The Nicest Guy in the Room
M. Michael Stephenson cuts hearts out as politely as possible
Published in 2017 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine on February 15, 2017
More often than not, the first thing M. Michael Stephenson does before cross-examining a witness is offer him or her a glass of water. “I want to be the nicest guy in the room,” says Stephenson, 60, partner at McNeely Stephenson in Shelbyville and one of the state’s most experienced trial lawyers. “People help those they like. If they don’t like me, they may punish my client. So I try to do everything I can to be pleasant, professional and polite to everyone in that courtroom.
“Now, in the next 45 minutes after I’ve offered that drink of water, I may cut that person’s heart out and stomp on it. And if I do so professionally and politely, the jury will admire my work.”
That work has earned Stephenson the respect of his peers and the appreciation of clients in a blend of cases, including motor vehicle, workplace, fire, products liability and construction accidents. Over the past three decades, he has served as lead counsel in more than 100 jury trials and has successfully resolved dozens of other cases, including a recent lawsuit he filed on behalf of the family of a young father of four who died in a truck collision, which settled for $48 million.
“He’s an advocate who doggedly pursues the best result for his clients,” says Neil Bemenderfer, a civil mediator with The Mediation Group in Indianapolis who has known Stephenson since law school. “He’s very friendly and engaging but very tenacious and untiring.”
When Stephenson, the youngest of four children, was born in the small town of Edina, Missouri, in 1957, his dad was barely eking out a living as a farmer. So the family packed up a U-Haul truck and moved to Indiana with $100, their dog and hope for a better life.
They lived in a 570-square-foot mobile home—“that was the bigger mobile home we moved into after a smaller one,” Stephenson recalls—while his father built interstates, moving the family every year or so to follow the trail of work. Eventually, they settled in Maxwell, where his parents gradually acquired enough money to purchase a bulldozer, a backhoe, more acreage and a six-acre mobile-home park. Some years later, it would become a 200-lot park; now, it has tripled in size. Young Stephenson spent summers doing construction, pouring concrete, even building a section of I-65 on the Inner Loop.
In high school, Stephenson toyed with the idea of becoming an attorney, but was discouraged by a lawyer the family knew because of his average grades. Worried he wasn’t smart enough to go to law school but determined to help people, Stephenson set out instead to earn a criminal and police administration degree. But at the end of his first semester at Eastern Kentucky University, he was doing so well academically that his father urged him to rethink a career in law. “I enjoyed a good debate,” Stephenson says. “And I liked standing up for a cause.” He rebuilt wrecked cars and continued working on construction crews to pay his way through Indiana University School of Law.
That fix-it mentality is still there. “There’s not much in the house that I don’t tear apart,” Stephenson jokes. “I don’t always get it back together. But hey, you know, if it doesn’t work, just get a bigger hammer.”
After graduating from law school in 1982, he was hired at Harrison & Moberly in Indianapolis. Big-city life didn’t suit him, though, so a year later he joined what was then McNeely Sanders in Shelbyville. Founder James Lee McNeely, still revered as one of Indiana’s great elder statesmen, emphasized a sense of honor, telling Stephenson, “We litigate aggressively, and that’s fine, but we always do it ethically and professionally.”
Two years passed before Stephenson tackled his first solo jury trial, defending an insurance carrier in a lawsuit filed by a woman injured in a car accident. His client admitted liability, so the only debate was how much money she would get. With the midnight hour approaching, and the jury still out, the fledgling attorney called his boss in a panic. “Well, too late, can’t do anything about it now,” McNeely told him calmly. “We’ll just see what happens.”
To Stephenson’s relief, the jurors couldn’t agree on how much to award the plaintiff, and the case settled soon after for an amount far less than his insurance company client was actually willing to pay. “I was elated,” he says. “That’s why I tried more than 100 jury trials since then. I truly do enjoy jury trials.”
What he didn’t enjoy, however, was the fact that all of the jurors were men. “You never want to have a single-sex jury,” Stephenson says. “They always come back with really weird results. They all got their egos in place about who was going to put the stake in the ground where, and nobody was moving.”
And he wasn’t completely comfortable with which side he was on. Early in his career, Stephenson was asked to retry a case involving a man who had served more than 40 years in prison on a rape conviction. Digging into the details, Stephenson learned that this wasn’t the first time his client had been accused of sexual assault and that, years earlier, he’d been caught several times sneaking into women’s homes and hiding under their beds. “I just said, ‘I can’t do this. My moral compass will not allow me to take that charge on,’” Stephenson says. “I gave up criminal law.”
