The Gold Standard
When not trying cases, Jim Lyons advises governors and presidents. Oh, and he helped bring peace to Ireland, too
Published in 2007 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine
on March 9, 2007
Updated on October 2, 2019
A small snapshot of Jim Lyons, President Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II sits in a bookcase in Jim Lyons’ 30th-floor office in downtown Denver. Taken on World Youth Day in 1993, it is an impressive memento in an otherwise unassuming office. Whenever Lyons’ 87-year-old mother visits and sees the photo, she can’t resist asking, with a smile, “Who are those other two men with my son?”
In the Colorado legal community, this is not an improper question. Lyons, a business litigator with Rothgerber Johnson & Lyons for the past 35 years, is, according to clients and colleagues, a legal warrior. Former Qwest director Thomas Stephens, currently chair and CEO of Boise Cascade, gives praise that might make even Lyons’ mom blush. “I just sent my daughter off to Stanford Law School,” he says, “and I hope she’ll turn out to be just like Jim. He’s the gold standard.”
As the oldest of six kids in an Irish Catholic family, Lyons’ leadership emerged early. “When you’re first in line,” he says, “you have a certain role to play.”
He loved watching his father work. A lawyer in Chicago, Lyons’ dad represented clients in hometown Joliet on the weekends—often in the family living room. “His clients were people who worked for the railroad,” Lyons recalls, “and they’d been injured on the job. Because many had been involved in serious accidents, sometimes our front room looked like the waiting area at the hospital.”
As a result, he’s never had a moment of doubt about what he’d be when he grew up. “I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” he says. After graduating from college—Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.—he decided to return to the Midwest and DePaul Law School; the difference in educational environments was profound. Whereas Holy Cross had been an ivory tower, DePaul was the real world. The cross-section of law students in his class included Vietnam vets, sons of immigrants and a formerly homeless person. “It had a great influence on me to see how much determination it takes to get where you want to be,” he says. To this day, he still has a soft spot for anyone with a hard-luck story. If two applicants apply for a job and have equal qualifications, he tends to favor the one who has faced bigger challenges.
Lyons himself faced few challenges when he applied at Rothgerber Appel & Powers in 1971. During law school he’d worked for a bank management consultant and had written an article for a law review on the organization of state banks in Illinois—an article Ira Rothgerber and Bill Johnson both read. “At that time the firm was doing banking work, but I knew a lot more than they did,” Lyons recalls. “I knew about making loans and collecting on them. I’d been a teller. I’d even repossessed a car. None of the lawyers here had any of that street experience.”
For the next 10 years, Lyons handled the firm’s banking clients at administrative hearings and court appeals, but his mentor, Ira Rothgerber, saw skills in him that changed the course of his career. “Ira thought I should move into civil litigation,” says Lyons, who promptly followed his mentor’s advice. “I learned a lot from him because I tried more cases with him than anyone else.”
Lyons describes Rothgerber as “a compleat lawyer, in the Old English and traditional sense of the word, just like the oral law and highest traditions of the profession he held sacred.” Rothgerber knew how to have fun, but when he worked, he was all business, and demanded the best of himself and everyone else. He also had a great presence. “He once presented an argument before the Colorado Supreme Court and not one judge took notes or asked questions,” Lyons remembers. “They all just listened to him. It was a magical moment.”
Lyons has had his share of great legal moments, too. In 2002, he provided independent counsel to the outside members of the directors of Qwest—those who are not part of corporate management—in connection with pending congressional investigations. All investigations concluded with no action taken. Lyons and his firm also defended various members of the Qwest board who were named as defendants in civil litigation in several states. Virtually all cases and claims against his clients have either been dismissed or settled on favorable terms.
Rich Baer, executive vice president and general counsel for Qwest, feels that Lyons’ great strength is his ferocity. “When he takes a position,” says Baer, “he simply cannot be put off.”
Even forces of nature can’t stop him, adds Jim Carrigan, retired U.S. district judge. He recalls a case in which Lyons represented the defendants in a major securities class action suit. A status conference was scheduled on the day a major snowstorm hit Denver, and Carrigan, who lives in Boulder, called and said he couldn’t make it to the courthouse in Denver. Lyons simply piled all the out-of-state lawyers into a huge SUV, drove 35 miles to Carrigan’s home and got the conference done.
“He knows both sides of the case so well,” Carrigan adds, “that on cross-examination, he’ll get this puckish look on his face and then go in for the kill.”
Lyons has been known to disarm his opponents with a light touch, too. In one memorable case, brought by investors against the city and county of Denver over $4 billion in bonds issued to build the new airport, investors’ lawyers insisted that the baggage system and construction overruns were not adequately disclosed. Lyons countered by pointing out that DIA’s baggage woes were so widely known they were fodder for jokes on The Tonight Show. The case settled without the city paying a cent.
