The Educator, The Dealmaker & The Reformer
Contract law attorney John Moye is all three
Published in 2014 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine on March 14, 2014
In the early 1960s, Notre Dame’s campus radio station strived to play something for everyone. Broadcasting from the clock tower of O’Shag, the iconic O’Shaughnessy Hall at the center of campus, student radio broadcasters offered a mix of music, news, sports and the occasional radio drama—but the afternoon belonged to rock ‘n’ roll. The show was called “Topsy,” and the disc jockey was a wiry-framed, energetic teenager from Deadwood, S.D., who at a local commercial station went by the rock-‘n’-roll-ready name of Johnny Mopp. To his friends, he was simply John Moye.
By the late 1960s, the DJ had gotten his J.D. and was using rock ‘n’ roll to teach students at University of Denver College of Law. He wound up there for three reasons: boredom, happenstance and boredom.
This was the first instance of boredom: Moye graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in accounting and business administration, then took a job with an accounting firm in Detroit. “We audited the school district in Wayne County, Michigan, but no one was there because it was summer,” Moye remembers. “We counted T-shirts in the gymnasium for inventory control. I only spent two months working with them before I realized that accounting was not going to be my profession—it was awfully dull.”
So Moye took a detour to Cornell University Law School. He fondly recalls Walter Oberer’s contracts course, where the professor called on students to discuss a case and then took the opposite position. “If he debated using substance in his argument, you knew you were wrong about the case,” Moye recalls. “If he attacked you personally, that meant you were correct, so the rest of the class took note while you were pilloried. It was intense but a lot of fun.”
Moye’s plan was to get a job on Wall Street, “like every other Cornell graduate,” he says. Instead, due to an ROTC commitment, he was ordered to spend four years in the U.S. Air Force at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado.
To keep occupied during the months before he received his traveling papers, Moye assisted Cornell Law’s dean with a book about federal jurisdiction and procedure. When Moye left for Colorado, the dean encouraged him to take the manuscript and finish it in exchange for a share of royalties and a byline on the book. Moye was grateful for the opportunity, but the publisher was reticent to accept Moye’s name on the book because he lacked academic affiliation. “They didn’t want Air Force captains writing their law books for them,” Moye says. So to appease the publisher, he began teaching an evening course on federal jurisdiction at the University of Denver College of Law in 1969. This was the happenstance, and it brings us to Moye’s second instance of boredom.
“It was the dullest course I could have ever conceivably taught,” Moye remembers. “I was amazed that I had anybody in the class.” After that first quarter, he begged Bob Yegge, the dean of the College of Law, for a different subject. He was offered a course on the Uniform Commercial Code, a topic Moye happened to love. His success led to a full professorship after he finished in the Air Force.
“I was about the same age as all the students when I started, so we just had a lot of fun,” says Moye. He used rock-‘n’-roll trivia, gleaned from his days in the DJ booth, as a tool. “There were many songs of that time that were adaptable to legal experiences,” he remembers. “‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ is an offer to make a unilateral contract, for example, but ‘Help Me, Rhonda’ is an inadequate offer because it doesn’t state the context of what you want Rhonda to help you do.” When some of his references grew stale, he wrote “Contract Rap,” which covers more than 60 contract law concepts through rhyming couplets. An example:
Should you delegate a duty, but the delegate abstains
To the delegator the obligee complains
If the delegator has paid the delegate a fee
The obligee becomes a beneficiary
At the end of one lecture, according to legend, students waved lighters in the air.
“There’s a whole generation of lawyers out there who learned the basics of contract law for purposes of the bar through the ‘Contract Rap,’ I’m quite sure of it,” says former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Kourlis. “He has such a capacity to package ideas in short, comprehensible, and memorable ways.”
Moye’s techniques were especially effective for bar review subjects. Moye and Jim Lyons, now senior partner at Lewis Roca Rothgerber, were partners in the bar refresher business, and have been friends for 40-plus years.
“John is a brilliant individual, a man of many talents,” says Lyons. “All of his attributes come together to structure transactions and find common ground in business negotiations. That’s why he’s got a well-earned reputation as one of the best transactional lawyers in the country.”
During his time at DU College of Law, Moye served as an associate dean and received numerous awards, including several nods as professor of the year. Altogether, through his lectures and recorded audio series, Moye estimates he has helped more than half a million lawyers prepare for the intricacies of the bar review process.
Keely Downs, an associate at Moye White, was amazed when she first worked side by side with Moye. “He works harder than most people realize. Some may put it on cruise control once they get to his level, but he just loves practicing law and you can tell he gets energy from it. He doesn’t have to sleep very much, which may be one of his secrets. I get detailed emails from John at four o’clock in the morning. I was surprised by how in the trenches he really is.”