After a while, Stephenson stopped doing defense work altogether—criminal or civil—and focused on helping plaintiffs in medical malpractice, catastrophic products liability and wrongful death cases. No surprise, he felt right at home handling construction cases. “I try very hard to get along with anybody I meet,” he says. “I think that’s what allowed me to be—knock on wood—as successful as I’ve been in the practice and in front of juries, because I do relate well to people. With all my background and my upbringing, whether the guy works at a machine shop or does construction or he’s a farmer, I probably have a little bit of an idea of what he does.”
But blue collar doesn’t mean old-fashioned. Stephenson is quick to master sophisticated technology to help jurors visualize evidence they might not otherwise understand. He still has his first VHS tape from 20 years ago, created because he needed a way to explain how a power-actuated nail gun worked. He hired a computer specialist to develop a transparent image of the gun so the jury could see what happened inside when it fired. “I didn’t have to have an engineer explain it,” he says. “I didn’t have to try to cut it apart and put it back together.”
More recently, Stephenson used computer animation to reconstruct a worksite accident in which a crane pivoted at the wrong time, knocking a laborer off a ladder and injuring him. “There’s no way you’re going to set that up [physically],” he says. “You can explain it. You can show pictures. You can do a whole lot of show-and-tell, but nothing tells it better than taking a computer animation of the scale model of that crane, of that construction site, of where the wall was, where the ladder was. And in 15 seconds, which is just a little more time than it took for the tragedy to occur, you know exactly what happened.” Like many of his cases, this one had a confidential outcome. Stephenson merely describes the jury verdict as “gold.”
In another case, a client’s son was paralyzed and she broke her back and sustained a severe lower leg injury that later required amputation in an accident allegedly caused by a sleep-deprived truck driver. Stephenson subpoenaed the company’s driving logs and, with an animated map of the United States, illustrated that the trucker had actually been driving when he claimed he was sleeping. The case settled.
Even a simple move such as videotaping a deposition can pay off in a big way, says Stephenson: “There’s nothing more powerful for a mediation presentation or for the jury to see than to watch a witness explain something, especially because [the visual element] doesn’t come out on a transcript. When you ask a question and the witness sits there and stares off into the ceiling for way too long, you know they’re caught.”
Stephenson relishes finding stellar experts in fields from medicine to wood science. In one case, he hired a fatigue-risk management expert to prove that working with less than five consecutive hours of sleep is the same as driving while intoxicated.
The builder in him gets a lot of personal enjoyment out of it, too. “I know how to build a tire,” he says. “I understand tread belt separations. Every case that I get involved in, we get to get really educated on the details.”
But nothing beats cross. “The most fun I ever have in a courtroom is cross-examination of the other expert,” he says. “When you can get an expert to admit that he didn’t follow the instructional manual on how you’re supposed to do exactly what he said he was doing, and therefore you probably can’t rely upon it, you had a successful cross-examination.”
It can take a lot of work to get to that dramatic courtroom moment. In the early 2000s, Stephenson and his colleagues pored over hundreds of emails and millions of pages of records to prove a tire manufacturer was to blame for multiple deaths and lifelong disabilities resulting from several seemingly unrelated motor-vehicle accidents.
And sometimes it takes creative thinking. Stephenson once represented a man who was walking on a major connector bridge when a passing cyclist bumped him on the shoulder, knocking him into traffic, where he was struck by a car and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Other attorneys had declined to accept the case because none of the parties involved had enough insurance. Then the victim contacted Stephenson, who figured out a way: Because the bicycle rider had been living with his sister at the time of the accident, Stephenson was able to force a settlement from the homeowner’s policy. “We take on the really challenging stuff where somebody is critically injured or catastrophically hurt,” Stephenson says. “And we try to find ways to help them where others either don’t dig deep enough or aren’t willing to invest the resources.”
John C. Trimble, a litigator and mediator with Lewis Wagner, has known Stephenson for more than 35 years and tried cases with and against him. “Mike turns over every stone, does his research, hires the best experts and methodically builds a case,” Trimble says. “He is then a patient negotiator who can be uncompromising if he is satisfied that he is on the right side of the issue.”
Of course, the client always comes first. Stephenson recently represented a victim of child pornography. They sued the perpetrator, but ultimately dropped the complaint before the case went to court. When asked if he was satisfied with the outcome, Stephenson replies, “No. But the client was, and that’s what matters.”