A Heartfelt Goodbye

Bill’s retirement letter to 579 staff, paralegals and lawyers at Robins Kaplan LLP at the end of 2020

            Many will remember 2020 as a year dominated by COVID.  At Robins we will all remember and honor our friends and colleagues Jeff, Hollis, and Jim.  We will also remember and honor George Floyd and so many others.  I am indebted to Isabel Wilkerson, the author of “Caste” and Eddie Glaude, the author of “Begin Again” for helping me awaken to the path that lies ahead.  No words are adequate to capture the depth of impact of COVID, the deep grief we feel for the loss of our friends, and the awakening on new and deeper levels to racial inequality.
            I have been fortunate to work with many exceptional lawyers, paralegals, LAA’s, investigators, and staff in all of our departments and offices over the past 35 years.  In that time many have left the firm and many new people have joined.  I am retiring at year-end.  I choose to say goodbye now so over the next few weeks I can engage with many of you.  I will tell a few stories, touch briefly on what I have been involved with over the years and offer a few words of advice that may possibly assist in the future.
At my Swearing-In Ceremony in 1978 the speaker was Justice Rosalie Wahl.  She told us that we were all smart, that we were all capable and that we would all make good livings practicing law, but those were not the essential questions.  The essential question was whether we would practice law with a “heart”?  This question, born from a life of service and wisdom by Justice Wahl stayed with me throughout 42 years of practice.  As a result of being inspired by her and many others; the question top of mind as I crossed the threshold to my office each morning was would I, that day, stand selflessly in the shoes of a client and give that client voice?  Not my voice, but the voice of the client.  It became clear over time that if I stayed loyal to that question and stuck with that question through the years, that money and success would take care of itself.  As the practice of law becomes more competitive, I suggest you think about what questions may inspire you. 
I have been fortunate to give a presentation around the Country to Federal Bar Associations, churches, synagogues, businesses, and community groups.  The title of the presentation is, “The Greatest Lawyer or the Greatest Human Being Who Ever Lived:  Nelson Mandela.”  Because of the inspiration and mentorship that Nelson Mandela has offered me through study, meeting him, going to South Africa and tracing his steps throughout his life; I have created a scholarship in his name at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.  His life is a testament to the reality that living out of an “active inner life” can allow one to find deep meaning and to act out of it.  As a lawyer, he stood in the shoes of many and gave them voice.  Ultimately, he stood in the shoes of a nation and led 45 million people of color to forgive 5 million white people.  It is the first time in human history that a majority oppressed people forgave a minority oppressor.  An act of deep moral, ethical and religious clarity that remains hard for the world to comprehend. 
1.         I was blessed and humbled to represent two families who together lost three children when they burned alive in a General Motors van through spontaneous combustion.  We recovered the largest settlement known at that time in Minnesota for minor children.  At the beginning of the case, the grief of the families and everyone touched by this tragedy was overwhelming.  Shortly thereafter, the mothers asked the coroner to see their children.  The coroner gave very genuine long hugs to each mother and then drew them close and told them that it would not be good for them to see their children.  That what they should live with for the rest of their life is, “she was the last person to touch their children and she did so with love.”  It is experiences like this that I will remember for the rest of my life.  To witness such acts of courage and compassion by the coroner and the mothers is a privilege beyond words.  That privilege occurred many times in 35 years.  It is events and actions like these that have inspired and challenged me to practice law with passion and conviction.  I will remain forever grateful to the firm for having presented these opportunities.
2.         I was privileged to represent a young man named Steven Sharp who lost both arms in a farming accident in Oregon.  A book has been written about Steven Sharp and the case by a University of Minnesota Professor – Bill Mishler.  Bill was a brilliant person and an incredible writer.  The book is titled:  “A Measure of Endurance: The Unlikely Triumph of Steven Sharp.” 
The case was in trial for 5 weeks.  After trial it wound its way through the Court of Appeals and eventually to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where we obtained a favorable unanimous decision.  We ultimately entered a judgement of $11 million.  
Following the completion of the case, Steven and I testified in front of the Senate Commerce Committee, at the invitation of Senator Ernest Hollings.  At the time it was chaired by Senator John McCain.  We testified against five CEO’s who were attempting to enact a 12-year national statute of repose on all products.  It had quite a bit of support in the Senate.  If the bill became law it would have prevented Steven from ever pursuing a case.  As a result of our testimony, that bill was rejected.  Now, an award is given each year by the American Lawyers for Justice, in the name of Steven Sharp for a lawyer and a client who come forward to make a legislative difference.  
Steven Sharp is a remarkable human being.  There is one story in the book that stands in sharp relief compared to all other aspects of the case.  I met with Steven every night to prepare his direct testimony.  After the 5th evening of short visits in a hotel room in Racine, Wisconsin, Steven told me that he knew this accident was going to happen to him.  It was the subject of many of his repetitive dreams.  Because he knew it was going to happen, that is what gave him the strength to extricate himself from the hot hay-baler rollers behind a J. I. Case tractor that self-started.  Of course, we could not tell this to the jury, but it was that statement by Steven that most influenced Bill Mishler to want to write the remarkable story of Steven Sharp’s life.  For me to sit in that room and bear witness to Steven telling me about the foreshadowing of this event and how that occurred and why it gave him the strength to survive the accident remains as a most impactful event. 
