Michael Jung’s love of law seems to be genetic
Published in 2012 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 10, 2012
Updated on September 21, 2012
Q: Did you start out wanting to be a lawyer?
A: I started out in science and engineering. I got out of college and worked on the Space Shuttle for a while; Discovered at that point that engineering in practice was not quite what I imagined it would be; [I] looked at the limitations on my opportunity to interact with people outside the engineering field and was not very satisfied with the direction I was heading. I found myself envying the secretaries because they were the only ones who got to speak to non-engineers and it just was not right for me in the way I thought it would be. So I decided to go to law school.
Q: Still, the Space Shuttle. That must have been fascinating.
A: It was. I did computer simulation of the re-entry guidance. I was the first person to simulate an entire re-entry from the point where it fires the retro rockets to the point where it wheels to a stop. Various people had done pieces of that but part of my job was to knit all that together, so that was fun.
Q: The Challenger tragedy must have been particularly wrenching for you.
A: It was. What I was doing was simulating if you changed the angle of the wings: what would that change about where it goes and how fast it gets there and that sort of thing. So it really wasn’t to do with the heat shield and all that kind of stuff. But when it happened I did certainly understand better than the average person what had gone wrong. The other thing that’s been sad is to watch the program come to an end. We knew it had to come to an end some time and we had lasted much longer than any other space program that the U.S. has done, but still it’s kind of sad, kind of reminds me I’m getting older. [Laughs]
Q: But when you hit Harvard for law school you felt it was a better fit for you as a potential vocation?
A: Very much so. I really enjoyed it from the beginning. At that point I still had illusions of myself as a Perry Mason stand-up trial lawyer but I also really, really liked moot court. I got in a really good moot court team and we ended up going to the finals and winning the finals. From that point I knew that appellate law might be something that I wanted to gravitate to.
Something that really didn’t influence my decision to go to law school but is an interesting thing: At the same time I was deciding to go to law school, my mother was deciding to go to law school. I didn’t know she was going to do it until I was thinking seriously about it. She went to SMU and we started practicing law the very same day in 1980, me at age 25 and her at the age of 51.
Q: Well I’ve never heard that before. Did she do the same practice, too?
A: No, she was a tax trial attorney for the [Internal Revenue Service].
Q: What a nice thing for you to share.
A: It was.
Q: So why appellate law?
A: Our firm philosophy, at least for appeals and to a large extent trial work too, is “One Riot, One Ranger.” You give the baby lawyers the smaller riots, so I had pretty small and relatively inconsequential appeals practically from the beginning, and got a chance to write briefs and argue cases and learn my craft.
Q: How was the learning curve in those early days?
A: For the first year or two, when I came back from lunch, my secretary had one of those old-fashioned message spikes, and I lived in terror that there would be a pink slip on her message spike because the odds were excellent that it would mean that I had to do something where I had no idea what I was doing. And that only gradually diminished when I’m sitting in the courtroom waiting for my oral argument to start; I have little nagging voices in my ear saying, “What are you doing here? Do you really know what you’re talking about?” Fortunately I’ve learned to tell those voices to sit down or shut up but it never changes. I guess it’s like actors who have been on the stage for 35 years and still have stage fright every night.
Q: I find that endlessly fascinating, how you get those voices to settle. Has it gotten easier through the years?
A: It has. My wife is a psychiatrist and she tells me there is a bell curve of anxiety and if you have too little you never accomplish anything and you have too much you get paralyzed and there’s a sweet spot somewhere in between.
Q: Funny that your wife is a psychiatrist considering your last name. Any relation?
A: I do get that question from time to time, but no relation. My wife uses her own name. I joke with her that she should use mine and her patients would assume that she’s his great-granddaughter or something.
Q: Do you have cases that still keep you up at night?
A: I have many cases that I win that I ought to, a number of cases that I lost that I ought to, occasionally cases that I win that I shouldn’t, but there have been probably a half-dozen cases over the years where I felt like I didn’t get paid attention to, and the court really didn’t make an effort to understand what I was saying and to tell me why I was wrong. And those bother me. Some of them are written by very good judges who don’t normally behave that way, and to say things that they ought to know are just flat wrong as propositions of law or are contradicted by the record. Fortunately, those are not all that frequent. And when they happen at the Court of Appeals level, I’ve had some success having them reversed at the Supreme Court.
Q: Has the law changed much in your view since you started?
A: This is going to sound like a cliché, and it is, but I agree with those who say there has been a noticeable reduction in the level of professionalism within the profession over the last 30 years. People are just much less easy to get along with. Lawyers are much more sanctimonious in their legal writing, much less willing to concede points, very willing to raise specious waiver arguments, and I’m sure that was true to a degree 30 years ago but I’ve seen a noticeable increase in it. And the senior lawyers when I joined in 1980 were already saying the same thing about the difference from when they were young lawyers.
Q: You’ve been at your firm for more than 30 years so you must like it there.
A: I do. One of the reasons I chose the firm that I did is I thought they had the best sense of work-life balance. I don’t make anywhere near the money I could make some places, I don’t make anywhere near the money I could make in New York City or Washington, but I have a richer life than I could have in those other environments. In addition to having a family, I have free time for myself. I also have time to get involved in the community.
Q: No plans to retire anytime soon?
A: None, which I’m sure the recipients of my tuition payments are glad to hear.
Q: Future lawyers in the family?
A: Yes, in fact. My daughter is starting her second year of law school at the McGeorge Law School in Sacramento, although I think she was inspired to go to law school more by my mother as by me.