Mike McLaren Keeps It Simple

The litigator on practicing law in court and on the screen

Published in 2010 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine

By Ross Pfund on November 5, 2010


Litigator Mike McLaren of Black McLaren Jones Ryland & Griffee in Memphis boasts a varied practice, working in business litigation, medical malpractice defense and environmental law. He also has a varied listing on IMDB.com, having appeared in seven movies in various roles, including a judge, a basketball player and a psychiatrist smitten with Sandra Bullock.

What inspired you to pursue the law as a career?

Well, I went to Yale as an undergraduate and there was a lawyer in Memphis whose son and daughter were my classmates. His name was Jared Blanchard. And I was always impressed by his love of the law and thought that, well, if he likes it, I think I would. I actually took my first job with him in Memphis. He was a noted civil rights activist and lawyer in Memphis and just a real inspiration for me to practice law.

So would you say he was your legal mentor?

No, my first legal mentor was probably John Thomason, who was a trial lawyer of some renown here in Memphis, and he sort of took me under his wing and worked with me on trying lawsuits. Jared is the reason I got into the law, and John was a mentor of mine for many, many years.

What were some of the things you learned from him?

Be prepared, be prepared, be prepared, first and foremost. And second is a very simple truth, and that is: Tell the truth. And third is: be completely candid with your client. You don’t always have to deliver good news, as long as you learn how to deliver bad news in a way that impresses the client with your honesty.

Is there an example that springs to mind of how you were able to do that?

I do a lot of medical malpractice cases, which are emotionally charged. Doctors rightfully want to defend their practice, but sometimes they have to be told that it’s possible that they made a mistake. The only way to do it is face-to-face with them and to deliver the news candidly, directly and in a way that they understand that it’s not the end of the world. Everybody makes mistakes sooner or later.

Would you say that med mal is your main area of practice?

I have a real varied practice. In fact, the reason I love the law and I love my practice is that different stories and different situations come in every day. I specialize in litigation and within that subset I do a lot of business litigation. I do a lot of medical malpractice defense; I represent people who have received vaccines and have bad reactions. And I do some environmental law work, which I count as business litigation even though it’s environmental in nature.

It sounds like being able to go to court is what draws you to these practice areas.

I think that the challenge in going to court is to keep it simple, to keep it very basic. Figure out what the core disputes are and explain them in a simple way to a judge or jury. The shorter the argument probably means the better prepared you are. It’s kind of the inverse of what you would think. If I’m real prepared on a case, then I can make pretty short work of the issues in their presentation. If you’re less prepared, you tend to make longer work of them, and it usually costs them.

What are your thoughts on juries and jury selection?

I think juries usually do the right thing. I always ask for juries in trials. Always. That’s not to say they aren’t runaway juries, but I really like the jury system. Don’t ask me that question after I’ve lost a jury trial!

Do they ever surprise you?

Yeah, I’ve lost cases that I thought I should have won, and I’ve won cases I thought I should have lost, no question about that. Anybody who tries enough cases, if they’re candid, will say that. But the statement holds true: They usually get it right.

I think a loss is much more instructive than a win. If you win, you just celebrate. If it’s a loss, you look back and you look at everything you did in preparation and presentation and try to figure out what went wrong. It can range from a bad theory to a bad witness to a weak closing argument; you can usually pinpoint something that went wrong. Of course, we’re all burdened with the facts and if you have bad facts, you’re usually not going to win the case.

You’ve been admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court. Have you been able to try a case there?

No, I’ve had two matters submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court, but each time the court denied certiorari. So I’ve filed briefs before the court but I’ve never actually made an argument. I wish I could someday. I’m going to a reception there next month and that’ll be fun.

Have you had the chance to meet any of the justices?

I have. My wife is a United States magistrate judge, Diane Vescovo. I go on all the 6th Circuit functions with her, so I’ve had the opportunity to meet Justice [Antonin] Scalia, Justice [John Paul] Stevens and Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg at dinners where [my wife’s] been the invitee and I’m simply the date. I’m the plus-one. The justices are smart. I might disagree with their politics but they’re really smart people.

Do you and your wife talk shop a lot at home or do you leave that stuff in the office?

We talk about the law a lot. She tells me some of her cases and I tell her about mine. She’s a good sounding board and I get good advice from her. Her opinions carry a lot of weight in my house.

How did practicing law differ from your expectations?

I went to Loyola School of Law and Chicago is a big, big legal community. Memphis, when I started practicing, was a small, tight legal community. And what really differed was the level of collegiality here. Lawyers were, and largely remain so, polite to each other. Lawyers are more professional than any other profession that I know.

I think [collegiality] has been lessened, but I don’t think it’s necessarily because of attitudes. Fifteen years ago, I probably fielded 40 phone calls a day. Now I probably get 75 e-mails a day. The mere fact that you don’t talk to people as much lessens the collegiality because it’s hard to be casual, or talk about the weather or the University of Memphis when you’re writing an e-mail. That’s a necessary reality. E-mails have really changed the way we practice. In fact, since we’ve been talking, I’ve had seven e-mails, all business-related. It’s constant, and that really cuts into collegiality.

Is that one of the big ways the legal world has changed over the course of your career?

Picture five lawyers getting together for a deposition. In the old days, scheduling that was a very difficult task. Now you send out a five-person e-mail blast with 15 [potential] days and within 10 minutes, you’ve got all five lawyers focused in on one day and with minimal time.

How did you get involved in the movies?

When they were filming The Firm in Memphis, they put a sign up on the door of the YMCA and it said that if you’re over 40 and can play basketball and can act, come down to the Y tomorrow. I played basketball in college—in fact, I held “Pistol Pete” Maravich to 34 points one game and we beat LSU [Editor’s note: Maravich averaged nearly 45 points-per-game in college]—and I knew I looked 40, always have; I knew I could play basketball, but I didn’t know if I could act at all. Tom Cruise was doing the auditions and I was the shortest guy trying out. And he’s got some height challenges so he picked me and said, “Can you get two other guys your size?” I called a couple friends of mine and we ended up shooting the first scene of The Firm. I’m actually the very first person you see in The Firm. In fact, I’m still getting royalties. I think I got $6 last month.

For the next movie, the casting director just called me out of the blue and said, “Hey, the casting director from The Firm said you were easy to work with; do you want to be in A Time to Kill?” That’s the one with Sandra Bullock and little did I know that my role was to try to pick up Sandra Bullock. I play a psychiatrist and I actually was instructed by the director to flirt with her, to ogle her, to leer at her, to act like I want to take her off to some bedroom. And I acted the part very well.

According to IMDB, you’ve played a lawyer and a judge. Was it easy to get into character?

It’s extremely easy. I played a Secret Service agent in Nothing But the Truth, but I’m barely in that film. I played a lawyer in one of the worst movies ever made, it’s called Separated by Murder. It’s one of the worst movies ever made, but it’s still playing on the Lifetime channel!

Is there any crossover between the skills you need to be a lawyer and the ones needed for acting?

Yes. We have a local theater here and I was the president of the board and pushed for acting classes for lawyers. Not necessarily to act, but to learn how to express yourself in big ways, big motions, to convey to the jury your thoughts. I think most lawyers would benefit from some drama classes.

What advice would you give to rookie lawyers?

They’ve heard it before, but keep a balance in life. A loss isn’t the end of the world, nor is a win the signature moment of your life. It’s sort of like what John Wooden of UCLA said: “Don’t get too high after the wins; don’t get too down after the losses.” What you do is really important for a lot of other people, but it’s not the most important thing you do.

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