3.         Another client stands out.  A manufacturer that made heavy lifting products that go between the crane and the lifted objectrigging equipment.  I was invited to a meeting with the CEO and five large corporate defense firms.  The company had 40 existing very difficult products liability cases.  The CEO was distraught saying lawsuits were about to destroy his company.  Many band-aid comments were made.  I spoke and said they could lose the company, as they were not in compliance with the law.  Shockingly I got a call from the CEO a week later.  I said yes I would work with him if:  1) we took over all 40 cases–we settled most and tried some, and 2) most important was that we would meet every other Saturday with him, his engineers, design team, and an outside expert I recommended.  I made it clear that the CEO had to be in each meeting which is why I picked a Saturday to do the work.  After six months, they were in compliance with the law.  They stopped selling product and started selling safety.  Business boomed.  We saved lives, injuries, jobs, and helped transform a company and an industry.  Gratifying.
This client experience allowed for the development of a talk titled:  “Why 90% of Corporations in America are not in Compliance with Existing Products Liability Laws.”  [still true today]  This talk was instrumental in building a large products liability defense practice.  The products liability work allowed us to identify with the clients mission and obtain antitrust, commercial litigation, class action defense, trademark, trade dress, copyright, and patent litigation.  Also, I was able to give a very truncated version of this talk to Senator John McCain and the Commerce Committee when testifying with Steven Sharp as referenced above.
Doing personal injury work and obtaining numerous ten million, five million, and multi-million-dollar settlements and verdicts will always remain as the most vivid memories.  But also, working on per diem matters with large teams will always bring joyful smiles.  Just thinking about the unique team members, clients and so many fun stories causes bouts of laughter.  I have been fortunate to work with “as friends” 20 multi-million dollar per diem clients.  Some of these clients will remain as long-term clients of the firm.  
When we started doing work for Honeywell our first cases were products liability and disaster litigation.  I was invited to give the talk ”90% not in compliance, etc.” to the Board of Directors.  The CEO responded immediately in front of the entire Board requesting that the talk be given to all divisions and departments in the company.  We also began to obtain business litigation work.  Thereafter, it was special to be an instrumental part of initiating the firm’s first patent case Honeywell v. Minolta.  The case allowed the firm to be at the tipping point of ushering trial lawyers into patent litigation.  After Minolta, the Fonar case came to the firm and Ron and his team obtained an excellent result and thereafter the I.P. department and practice quickly grew.  Later, expanding the I.P. practice, I formed wonderful new teams.  We did patent defense work and numerous plaintiff’s cases:  Intergraph v. 20 Defendants, AMD v. Samsung, and AMD v. LG.  We were able to obtain a billion dollars for our patent plaintiff clients.  This allowed us to develop and give talks:  “How to Recover a Billion Dollars in Patent Litigation with a Ten to One Return without Trial or Appeal,” and “How to Make the Invisible-Visible.”  The talks generated many opportunities and some of those continue today.  
It was also special to be a part of the expert discovery team in the tobacco litigation.  I was also fortunate to receive two BTI client service awards and the firm’s mentoring award.  I was privileged to be appointed to four magistrate selection committees, chairing one and serving on two reappointment committees.
I leave the firm with pride that I have achieved the definition of an equity partner: “one who puts in more than they take out.”  I encourage all lawyers as you are generating business to include everyone.  It is the welcoming, inclusion, and promotion of all into the work that expands the firm.  
It is with gratitude and a full heart that I leave this firm.  No one accomplishes anything alone.  That is surely the case with me.  I have always worked with great people and always won and lost as a team.  Over 35 years the tremendous people I have been privileged to work with throughout the firm are just too numerous to mention.  
I do want to mention my enormous gratitude to Deb McNeil, Sharon George, and Sandi Poppen.  All LAAs with whom I was fortunate to work.  They were and are tremendous professionals and friends.  I am also grateful to all the fabulous investigators who made such a difference in putting together and generating winning cases.  I also am particularly grateful to have been a small part of the extraordinary pro bono work and charitable contributions the entire firm does nationally year in and year out.
It is due to all of the above and so much more that when people asked me if I liked my work – I’ve always said no – I’ve loved my work, the clients I’ve worked for, and all the tremendous people I have been fortunate to work with.
            In the future, I will be living downtown Minneapolis and doing non-legal work and studying in a home office.  My work will be on the issues raised in this article “What is Owed” by Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times, with Global Rights for Women, Breakthrough Twin Cities, Rudolf Steiner Health Center, Ann Arbor, MI, and environmental justice issues.  My study will be of a broad range of spiritual issues in part reflected in the poetry and prose of Maya Angelou, Mary Oliver, and David Whyte.