When it comes to competent political leadership, Michigan these days is easily among the sorriest states in the union. But for reasons I’ve yet to figure out, Michigan has an abundance of world class lawyers, some of the best in the country. I make this claim having dealt with hundreds of lawyers in my decades-long career as a journalist and crisis communications specialist.
Exhibit A is Detroit attorney Paul Novak, who I read this morning is representing California in a “bellwether” opioid trial beginning Monday in San Francisco involving multiple drug makers and pharmacies, including Walgreens and Teva. A bellwether trial is a test case derived from a large pool of lawsuits filed against a single or group of parties to determine how future litigation might turn out.
Novak is a big deal lawyer, and if you’re not a fan of the pricing and marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies, he’s your kind of people. Prior to going into private practice, Novak was part of the crack legal team serving under Michigan’s legendary attorney general Frank J. Kelley, who held the job for some 37 years. Few, if any, would dispute that Kelley was the greatest state AG of all time, whose myriad accomplishments included spearheading the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. That settlement resulted in more than $206 billion being paid out to most states to compensate them for their healthcare costs related to tobacco-related illnesses.
Novak for decades has had a recurring role in the bad dreams of America’s top pharmaceutical executives. According to his bio, he led an $80 million case on behalf of all fifty State Attorneys General who sued the pharmaceuticals industry for anticompetitive pricing practices. Novak also participated in several additional cases and obtained several hundred million dollars in recoveries on behalf of injured customers and third-party payers who were overcharged by pharmaceutical companies.
More recently, Novak helped gain approval for the partial settlement of the Flint Water Crisis, a very personal case given the “Vehicle City” is his hometown.
My fondness for Michigan lawyers also is quite personal, as it was the Detroit-based law firm Butzel Long that managed my green card application in the mid-80s allowing me to remain in the U.S. and work for the Detroit News. Among the major milestones in my life was being taken to lunch by a young Butzel attorney named Len Niehoff after getting hired at the News to discuss strategy.
I would have preferred Niehoff had taken me to Detroit’s famed London Chop House, but he opted for a hole-in-the-wall burger joint called the Checker Bar, which signaled that Butzel lawyers didn’t live it up on their clients’ dimes. Niehoff went on to achieve considerable success; he has since left Butzel and is now affiliated with Honigman and teaches at Michigan Law.
Admittedly, I’m disappointed that Niehoff doesn’t list getting me my Green Card among his major accomplishments. I fear Niehoff might not even remember our lunch!
A Butzel lawyer – it was either Jim Stewart or Dick Rassel — was responsible for making a powerful local executive lose interest in suing me after firing off what I’m certain still ranks among the best legal FU letters in the history of U.S. jurisprudence. The executive took issue with me calling out his hypocrisy in a prominent Detroit News Sunday business story. We never heard from the executive again, despite denying him the correction he demanded. Rassel is now Butzel’s chairman.
Another attorney that really impressed me was Norm Ankers, formerly of Honigman and now with Foley & Lardner. I worked on a case with Ankers when I was in PR that was quite disturbing because our client risked losing everything because of a well-known local mamzer for whom litigation was a sport. Ankers’ legal prowess was notable, but so was the compassion he showed our client. Ankers graduated from Harvard Law, and for many years had the distinction of being the youngest person ever admitted to the school. As I recall, Ankers got in at 18 but years later some 16-year-old high achiever took the record.
Another high achieving Michigan legal eagle is David Foltyn, chairman of Honigman, the state’s biggest law firm. Foltyn has done a masterful job expanding Honigman beyond its Michigan base, including opening an office in Washington at the height of the pandemic. A top Michigan executive I very much admire wouldn’t make a move without first consulting with Foltyn. I know there are many others.
I attended Foltyn’s wedding when he married my client and friend Elyse Essick. It was one of the classiest weddings I ever attended, and they served awesome wine that was a little too good. Let’s just say that some people still have memories of my attendance decades later.
Then there’s E. Powell Miller, who I’ve previously profiled. Listing all of Miller’s impressive accomplishments will use up too much memory, so check them out here. Miller was named one of the Top 10 Lawyers in Michigan for 10 consecutive years, and one of the Best Lawyers in America every year since 2005. He has been retained by several Fortune 500 companies to represent them in litigation throughout the U.S., obtaining more than $3 billion in settlements. It takes a certain legal cockiness to go up against Miller given that he’s never lost a trial.
Miller is an example of Michigan niceness. In 2017, he was the recipient of the Judge Friedman and Cook Civility Award, which is awarded to only one Michigan lawyer each year for behaving like a mensch in court. That there is even such an award in Michigan speaks volumes.
Attorney Mark Shaevsky is also worthy of special mention. In September 2020, Shaevsky wrote a masterful letter to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel warning her that patient health was being imperiled at Beaumont Health, the biggest hospital network in southeast Michigan, because of the controversial leadership of then CEO John Fox. Nessel ignored Shaevsky’s warning, and a few months later a healthy patient died undergoing a routine colonoscopy and another wound up in the ICU because of a pain medication overdose.
Therein is the tragedy of Michigan’s legal community. Whereas Frank Kelley ranked among the best state AG’s ever, Nessel easily ranks among the ineptest. In addition to allowing Beaumont, once a nationally respected hospital, to implode she has yet to launch, let alone win, any significant cases.
Nessel has so sullied the reputation of the AG’s office that in November 2020 she felt compelled to issue a news release asking Michiganders to stop telling her staff to shove sharpies up their butts. It’s tough to take seriously an AG involved in public drunkenness and tweeted that famed Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers makes her appreciate that she’s a lesbian. (Nessel is openly gay, a detail she likes to continuously remind the public and media.)
Nessel is expected to handily win reelection in the fall, which is understandable. Check out this Republican candidate hoping to run against her for a taste of the standards of Michigan’s elephant party.
Politically Michigan is a very sad state of affairs. Ford has so little regard for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer the company didn’t even consult with her before inking deals to invest more than $11 billion in Tennessee and Kentucky to build plants there. The automaker also has announced plans to significantly expand its white-collar workforce in India and possibly assemble electric vehicles there as well.
Interestingly, Whitmer’s mother, Sherry Whitmer, was an attorney in Kelley’s office. The governor’s father was a respected healthcare executive, proof that competence and excellence aren’t hereditary.
Given Michigan’s abundant supply of superior legal talent, it’s my hope the Michigan Bar will come together and develop a law school program for aspiring political leaders, something akin to what West Point is to the military. Lawmakers can benefit having law degrees, but training future political leaders in economics and public finance could also be beneficial.
Alternatively, perhaps Paul Novak might one day consider running for Michigan attorney general and restoring the office to the glory it enjoyed when he worked there.