The Pope, The Prince and Mickey Pohl
The key to his success? He treats everyone the same
Published in 2009 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
on May 21, 2009
Updated on May 22, 2009
Three years ago, when Prince Charles decided that he wanted to roll out Duchy Originals, his line of organic foods and beverages, in America, his man stateside was Paul Michael Pohl, or Mickey, as he is known to royalty and commoners alike. Pohl guided the launch and today the products, which range from cookies and chocolate to sparkling wine and ale, are being rolled out in the aisles of such retail outlets as Dean & Deluca and Whole Foods. And the prince became just another in a long line of satisfied and, let’s face it, monstrously famous Pohl clients.
“My partners call me Forrest Gump,” he says of his knack for attracting historic figures. He’s also worked with Pope John Paul II and Steve Forbes, whom he met in college. Nancy Reagan is an acquaintance.
“That’s the kind of life Mickey has led,” says Chris Connor, chairman and CEO of Sherwin-Williams, the Cleveland-based paint company. “He’s just as comfortable chatting with the man on the street as with the captains and kings of the world. He really can move in every single circle.”
And he does so with good humor. “He ends every conversation with a big smile on his face and a joke or two along the way,” Connor says.
Pohl has a way of engaging his listener, whether it’s with a deadpan one-liner (“I was just telling the pope the other day how I hate people who drop names.”) or Borscht Belt wit.
Forbes, the third-generation owner of Forbes magazine, says Pohl’s humor puts people at ease. “It brings about trust. You know when you see him that you will be entertained. It’s not as if it’s all grim business,” he says.
Of course it’s more. “He also works hard. He’s always looking for ways of attacking problems,” Forbes says. He compares him to a .350 hitter in baseball, the kind of person who will come through in difficult situations. Even in college—the two lived across the hall from each other in their dorm at Princeton—”he was obviously somebody who was hard-driving, wanting to get ahead, willing to work to do it, and had the imagination to do it. You knew he was not just another face in the crowd.
“I’ve availed myself of his services from time to time. He’s absolutely trustworthy. He’s the kind of person you feel comfortable having as a counselor,” he says. “It speaks to the special place he has in the hearts of my family that I have nice things to say about a lawyer.”
Pohl was born in 1948 in Erie, Pa. He’s been told that his parents were big Mickey Mantle fans, so he became known as Mickey.
After graduating from Princeton in 1970, he worked for six months as a reporter for The Erie Times. But then he decided to trade in his notepad for the U.S. Marine Corps for two years, and then law school at the University of Pittsburgh. He joined Jones Day in Cleveland in 1976.
He cherishes his first trial win, which came when he was 29. “It was a small case, but when the jury came in with a verdict and we won, I thought, ‘This is really fun. I like doing this.'”
In that first trial, he represented the local gas company against a business that hadn’t paid its bill; in preparation, he learned all about how a gas meter works. He liked the learning. “Over a year or six months or two years, you become an expert in eye surgery, the health effects of lead, what makes a tire blow out, how fiber optics work, why a hillside caved in, what the price of coal should be,” he says.
He also discovered that he liked telling stories. Connor describes him as “one of the best quipsters and storytellers of all time.” His anecdotes were so good, in fact, that Connor didn’t think they could all be true. The one about palling around with Forbes for instance.
Pohl and Forbes met each other on their first day of college. “I didn’t realize he was the guy whose father owned the magazine,” Pohl says. “That’s how astute I was.”
It was later on Forbes’ yacht, The Highlander, that Pohl met Nancy Reagan. “We went to Katharine Graham’s house for dinner and Diane Sawyer’s house for cocktails,” says Pohl, who marvels at the solid friendship that had developed over the years between The Washington Post’s Graham and Reagan, who were on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
For the most part, Pohl has kept his politics separate from his career, except in 1996 and 2000 when Forbes sought the Republican nomination for president. Pohl put on a fundraising dinner with Joan Rivers as the guest speaker. He also went to Iowa for the caucuses. “Riding around in the bus was one of those interesting life experiences,” Pohl says. “It was Walter Mitty stuff.”
