Ronald J. Riccio '71: The Practice of Law is a ‘Secular Ministry’
Dean Riccio: “Lawyers have a mission. That mission is to serve others. For me, that means having the opportunity to help people, regardless of their economic status. That's what excited me about being a lawyer – and still does.”
Seton Hall Law is proud to name Ronald J. Riccio ‘71, Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus, its 2016 Distinguished Graduate. This is the second installment in a series spotlighting key aspects of Dean Riccio’s celebrated career: practicing lawyer, teacher, mentor, and beloved leader of Seton Hall Law. Join us as we honor his many accomplishments at the Seton Hall Law Annual Alumni Dinner Dance on Friday, May 6, 2016, at The Grove in Cedar Grove, New Jersey.
“Years ago, someone told me that the practice of law is a ‘secular ministry,’” said Ronald J. Riccio ’71, Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus. “Lawyers have a mission. That mission is to serve others. For me, that means having the opportunity to help people, regardless of their economic status. That's what excited me about being a lawyer – and still does.” Dean Riccio’s career as a practicing lawyer spans nearly 45 years, something he has done even while serving as Dean since 1988 and as Professor of Law. Dean Riccio started his career as a practicing lawyer after clerking for the Honorable Lawrence A. Whipple of the U.S. District Court. In 1972, he joined the law firm of Robinson, Wayne & Greenberg.
“[Ron] started out in the library researching and writing briefs, but it was not long before he was on his feet in court, fearless and fighting,” wrote Donald Robinson, the firm’s founder and currently a Partner in the law firm, Robinson Miller LLC, in a tribute to Dean Riccio in the 1999 Seton Hall Law Review article, From the Bar: A Legal Career Distinguished by Compassion. “His advocacy developed into superb writing skills. His briefs were masterpieces of writing…His techniques became the model for all of us in the firm.”
Within a few years, the firm’s name was changed to Robinson, Wayne, Greenberg, Riccio & LaSala when Dean Riccio and his close friend, Joseph P. LaSala ‘72, were named partners. Dean Riccio remained in private practice until he assumed the Deanship in 1988. When he stepped down as Dean in 1999 he joined LaSala, and another close friend, Edward B. Deutsch ’71, at the law firm McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP, where he continues to practice law and also serves as the Firm’s General Counsel. During his law practice at McElroy, Dean Riccio also carried a full teaching load, and was recognized multiple times as Professor of the Year.
Dean Riccio’s law practice has been diverse. He has been a trial and appellate lawyer as well as counsel in transactional matters. Many of his litigated cases have set precedents and shaped policy in New Jersey. For instance, his court challenge to the State’s professional licensing boards’ merger of investigative, prosecutorial and adjudicatory functions helped to shape the creation of New Jersey’s independent body of administrative law judges. A challenge to single family zoning ordinances ultimately led to the first group home legislation in New Jersey. Dean Riccio also represented a high school football coach who was sanctioned for mixing prayer with coaching. Dean Riccio worked more than 1,000 hours on the case over three years, entirely pro bono. “That case yielded an 80-page opinion from the Third Circuit, with three different judges writing on the topic,” Dean Riccio said. “It set some important criteria for what public school employees may and may not do when student athletes voluntarily decide they want to engage in some form of prayer.”
In fact, the New Jersey Law Journal has just named Dean Riccio among its three finalists for the 2016 Attorney of the Year, for another of his most significant cases. The honor recognizes an attorney “who had the greatest impact on the law, legal profession or cause of justice in New Jersey over the past year.” The New Jersey Law Journal recognized Dean Riccio,
For his advocacy on behalf of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association Inc. in the ongoing litigation over legalizing sports betting in New Jersey. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed in October 2015 to rehear arguments in the case en banc after a split three-judge panel ruled against legalization.
Dean Riccio will be honored at the publication's Professional Excellence Awards event in June.
In addition, Dean Riccio’s work as a mediator, spread over more than 100 cases, and his role as court-appointed settlement master has been multi-faceted. In 1999, a federal judge in Syracuse reached across state borders to appoint Dean Riccio as Settlement Master in a claim on behalf of the Oneida Indian Nation. The Oneidas sought to recoup over 270,000 acres of land in central New York even though it was occupied by more than 65,000 residents. In 2001, Dean Riccio was appointed as Settlement Mediator by a state judge in New Jersey to resolve a dispute involving more than 100 jailed public school teachers after they resisted a back-to work order during a strike in Middletown, NJ. And, more recently, Dean Riccio was appointed Site Administrator to oversee the cleanup of numerous chromium contaminated sites in Jersey City.
