My Chicago Law Moment: Peter Altabef, ’83, on Professor David P. Currie’s Subtle Lessons in Storytelling and Respect

The puzzling manner in which Professor David P. Currie often taught Supreme Court cases in his constitutional law class has stuck with Peter Altabef, ’83, for over 35 years.

“You would go into the class, and you had read the case,” said Altabef, who is currently the CEO of Unisys Corporation. “And most of the time you would think, well, the majority was right. And he would convince you in the space of one class that in fact the majority was wrong.”

At first, Altabef wasn’t sure if Currie was playing some sort of game when he tried to convince students to reject the majority opinion. But it wasn’t long before he realized that by encouraging students to consider the validity of the minority stance, Currie was teaching them two crucial lessons—one about the value of storytelling, and the other about the importance of respect. 

“He knew how to tell a story and how to communicate effectively,” Altabef said. “And sometimes lawyers don't learn that. Sometimes lawyers get so hung up on the facts that they forget about trying to tell a story very well. That ability to tell a story and convince people without banging them over the head was very, very important.”

By showing students that the often-overlooked minority opinions in Supreme Court cases deserved equal consideration, Altabef said, Currie taught them an important lesson in respect.

“Whether you think you have the right side of that argument or the wrong side of the argument, it was all about respect for other people and other people's ideas,” Altabef said. “And I have to tell you, in 35 years that willingness to walk into a conversation and respect people has been very helpful and something I feel quite blessed with from David's class.”

Altabef has worked as a law clerk, a private practice attorney, a general counsel, and for the last 15 years, as the chief executive officer of three public companies. As a CEO, Altabef said, the skills he learned from Currie about telling interesting, convincing stories have been especially critical.

“You have to coerce, you have to cajole, you have to convince,” Altabef said. “And the way you do that is by persuading, but not by persuading in an obvious way. You do it by telling stories. And that's what people remember. They don't remember, you know, do this for earnings. They remember a story about how you succeeded for a client.”

The concepts of great storytelling and prioritizing respect have influenced Altabef professionally, he said, but more importantly, they have had an enormous impact on his personal life and the way he moves through the world each day.

“If you are a person who has that ability to respect others and the ability to not only tell stories but listen to other people, you're going to have a more fulfilling a human experience,” Altabef said. “And I think I have been able to get that in large part because of the training here and being with Professor Currie.”

My Chicago Law Moment is a series highlighting the Law School ideas, experiences, and approaches that have impacted our students and alumni. Video produced by Will Anderson.