Easy Rider

Marc Lieberman's whole life is an adventure. Even his seemingly sedate law practice

Published in 2009 Southwest Super Lawyers — May 2009

Marc Lieberman sits atop his 2003 Indian Chief Vintage, eyeing the Saturday morning motorcycle traffic rounding the corner in front of the Cave Creek Coffee Company, a favorite hangout near his North Scottsdale home. With his strong jaw and trim mustache, he suggests Paul Newman. He has raced motorcycles, swum with sharks, climbed mountains. Still, his greatest thrill remains practicing public pension law.

"These plans control more money than perhaps any other entity other than the federal government," says the 52-year-old Lieberman, getting excited just talking about it. "It's a huge area, involving billions of dollars. The Arizona State Retirement System alone has close to $23.59 billion in it. It's incredible, but nobody cares about it!"

He does. In his position at Kutak Rock in Scottsdale, he serves as outside counsel to four of Arizona's six public pension plans, which include the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, the Elected Officials' Retirement Plan and the Corrections Officer Retirement Plan. He represents plans that help more than 50,000 judges, legislators, elected officials, police officers, firefighters and other public workers in the state collect on their pensions. He also gives counsel to fund managers on what to do if government officials come knocking. And he figures they will.

"At some point, there's going to be a real strong movement to get the public pension funds to lend money to enable the government to operate," he says. "The trustees of the plans owe their dues to the members. The trustees would resist any effort to raid the plans or take money away from the plans if to do so would impair the health of the plans."

In Arizona, an amendment protects the funds from being raided.

"Private pension funds are falling by the wayside," he says. "In Arizona, however, you cannot take away a public pension plan. The rights you have upon hire by a public agency are preserved by constitutional order."

Lieberman enjoys working through the odd complexities of public pension law. In a recent case, he defended a cost-of-living increase awarded to state retirees that had been contested on the grounds that the former employees were no longer working, and therefore not entitled to the increased pension. Lieberman managed to preserve the $600 million increase.

"I do think public employees are underpaid but one benefit that they have, which is not necessarily available to most private employees, are these pensions, these wonderful public pensions," he says.

 

The first time Lieberman lit out on a motorcycle, under the tutelage of friend and fellow lawyer Michael Anthony, he almost fell into a pack of road-running javelinas, or small pigs.

"He didn't want to wear a helmet," says Anthony, a longtime Phoenix lawyer and litigator with Carson Messinger. "After six javelinas popped out of a drainage ditch, just missed his rear tire and sent me sliding down the road, he walked back to me and said, 'Gee, that was a really effective demonstration of why I should wear a helmet.'"

Anthony recalls Lieberman jumping into public pension law with the same enthusiasm and humor.

"It's not the kind of specialty people come out of law school thinking they want to do, but Marc's done a bang-up job in it," Anthony says. "He's made a great niche for himself."

After his freshman year of college (he attended Northern Illinois University for a year then transferred to Indiana University), Lieberman took the trip of a lifetime: he co-led a 3,300-mile canoe trek from Montreal to the Gulf of Mexico called the LaSalle: Expedition II. Enlisted by his high school French teacher to help command a team of 17 students on an eight-month-long re-enactment of French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle's 1681 excursion, the trip taught the 19-year-old Lieberman some valuable lessons.

"It showed him he could overcome obstacles," says younger brother Rick Lieberman, a business lawyer who heads up the
corporate and securities department at the Phoenix white-shoe firm Jennings Strouss. "Since then, his work ethic and his dedication haven't wavered."

For the last 17 years, he and two of his pals from LaSalle II have been taking annual adventure trips together. "We've done shark dives, the Baja 1000 [motorcycle race], fishing in northern Canada, even climbing Kilimanjaro," says one of the trio, Bob Kulick, a co-owner of the national CiCi's Pizza chain. "Our only rules are you can't do the same thing twice, and families can only come along once a decade."

Obviously, it takes unusually understanding wives to tolerate such an ongoing bromance. Lieberman says his wife of 22 years, Cindy, is just fine with the trips.

"The best thing is, all our wives have no interest in it," Lieberman says with a laugh. "I think they're just glad to get rid of us."

Kulick says Lieberman is a great guy to have at your side, whether on a mountain or in a courtroom.

"When you're scuba diving with sharks, you want to know there's a guy like that who's going to be watching out for you," he says. "And I know he's the same way with his clients."

 

Lieberman believes he has a solution to the problems placed on the Social Security system by the growing demands of the country's aging baby boomers.

"All the pension lawyers know that the Social Security problem could be fixed immediately—and the government wouldn't have to cut benefits or increase taxes," he claims. "All they'd have to do is do what every public pension plan in the world does except Social Security: Invest in the stock market. Invest in a wide variety of diversified assets. Right now, it's limited in its investment to only treasury bills, which are getting a zero percent return. If it could just invest in government-insured CDs, it would immediately increase the assets in Social Security by 40 percent. Forty percent!" he repeats. "No more crisis!

"I guess the thought of the Social Security Administration investing in anything other than our treasury bills is terrifying, because there might be losses," he says, revving up his Indian, and looking, for a moment, like he could give Dennis Hopper a run for his money in those boomer retirement-planning commercials. "But the only way to do well is take some risks. Despite the current terror gripping the marketplace, long-term, I think it is the best way to go."

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