Michael T. Reagan Makes His Case
The Ottawa appellate attorney is all about the details
Published in 2012 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine
on January 2, 2012
Updated on January 4, 2012
Q: What do you like best about appellate law?
A: I get to work with a wide variety of great lawyers. There are, most of the time, already lawyers in the case, and most of the time the cases are of some size and have sufficient interest to warrant somebody taking an appeal. I’m lucky. On the more substantive side, appellate lawyers are, in my view, part of the world of the appellate courts. Appellate lawyers are not appellate judges, but nonetheless the appellate judges and the lawyers ultimately have a responsibility to figure out how the particular case is going to fit into the law … or whether the law should be changed to accommodate the case. So in one way, the judges and the lawyers do the same thing.
Q: When did you decide to go into law?
A: I had a half-baked plan to get a degree in mechanical engineering, which I did; to get a law degree; and then to get an MBA. I wanted to be an entrepreneur. So I worked hard getting the mechanical engineering degree from Purdue [University], and then in the first couple of weeks at Georgetown law school, I realized that this was going to be three more years of a great deal of work. So I sat on a bench outside the Court of Military Appeals in D.C.—it just happened to be near Georgetown law school—and thought about what I wanted to do: whether I wanted to pursue this plan of being an entrepreneur or whether I ought to be a lawyer. Because I was not really relishing the idea of getting a second degree which I also wasn’t going to use directly. That was the day that I decided I was going to focus on being a lawyer.
Q: Why did you want the law degree as a precursor to becoming an entrepreneur?
A: [Laughs] Like I said, the plan was half-baked. I just wanted to be self-sufficient.
Q: When you started out in civil litigation, were you on the defense side?
A: Defense for a long period of time. Then as I moved into appellate work, I [would] get referrals from both clients and law firms on both sides—and I still do. It’s probably 50-50.
Q: Do you enjoy one more than the other?
A: No, I enjoy the issues as opposed to the side of the fence.
Q: Can you describe one interesting case?
A: Last year, I did a case pro bono for Chicago Volunteer Legal Services. It involved two mortgage foreclosure cases, which I’d never done before. A very smart judge on the circuit court—the trial court in Cook County—had ruled in the case of a foreclosure against two deceased borrowers … that the foreclosure case could not proceed unless a personal representative had been appointed to represent the decedent or the decedent’s estate. The lenders refused to do that, and the judge dismissed their cases, and then the lenders appealed. So I got into it, along with Chicago Volunteer Legal Services.
Now, what made the case complicated is that we did not have a client. We were not representing the estates, because nobody had ever been appointed as a representative, and so we were only in the case solely as amicus, arguing in favor of the propriety of what the trial judge had done. We lost in the appellate court, and the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to take the case. We had a very interesting oral argument, and the Supreme Court agreed with us and reversed the appellate court and
affirmed this trial judge. It was very interesting and at the same time very satisfying.
Q: Are there any childhood lessons that you’ve carried with you?
A: I’m the oldest of six. I had terrific parents. They led well-ordered lives, and they were completely devoted to each other and to raising us. I’m a lucky guy. They both lived till their old age. … My father was a very wise man and was widely respected, and one of the things that he drilled into me early was that the most important thing you have is your reputation.
Q: Have you always lived in Illinois?
A: I was born in West Virginia, lived there briefly as an infant, then my parents moved to a nice small town outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Beaver. I have nothing but the best memories of Pennsylvania and that town. It is much like Ottawa: It was located on the Ohio River with a smaller river coming in, and Ottawa is located on the Illinois River and has the Fox River as a tributary outside my front door.
Q: What was your childhood like?
A: I have enduring memories of summers at a family summer house in Pine Grove Furnace State Park. We went every year. It was sort of really the definition of summer and, by extension, the definition of much of my youth. My brothers and sisters and I have a great deal of fun learning about it still. … It was a very historic area; things we never knew when we were there as kids, including [that] a nearby area was a top-secret prisoner of war detention camp for, initially, officers from Rommel’s army in North Africa. I had no idea.
Q: What were your goals when you led the state Appellate Lawyers Association?
A: I was president in 1995 and 1996. I wanted to have interesting educational programs, and two of the highlights of my term were presentations by Linda Greenhouse … the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times who covered the United States Supreme Court for many years, and also Senior [3rd] Circuit Judge Ruggero Aldisert, who spoke several times on the appellate process. He’s one of the country’s foremost writers on the appellate process.
Q: Who have been your mentors?
A: My father. Judge Aldisert. And there was a very experienced trial judge [Leonard Hoffman] on the local circuit bench when I started practicing law, and I learned a great deal from him. Trying to learn from Judge Aldisert was like drinking from a firehose. He just has so much to teach, both on an intellectual basis and also from an extraordinarily pragmatic basis as well. It’s an amazing combination. He started off as a sole practitioner near Pittsburgh and went on to establish an amazing reputation on the federal court. From Judge Hoffman, I learned that the most important thing to do, and the most effective thing that a lawyer can do, is learn as much as you can about the law as early as you can in a case.
Q: Any interest in donning judicial robes yourself?
A: I think the best answer to that question is the opportunity is not currently presenting itself.
Q: You served on the state Supreme Court’s Pattern Jury Instructions committee.
A: It’s about the finest post-graduate legal education that a lawyer or a judge can get because of the quality of the people who serve on the committee. It’s a very intense process of having debates about what the law is and how it can be best represented in instructions.
Q: You also won the Matthew Maloney Tradition of Excellence Award in 2009?
A: That was a surprise. It’s awarded by the small firm section of the Illinois State Bar Association to lawyers that they feel meet the criteria.
Q: Why do you think you were singled out?
A: I think I’d just been working hard for a long time.
Q: You’re also on a team that reviews state Supreme Court opinions for bar members?
A: We engage in a pretty intense review of 12 months’ worth of cases from the Illinois state Supreme Court with a heavy focus on appellate procedure points which can be gained from studying the work of the court. It’s really just the details of what arguments the court’s willing to consider. A large part of it has to do with: Have arguments been properly preserved for consideration by the court? Because it’s easy to lose the right to appeal an issue if it’s not properly preserved at every stage. And secondly, we try to gain an understanding of what areas of the law the court seems to be interested in because it is a discretionary court; they don’t have to take cases.
Q: What are your outside interests?
A: In what time I have—it’s not a whole lot—I thoroughly enjoy every aspect of sailing, including racing on Lake Michigan when I can; and I also am enjoying sailing with my 6-year-old granddaughter, Lilly, who is getting to be quite good.
Q: Do you sail on the weekends?
A: I do it largely during concentrated periods during the summer. I don’t get to sail nearly as much as I’d like. It is highly demanding and completely absorbing.
Q: Sounds kind of like your job.
A: [Laughs] Yes, but it also is just tremendous to be out, making the wind work for you. I am a big believer that a lot about life can be learned from sailing: self-confidence, some degree of courage, and inventiveness.
Q: You opened your own practice last year. How is that going?
A: It’s just been fantastic. Fortunately, I have the same staff, the same legal assistants, and they are key to any success I have.
Q: What advice do you have for others thinking about going solo?
A: Have courage.