Q&A With J. Michael Cooney
Dinsmore & Shohl’s J. Michael Cooney on the yin and yang of estate law
Published in 2010 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine
By Seth Woehrle on December 22, 2009
What drew you to the law?
Boy, that’s a good question. I don’t know the answer. I grew up in a small town and lawyers seemed to be persons of interest in the community. That’s probably what originally drew me to it, I suspect.
What would you have done if you hadn’t become a lawyer?
I probably would have been a professor of history.
What kind of history would you have taught?
I was principally interested in American history from the 19th and 20th century.
How did you come to estate law as a practice area?
Estate planning is, in my mind, a very nice blend between personal involvement with clients and their serious personal concerns about what to do with assets they’ve accumulated, how to provide for family members and so on; together with a fairly technical, tax-oriented aspect. I think it’s the combination of the intellectual challenge of the tax side of estate planning and the personal satisfaction of the interaction with family members. When you’ve worked through a technical problem, that’s certainly rewarding, but it’s not as rewarding as working with a client to solve a problem.
When you actually started practicing, did it differ from what you expected?
The partners were nicer than I expected. [laughs]
Who do you consider to be your role model — legal or otherwise?
One of the partners here that I worked for, a man named Jerry Kearns. He taught me a great deal and really has been a mentor to me. I’ve been blessed to have a number of mentors in my early days of practice, but I would single out Jerry Kearns and also Cliff Roe in my firm. They did a lot to teach me how to practice law.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
There’s that Emerson quote, essentially: “Make your own path.” I think each of us has to figure out for ourselves what works for us instead of necessarily doing what’s worked for someone else.
What advice would you give to young lawyers?
The law is a challenging profession. You really have to work hard at it. There will be times of struggle but it’s also rewarding and worth committing time and effort to.
What was your most memorable case?
You know, a number are memorable. But I think what you remember most are difficult circumstances where you helped a family struggle with succession, how to transfer a business from one generation to the next. There have been several of those that have involved a lot of effort over a long period of time and, ultimately, proved successful.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the practice of law during your career?
Generally, the biggest change is really the pace. When I started, fax was a rare thing. Most correspondence was by letter. It would take several days to get to you. Then you compose a response and it would take several days to get to the recipient. Now so much is done electronically and immediately so that we’re all forced to respond more quickly. We have less time to think and are forced to react a great deal faster because of the means of communication.
What do you consider your most significant accomplishment?
My most significant accomplishment has been raising five children. … More accurately, helping my wife raise five children.
How do you want to be remembered?
I’d like to be remembered as a good husband and father. That’s really the most important part of my life.
Finish this sentence: Every lawyer should … ?
I think every lawyer should put his client’s interest first.
How do you unwind after work?
I still read a fair amount of history and biographies. I try and do some of that every day. Also, I exercise and work around the house. That and watch some football. I’ve been watching the Cincinnati Bengals. They’re 4-1. Which is remarkable.
Who in history would you most like to practice with?
Probably Abraham Lincoln. In addition to his work as president, he certainly was an accomplished and successful lawyer. One has the sense from reading his work that he was a person of great wisdom and practical judgment. He’s someone who you learn something from just by reading about them but it would have been an awesome experience to practice with him.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your work?
In my area, the litigation tends to be family members pitted against one another and I think what it teaches you is that people need to find other ways to resolve those family differences than in litigation. Even people who win tend to end up unhappy.
How do you handle the stress of your job?
There’s no perfect solution. I think it’s important to try and keep some detachment. What the client needs is dispassionate advice from time to time, particularly in those kinds of cases where there’s a lot of emotion involved. But also, you do the other things to deal with stress, you know: keep the exercise up, watch the diet, those kinds of things. … But I don’t know that it all works. [laughs] It’s still pretty stressful.
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