Forbes is still appreciative of Pohl’s efforts on his behalf. “He was willing to tap friends to help out,” Forbes says. “Persuading people to write checks for a guy described in the press as a billionaire takes real ability. He was able to do that.”
When Pohl started at Jones Day, the firm had 175 lawyers, considered large by ’70s standards. Today it has about 2,500 lawyers in 31 offices around the world. Things have changed. But not all things. Pohl has been married to Kaya Pohl for 38 years. “We started dating when we were 14,” he says. The Pohls have three children: Tom, 31, who like his father served with the Marines and also graduated from law school; Liz, 29; and Mike, 14.
At the beginning of 1989, Pohl moved the family from the outskirts of Cleveland to open Jones Day’s Pittsburgh office, where he was partner in charge until five years ago. That’s when he assumed his present position as head of products liability and tort litigation for the firm worldwide.
“Product recall has become a global problem,” Pohl says. “A lot of the projects I have going are in 50 states. On any given week or day, I’m talking to partners in Asia, Paris. It’s far beyond what I ever imagined when I left Erie.”
Pohl is a “remarkable lawyer,” says Connor, whose company has retained Pohl since the fall of 1987 to handle a mass tort litigation issue involving the use of lead pigment in paint. Sherwin-Williams is one of several companies being sued by states and municipalities for products produced more than 100 years ago. The claim is that lead paint is a health hazard, and that the companies that produced it should pay to have it removed.
Pohl takes exception to this being a health issue. “It’s about money for lawyers,” he says. “If you take good care of a property, there’s no significant health risk.”
Sherwin-Williams has not been found liable in any of the lawsuits Pohl has handled during the past 20 years. A public nuisance suit in Rhode Island was the only one that went to trial. The company lost but Pohl appealed the verdict up to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, which overturned the decision last July. In January of this year, a Rhode Island judge ruled that the state must reimburse the companies $242,000 for costs associated with defending the lawsuit. The companies are also seeking to be reimbursed for other legal costs, not including attorney fees.
The case, which lasted nine years and culminated in a five-month trial, was Pohl’s biggest in terms of sheer exposure. It would have cost billions to remove lead-paint hazards from an estimated 240,000 homes across the state.
Pohl “has a track record of success,” Connor says. “Our company and fellow defendants have stood strong and not settled. Mickey is the architect of that defense. He’s tireless, able to manage the battle on many fronts.” And he’s been doing it for an unusually long time. “Very few of these relationships last this long. He has earned our confidence and trust.”
People in a lot of high places trust him. Even the Vatican. He was asked to help bring a 14th-century Carthusian monastery back from the brink of decay. Both the Vatican and the Austrian government wanted the monastery, located outside Vienna, to be restored; there was a question, however, as to who would hold the title to the property once financing came through.
“This turned into a 10-year adventure,” Pohl says. During that time, he met twice with Pope John Paul II. It took legislation from the Austrian government to set up a private foundation to run the monastery, which is the size of a small college campus. The Franciscan University of Steubenville rents one of the buildings as its European campus. Other tenants include a language institute, a pontifical institute, a restaurant and a hotel.
“It really became a Rubik’s cube legally. It was so complicated because there were U.S. legal issues, Austrian government issues, canon law issues,” says Pohl, who serves on the board of the Foundation Maria Thron.
He also serves on the board at Oakmont Country Club, where he is a regular golfer. He was asked by the club to represent it in its negotiations with the United States Golf Association (USGA). Pohl surprised everyone by becoming friends with the USGA’s lawyers and executives, who, he says, “usually hate the club’s lawyer.” The negotiations were not simple but the end result was a “win-win kind of contract.” His kind of deal.
Pohl prides himself on coming away with something of lasting value from every case he takes, be it knowledge, friendship or just a good story. Usually he gets all three.