Lyons is currently co-counsel for the Net Profits Interest (NPI) holders in the Pinedale Anticline, an oil field in Wyoming. This case involves breach of contract litigation against the operators and other oil companies in the field who’ve refused to pay the NPI. At stake is tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars over the life of the oil field. The case is scheduled to go to trial in Wyoming in October 2007.
For all his high-profile local cases, some of his most important work has taken place on the national and international stage. In the late 1970s, Lyons had an impromptu meeting that became the stuff of family legend. “It was fairly early in my career,” he says, “and I was in Arkansas for a predatory pricing case against Southwestern Bell. A friend told me, if I had extra time, to call his friend, Bill Clinton, who was with the AG’s office.” When Lyons finished work early, he did just that and headed over to the attorney general’s office. As the two men chatted, Clinton inquired about Lyons’ case and asked if the attorney general’s office could help. “I told him I wanted to talk to the AG, not the person assigned to consumer interests,” Lyons recalls. Clinton replied, “I am the attorney general.” Shocked because Clinton was so young and available, Lyons replied, “Of the whole goddamned state?” Both men laughed as Clinton showed him the front door, where his name was etched on the State Seal.
Their friendship deepened over the years, and in 1992 Lyons became a general counsel to the president-elect during the transition before inauguration. Duties included the standard stuff—drafting executive orders, vetting senior presidential appointments—but it also involved jogging together or having a cup of coffee and chatting. And Lyons loved bringing books to the president. “He and I share a love of good fiction,” says Lyons, “but since he rarely got out to browse at a bookstore, I’d bring him bestsellers I thought he’d enjoy.”
He also provided counsel to President Clinton during the Whitewater investigation. In just three weeks—and with accounting fees under $30,000—Lyons proved what it took Ken Starr and the Office of Independent Counsel approximately seven years and $70 million of public money to discover: that the Clintons were not involved in the management of Whitewater, had lost significant money in the investment and were not responsible for the failure of Madison Guaranty Bank.
After Lyons helped with Clinton’s transition into office, the White House asked Lyons to come to Washington and take a position at the general counsel level, but Lyons turned it down. “I wasn’t suited to government work,” he says. Then Clinton made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: U.S. observer to the International Fund for Ireland (IFI). As the representative for the United States, the largest contributor to the fund, Lyons, a dyed-in-the-wool Irishman, flew to Ireland several times a year to attend board meetings that oversaw the grants, loans and investments the IFI made to the communities of Northern Ireland in support of peace and reconciliation.
In 1996, Clinton appointed Lyons to succeed Sen. George Mitchell as his special economic adviser in the region. In this capacity, Lyons was directly responsible to the president and the secretary of state for overseeing and coordinating U.S. agency programs to support the Irish peace effort. “In order to make peace tangible,” he says, “we needed economic initiatives that translated into decent jobs and equal employment opportunities.”
Like President Clinton, Lyons is a fan of micro-lending, a concept widely used in Third World nations. In Lyons’ proudest accomplishment during those five years, he started Aspire, a micro-enterprise loan fund that helps small businesses in Northern Ireland. It took him more than a year to organize funds from the Northern Ireland government, banks and the IFI, but, once in place, hundreds of loans were issued. “Jim was very important to the peace process in Northern Ireland,” President Clinton explains, “because of his tireless efforts to keep Americans involved in promoting economic development in a way that benefited both countries, promoted reconciliation, and effectively demonstrated the depth of our commitment to peace.”
At an age when many think about retirement, Lyons, 60, is still roaring. Appointed executive director during Gov.-Elect Bill Ritter’s transition, Lyons coordinated with Gov. Owens and his office, and oversaw the Cabinet selection process. What free time he has he spends with his wife, Marcia, a nurse and licensed professional counselor, as well as his three adult children: 31-year-old John, a college English teacher; 28-year-old Michael, a student at Regis University working toward a master’s in counseling; and 24-year-old Katherine, a Montessori preschool teacher. Not a lawyer in the bunch but, Lyons says, “I’m deeply proud that each of my children has found a profession that serves others.”
He’s also writing a book, tentatively titled Peace Meets the Streets, a chronicle of the many Irish grassroots activists he met who worked for the betterment of their communities.
Like his mentor, Ira Rothgerber, Lyons is a compleat man—someone who, according to his friend Bill Clinton, is basically the same publicly and privately. “He’s passionate, loyal and completely honorable,” says the man who isn’t the pope in the photo. “But in private, he may be a little funnier and more lovable than he can afford to be in legal combat.”