“He’s still honest and genuine and says hello to everybody every day,” says Glenna McKelvy, Moye’s assistant. “He’s the only person I know that does that. He’s still funny and sensitive. And he’s made every day of my 30 years here worth coming in.”
But even into 1975 he was still primarily teaching law with only a few clients here and there. That changed in 1976 when three lawyers, including two former students—John Head, Craig Carver and Pamela Ray—approached him about creating a new law firm.
“I thought that was a great idea,” Moye says. “I could teach in the mornings and evenings and practice law in the afternoons.”
The firm, Head Moye Carver & Ray, underwent many reconfigurations before becoming simply Moye White, a 50-person firm that specializes in commercial transactions and disputes. “I represent businesses and entrepreneurs, large and small,” he says. “They are all important cases. I’ve closed deals where the consideration is billions of dollars and I can get really interested in a case that is only a few thousand dollars in size.”
“He’s one of these people that, no matter how difficult the conversation, makes everyone in the room walk away feeling OK,” says Susan Powers, president of Urban Ventures, a real estate development company in Denver.
Powers met Moye in 1987 when she became executive director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority. Moye had been appointed to DURA’s board by Mayor Federico Peña, who was fed up with the authority’s old guard and charged Moye and the new board members with the task of revitalizing downtown Denver, which had eroded into a dismal state after two decades of suburbanization and neglect. Powers was reluctant to join DURA—she had her doubts about some of the “old, white male bank presidents” and she had a 6-month-old infant at home—but Moye promised that, if she joined, he would become chairman within a year. Which he did.
Since then, almost every major redevelopment project in Denver has been touched by Moye. As the chairman of the Colorado Historical Society, he helped convince the Colorado Supreme Court and Colorado History Museum, who were begrudging neighbors on the same city block, to split up and construct new buildings. Recent accomplishments include spearheading the transformation of the old Stapleton International Airport into one of Denver’s hottest neighborhoods.
What does Powers remember best about this time? Moye sitting behind a piano.
“In 1992, we won an award from the Downtown Denver Partnership for the Denver Dry Goods department store project, which was renovated over the course of four or five years,” says Powers. Instead of standing on stage and accepting a plaque, Moye rewrote the lyrics to Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” into a song called “It’s Financeable,” and persuaded his colleagues, including Powers, to sing the song in front of the 600-person audience. They were a hit.
Even as Moye was helping renovate downtown Denver, he was growing weary of seeing accessibility, gross inefficiencies and inconsistent levels of accountability in the civil justice system. So he worked closely with Justice Kourlis and Chancellor Emeritus Dan Ritchie to create the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, an independent research center at the University of Denver that uses a mix of innovation, empirical data and interdisciplinary collaboration to help reform the practice of law. The institute opened its doors in 2006. Moye currently sits on the executive committee and board of advisors.
“Some of our goals involve mundane things like procedure,” says Moye. “For example, the issue of proportional discovery. Lawyers shouldn’t take 50 depositions on a $100,000 case or spend a fortune on expert witnesses.” Other IAALS initiatives focus on the appointment and oversight of judges, education of new lawyers and encouraging families to handle divorce and child custody cases peacefully, without entering a courtroom.
“We want to keep people out of court. If they don’t have to go to court, it will cost them less, it will be finished faster, and will feel like justice was served,” says Moye.
He recognizes that it takes awhile for reform to wriggle free from conventional thinking. “You have to change the culture,” he says. “For years, people wouldn’t consider wearing their seatbelt until we put a dinging bell in the car. Now people wear their seatbelts without the warning. The same is true for law—you have to flip attitudes.”
“I think many people do not realize just how big a heart John Moye has; he’s an extraordinarily compassionate individual,” says Lyons. “As far as I can tell, he’s never told anyone ‘no’ who asked for his help.”
The list is long. Among other honors, he’s been president of the Colorado Bar Association, director of Denver Botanic Gardens, member of the Colorado Forum, and befitting his former DJ status, director of Colorado Public Radio.
These days Moye listens mostly to classical music and jazz, although, he says, “I still have the ’60s tuned in on my Sirius satellite radio.” He and his wife, Pamela, have eight children and 16 grandchildren—all proud moments.
Another proud moment occurred in August 2012 when Trish Nagel, a former partner in Moye’s firm, and her husband, Ralph, a real estate developer, helped fund the renovation of IAALS and named the new campus building John Moye Hall. “I was stunned when I first heard,” he says. On the day of the dedication, with hundreds in attendance, he saw his name on the building and was stunned all over again.
“I’d never seen him with tears in his eyes before,” says McKelvy.