Update (October 30, 2012): A great lawyer is one who can see ahead, who can accurately counsel clients about risks and opportunities in the near and even the far-off future. Apparently, this skill set might carry over into sports predictions.
Original Post (June 12, 2012): The ideal lawyer for a large law firm’s general counsel is the embodiment of loyalty, discretion, patience, judgment, and tact, otherwise known as Michael Flom.
For our fourth profile of interesting Minnesota litigators, we had the chance to sit down with Michael Flom to talk about his role and responsibilities as general counsel for the Minneapolis firm Gray Plant Mooty. Flom has spent his almost 30-year career at GPM and has practiced business and real estate litigation since 1982. Additionally, he has been balancing his private client representation with his role of advising and representing his law firm for the past 20 years.
Check out our conversation below. He talked about his responsibilities as general counsel for GPM, what characteristics have kept him at the same firm throughout his legal career, how he prepared for his first jury trial, what his pre-trial rituals are, and gave a prediction on the current season of Twins baseball.
You have been at Gray Plant Mooty for almost 30 years, talk about how you started out.
I was in the summer program in 1981. There were maybe 50-55 lawyers. Then I started here full time after I graduated from law school and I’ve been here ever since.
What’s kept you here?
It’s a good firm with good lawyers and it’s the work I like to do. It’s a place that takes firm culture, flexibility and collegiality seriously; it’s been a good fit.
What does GPM do to instill this culture?
We make a real effort, whether it is for new hires, lateral hires, or even new offices to make sure we have a good fit of talents and personalities with the rest of the firm. There’s an effort to be flexible, in terms of part-time, parenting, special needs, diversity, and pro bono work.
You are the general counsel for Gray Plant, how long have you been in that role?
I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. I have been the internal compliance officer and part of our committee that deals with these issues since 1990. Following a process that has become fairly common, I was designated as general counsel in 2007. By and large, the functions were there even before I had the title.
What are your primary responsibilities as general counsel?
There are many. They start with being the head of a committee that considers and develops firm policies and procedures for ethics and professional responsibility issues. It’s also the daily business of addressing those issues, so it’s new client matters, client intake, engagement letters, scope of engagement, conflicts of interest, conflicts of interest assessment, potential disclosures and waivers of conflicts of interest, potential ethical walls, firm communications, whether it’s newsletters or alerts or blogs, insurance issues, things that come up in specialized practices such as electronic documents that are inadvertently sent or received, improper communications with represented or unrepresented people, the attorney client privilege, improper behavior by witnesses and clients and I could go on from there.
What got you interested in professional responsibility and ethics?
Back around 1990, I had the opportunity to get involved in this area and at that time the role wasn’t the magnitude it is now, but when I had the opportunity to step up as the firm’s second compliance officer I thought it sounded interesting.
What are some of the most gratifying parts of your job as general counsel?
Every once in a while, it’s gratifying to see something that gives rise to good results – a creative way to handle a new representation. For example, sometimes clients want to work together with other clients and there are ways to handle the potential conflicts that can arise. Sometimes there are alternative fee arrangements that clients find favorable and that law firms are much more willing to look into in recent years. Obviously, resolving issues that arise or claims that arise is nice when they come to a good resolution or settlement.
I also get to deal with every person in the firm. There’s also an education role and training to make sure people are aware of the different ethical and professional responsibility topics. All of those things can be very positive.
Why do some law firms have a general counsel?
It confirms and institutionalizes the role. There’s some developing authority that a firm has an internal attorney client privilege for internal firm matters that’s authority that’s still developing but if there’s some designated person to deal with that it goes to strengthening the retention of that particular privilege.
You have been with the same firm your entire career, but it seems like lawyers are moving much more between firms, how has that affected your role as general counsel?
In my role as general counsel, one of my responsibilities is integration of lateral attorneys both into and out of the firm because of conflicts of interests, imputed conflicts, confidentiality, and privileged information that goes in and out of the office. More lateral movements means more use of ethical walls and screening measures as appropriate, but none of that in itself is a bad thing.
Has that affected the practice?
