired community boards and assisted divorce lawyers nationwide as a trusted adviser, sending his firm to the next level.
While some other Chicago divorce firms exploded in size, the Rinella firm has remained a selective boutique; today, it has seven lawyers. Its clients range from business leaders and senior executives to celebrities and professional athletes. In this age of constant change, the firm has conspicuous stability; it is the longest continuous tenant in One North LaSalle, one of the city’s original skyscrapers, itself on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Rinella and his wife, Gloria, enjoy travel and getting away to their home in Scottsdale. He remains an avid touring cyclist as well. A recent fall tore his rotator cuff, requiring surgery, but “I’m not going anywhere. Cycling is a metaphor for life: You may fall, but you always get back up.”
Of his role model and friend, Enrico Mirabelli, a past Justinian president and prominent family law practitioner in his own right, says, “Bernard Rinella represents the best there is in the legal profession, as a Justinian, a statesman, mentor and role model as an attorney and as a family law practitioner.”