“Practicing law has given me an appreciation for the importance of adhering to principles because your principles are routinely challenged when you're a lawyer,” Dean Riccio said. “I tell my students and young lawyers: ‘Principle matters the most when the personal stakes are the highest.’ You don't know if you're really a person of integrity and principle unless you're personally challenged in a direct and significant way.”
“I practiced law with Ron literally side by side for almost two decades,” said Joe LaSala. “The most important thing that he taught me was to be honest, ethical, and fair to our clients, to our firm, and to ourselves, and to never compromise yourself, ever, from that principle. I would put that at the top of the list.”
Perhaps one of Dean Riccio’s finest achievements as a lawyer was his advocacy in the civil suit, Aeriel v. School District of Newark, filed on behalf of the surviving victim and families of four teenagers who were stabbed and shot, execution style, on the playground of a school in Newark in August 2007. All four teenagers were students at Delaware State University. People across the country were shaken by the brutality of the attacks.
Dean Riccio soon learned that he had a personal connection to the case. His long-time secretary, Lillian Hightower, had died earlier that year and Dean Riccio was invited to speak at her memorial service in Newark. His remarks were followed by that of a family friend, Terrence Aeriel. “Terrence had an amazing command of the Bible. He reminded me of the Reverend Martin Luther King. Afterward, I said to people sitting with me, ‘That young man is going to go places. He is just an awesome individual.’” In August, when Dean Riccio read the news accounts of the murders, he recognized two of the victims’ photos. One victim was his secretary Lillian’s niece, whose photo he had seen many times on Lillian’s desk. The other victim was the same Terrence Aeriel who had spoken at Lillian’s memorial.
Lillian’s sister, Shalga, visited Dean Riccio’s office two weeks after her daughter had been murdered. “Shalga told me that before Lillian died, Lillian said that she should come to me if she ever needed help,” Dean Riccio recalled. “So I did: I helped her file claims through the Victims Compensation Fund. I also met with members of the other victims’ families as well as the sole survivor. After some investigation, there appeared to be grounds for a civil suit: the schoolyard had become an unprotected dangerous property due to the known presence of gang activity.”
Dean Riccio, and several McElroy colleagues, including Michael J. Marone ’87 and Robert C. Scrivo ’93 (pictured above, left), filed a suit on behalf of the plaintiffs: Natasha Aeriel, the sole survivor; and the estates of Terrence Aeriel, her brother; Iofemi Hightower and Dashon Harvey. The lawsuit lasted five years. It was intensely litigated. The McElroy firm spent 15,000 staff hours on the case, at no cost to the clients. The trial lasted five weeks. “Then, when we were about one week away from getting a jury verdict, we were able to settle for $5 million,” Dean Riccio said. “This helped us avoid an appeal and the uncertainty of a jury verdict. Most important, it secured a level of compensation, for the families and the sole survivor, that was life-changing for all of them.” Robert Scrivo calls the case “the best experience of my career.” Dean Riccio was also gratified. “We never gave up the fight over the course of the five years because every minute of effort was vital to our clients,” he said. “My firm deserves a lot of credit for taking the case. At the conclusion, the judge said the McElroy firm took on a case that most other lawyers wouldn’t even bother getting involved in or be willing to invest the time and effort, with no guarantee for success.”
Dean Riccio has performed significant public service in his career. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Governor appointed Dean Riccio as the lay person on the New Jersey Domestic Security Preparedness Task Force. He was also an original member of the New Jersey Commission on Professionalism. The Principles of Professionalism that he helped draft may be found in courtrooms and law schools throughout the State.
Today, as General Counsel at McElroy, Deutsch, Dean Riccio helps sustain the law firm’s own commitment to professionalism. He trains and mentors attorneys, and represents the Firm in its legal matters.
“Ron is an invaluable resource for the Firm,” said Edward Deutsch, Managing Partner of McElroy, Deutsch. “As General Counsel, he fields a vast variety of inquiries on the Firm’s cases, personnel issues, as well as ethics questions. This has benefitted all our lawyers greatly. Ron is the epitome of professionalism, legal acumen, civility, and a role model for us all.”
In his tribute to Dean Riccio, Don Robinson concluded, “Ron’s work as a lawyer, educator, Dean and compassionate ear to anyone needing help is summarized in the words of one client who years ago said to me, ‘You told me I’d be satisfied with that kid Riccio; you were wrong. I’m more than satisfied; he’s the greatest.’”
Dean Riccio reflected on his career and the dozens of cases he has taken over his decades as a practicing lawyer. “I could never have imagined – nor, I am sure, could my parents, or my wife, Nina, have imagined – that when growing up in the early 1960s on the streets, sandlots and schoolyards of Jersey City, I would have, or could even aspire to have, such a thrilling, challenging, diverse and rewarding life in the law,” he concluded.