It depends on who you ask. Gray Plant Mooty has a tradition of people who have been here for their career, so my situation is not unusual. Since I started, there’s been a lot more lateral movement throughout the profession, including here. Some people think that having a fresh start can be and is a good thing. Some think that there’s something to be said for the stability and continuous tenure at one place. I really think it depends on the situation, but lateral movement of attorneys definitely has something to do with my daily tasks as general counsel.
You also represent private clients in addition to your role as general counsel, describe your practice.
My practice is in business litigation, with a fairly heavy concentration on real estate litigation. I do a lot of landlord-tenant, vendor-purchaser disputes, tax challenges either in terms of property valuation or classification, I’ve done construction and water intrusion cases, adverse possession, land-use and zoning issues, really anything that involves real estate disputes.
Did you always want to do litigation?
I did litigation right out of law school, I had in mind that’s what I wanted to do. I’ve always been interested in communication, advocacy and taking a position and supporting and arguing for it. I didn’t necessarily know how that worked in practice, even though I was interested in it generally. I got to learn from some pretty great people and it turned out that was, in fact, what I wanted to do.
What did you do to prepare for your first case?
My first jury trial, I was fortunate enough to do by the time I was out of school for maybe a year and a half. I assembled as much of the information that I could, got as much input as I could from other lawyers and gleaned as much information about what would be an effective opening statement, an effective direct examination, before that an effective voir dire, cross examination, and closing argument. I tried to soak in as much information that I could before doing it.
There was a level of anxiety about whether I was doing something wrong or whether it could have been done better and I definitely felt that before walking into the courtroom.
What are some of the lessons you learned from that first trial that have stayed with you through your practice?
There’s no substitute for preparation and being ready for whatever questions or situations come up – which usually means you’re going to be ready for 10 or 20 things that will never come up – and even then you’re not going to be able to anticipate everything that comes up.
Another thing is that I think you have to develop a style that’s true to yourself. I could never be the person who comes into a courtroom and starts pounding on the table or takes over the room by sheer force of my own personality. I do think I can be credible by being myself and by showing that I can present a compelling case through the evidence, through analysis, and through the force of argument. To do something that’s not true to yourself or do something that’s not going to work for you is something that’s going to be picked up by a jury or a judge.
What do you think is one of the best ways to become a better trial attorney?
I think taking depositions is a great way to learn how to become a trial lawyer because you’re actually doing examinations. You’re learning how to engage a witness, gauge a witness’s reactions, counsel’s reactions, when to move on to something else, and when to veer from your script. Learning by doing is always helpful.
How do you prepare for a case?
It’s good to have a timeline leading up to your trial – other than the stuff that’s on a scheduling order – to have a sense of what’s the theme of the case or what’s your elevator story for the case. I want to know what my theme is because that’s going to drive how you take discovery, what you’re going to elicit from witnesses, how you’re going to frame your arguments, how you’re going to move towards dispositive motions, and what’s going to be believable. My pretrial ritual is to develop my big picture story.
What do you like to do when you are not practicing law?
I really like to play piano and I’m a volunteer piano player at a senior residence. I also love baseball – I’ve been a Twins season ticket holder for over a quarter century – and I still play softball.
Make a prediction on the Twins’ final record.
Let’s go with 64-98. One better than last year.
What kind of advice would you give to lawyers who are just starting out?
Try to find the sort of job and the sort of place to work where you enjoy what you’re doing and enjoy the people you’re doing it with. We’ve been in a very challenging economy and a tight job market so it’s not easy to just pick your spot, but if you can do that and find a way where you enjoy going to work and enjoy what you’re doing that’s a great thing to have.
To do your job at a place where you like the people you work with is a real advantage. Also, do your best to keep your own life and own interests active because, in my view, it is not only good for you, it makes you a better lawyer. Keep an eye open for the sorts of pro bono and charitable activities that are a good fit for you. Charitable and pro bono work is always something to keep in mind; I think it makes the person who’s giving feel really good.
Is there anything that you wished you knew as a young lawyer that you know now?
Nothing in particular, but sometimes you need to be ready to veer from the script. Sometimes you need to embrace change, whether it’s technology or the economy or the way that you practice; it’s not always going to be how you mapped it out.