Chicago's Bernie 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. For starters, Rinella upholds a family tradition of leadership in matrimonial law. The Rinella brand dates to the 1930s: His father was a founder of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. His mother, Kathryn Barasa Rinella, was a leader in Chicago divorce law before most women had the opportunity to practice law. Yet quite apart from that pedigree, Bernie Rinella - confident, gregarious, energetic - rightfully earned his own stand-up reputation over the last five 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, not surprisingly, 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. And Chicago remains the capital of divorce law: Cook County, Ill. (Pop: just over 5 million the last 50 years), still has by far the largest divorce docket in the nation; 38 family law judges hear more than 20,000 cases each year in Chicagoland, a volume dwarfing L.A. or Manhattan as a single venue. That's bred, of course, the best and worst in divorce lawyers here; but Rinella stands out for a rare decency. 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. "Remember, divorce was so rare in those days, it was big news."
In 1932, they launched what's likely the nation's first 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. He went on to Michigan, where he was a competitive swimmer and majored in what he called "pre-divorce law": political science and psychology. "The dinner table was my first classroom. You could say I became a divorce lawyer by osmosis." (His brother too was a divorce lawyer for many years.) 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 Rinella was barely 40. The practice could easily have withered; instead Rinella, tall and with a commanding presence, asserted himself in the profession. He chaired community boards, and assisted divorce lawyers nationwide as a trusted advisor, sending his firm to the next level. While some other Chicago divorce firms exploded in size, Rinella & Rinella 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 a 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 take a fall, but you always get back up."