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Masters of Disaster – When tragedy strikes, this superb personal-injury lawyer can help ease the pain.

Author / Coordinator: Jennifer Franklin
Minnesota Law & Politics
April 2001

Stubborn, Emotional and Excellent
When asked how he happened into a career as a trial lawyer, Peter Riley says, “The how and the why are both easy for me. Both my parents were lawyers.”

Riley is proud to say that his father was a Hennepin County district judge, and his mother graduated from law school in the 1930s, certainly a pioneering move for the time.

But it isn’t just genetics and family ties at play. It is easy to see that Riley’s outgoing personality and empathetic demeanor make him a natural fit to be a personal-injury lawyer. In order to be successful, says Riley, you have to be a good listener and communicator. You also have to have a bit of moxie.

“Going into litigation was a natural for me. I’m a bit of a ham, frankly,” he admits with a chuckle,

Riley, who has been with Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben, for 10 years, has focused on cases involving wrongful injury or death. “The most rewarding work is to work on cases involving a catastrophic death. In many cases the family has lost the primary breadwinner,” he says, adding that protecting the spouse and children financially gives him great satisfaction. “You become very involved with the kids and the widow,” he says.

Riley grew up in Minneapolis and attended Blake High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Williams College in Massachusetts in 1974, graduating cum laude with a double major in psychology and economics.

After graduation, he was faced with a tough choice: accept a prestigious economics internship at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., or return to Minnesota to attend the University of Minnesota Law School. He chose the latter.

Riley graduated from law school in 1977. He credits mentor Dick Hunegs with teaching him to be a true advocate for his clients. Hunegs hired Riley as an associate at Deparcq, Hunegs, Perl & Rudquist in 1977. “I wanted to go where I could learn the most,” he says.

Riley’s first case was working on behalf of the families who lost members in the famed wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald freighter. It still stands out in Riley’s mind as one of his most notable cases.

But Riley considers all of his cases to be important. He says one of the key skills a personal-injury attorney must have is the ability to listen. “You have to talk to and listen to your clients and really understand how the situation has affected their lives,” he says. “Sometimes they just need some-one to listen to what’s going on. That’s a skill.”

In his line of work, he says it is common to become emotionally involved but that good lawyers will keep their feelings in check.

“I’m an emotional person. I’m German and Irish, so I’m stubborn and emotional,” he jokes. “But we have to be able to detach ourselves. It doesn’t do anybody any good to go on blind emotion.”

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