How Mike McKool Keeps His Cool

He’s an uber-boy scout, ultra-prepared

Published in 2007 Texas Super Lawyers magazine

By Becky Bull on September 14, 2007


Almost 20 years ago, Mike McKool asked a juror why she voted against him in a case and she said it was because of his cuff links—he came off as uppity. So he put them away. The ban isn’t just in the courtroom. It’s everywhere. If McKool won’t do something in the courtroom, he won’t do it out of the courtroom.

“You have to be utterly sincere,” says McKool, a founding partner of the civil litigation firm McKool Smith. “Arrogance is the trial lawyer’s downfall. You can have self-confidence and not be arrogant. There’s a difference between theatrics and sincerity.”

What you see is what you get with McKool. Whether he’s racing a motorcycle through dirt trails on his 1,800-acre ranch, learning to play “Hey Jude” on his guitar or representing a multibillion-dollar corporation in a complex patent case, he approaches it with clarity, intensity and focus.

His approach has paid off in spades. McKool Smith’s client list is a who’s who of the corporate world: EDS, Ericsson, American Airlines, Exxon Mobil. The firm’s work in intellectual property, which McKool spearheaded, has made McKool Smith one of the go-to firms for patent cases. McKool’s intensity and focus in and out of the courtroom has won him a reputation as one of the best trial lawyers around.

“He’s open and self-apparent,” says Ernest Figari Jr., who worked with McKool for many years and is a founder of Figari & Davenport. “There are no façades, no come-ons. He’s a gold-standard trial lawyer.”

McKool always knew he would be a trial lawyer. “It never really occurred to me to do anything else,” he says.

His father, Mike McKool Sr., was a trial lawyer in Dallas and was involved in local and state Democratic politics, getting elected as a Texas state senator in 1968. In the summers, McKool often went to the courthouse with his father.

“I probably saw him try 30 cases and I became very comfortable in the courthouse,” McKool says.

He studied his father in the courtroom and still tries to follow his example.

“He was utterly sincere,” McKool says. “He went about his work in a way that was not about himself. I see many lawyers even today—most of them are retired—and they say, ‘Your dad was a great lawyer.’”

McKool had planned on going into practice with his father. But just prior to his graduation from the University of Texas School of Law in 1974, a friend invited him to a party that a Dallas firm—Hewett Johnson Swanson Barbee—was hosting. McKool went for the free food and drinks. He ended up with a job. It was a difficult decision not to go with his father, but the dynamic firm impressed him.

Figari says McKool became one of the best trial lawyers he ever saw.

“He’s always very deferential to the judge,” Figari says. “He used terms that were easy for jurors to understand. He never seemed lost for words. He always seemed to know what was going on. The lawyer who reacts quickly and accurately is regarded highly by the court and the jury.”

Early in his career, McKool says he had a few cases where he felt he could have been more prepared.

“I didn’t get it until I started practicing law,” he says. “What I realized is that if you’re not prepared, things can still go well—sometimes.

“You don’t learn by success,” he says. “You learn by your failures. When a jury comes back and votes for you, you think you did everything right. You didn’t. If you lose, you think you did everything wrong. You didn’t.”

McKool does not like the way stress makes him feel. So to avoid it, he makes sure he knows every fact of a case. He used to hole up in the Hotel Crescent Court for days or weeks at a time to prepare for trial. McKool says he doesn’t have the stamina or the interest to work like that anymore. Instead, he gives himself more time. He works for months on cases, organizing the material so that when he walks into a courtroom, he can talk confidently about every fact.

“I think my job is the hardest job in the world,” McKool says. He adds that he’s 58 and that many trial lawyers burn out by age 40 because of the stress.

“Your client’s future is in your hands,” he says. “The way I deal with it is to just be prepared. Once you learn the connection between preparation and success, it makes you want to prepare.”

McKool rose to co-managing partner at Hewett Johnson, which became Johnson & Gibbs. He enjoyed the firm, but he found himself doing more and more management and less trial work, which he missed. In 1991, he left the firm and founded McKool Smith with Phil Smith. They started with 11 lawyers in Dallas. Today, the firm has more than 90 lawyers with offices in Austin and Marshall, as well as Dallas.

“Once we started, I was immensely happier,” McKool says. “The milieu is such that everyone I deal with is a trial lawyer.”

Often, the cases he works on are extremely complex and can involve millions of pages of documents and several lawyers from his firm. To help organize and pull all the information together, McKool requires three things for every case: an index of all the exhibits in the case so he can easily find his ammunition during a trial; a proof outline, which shows all the points his side wants to make; and a fact memorandum listing all of the relevant facts and events in the case. This memo usually starts at 20 pages and sometimes ends up with more than 200 pages.

“We call it the Bible,” McKool says. “My copy by the time we go to trial is dog-eared and highlighted.”

Associates at this firm coined the term the McKool Method for his trial preparation. “The McKool Method is really teasing me about being so intense,” McKool says.

But by organizing the information this way, McKool can walk into court knowing everything he needs to know.

“He’s definitely at the top of his game.” says Laurie Gallun, an associate at McKool Smith who tried a case last year with him. “He has that way of getting the jury interested. He makes it look like it’s the easiest thing in the world. He makes it look like he woke up this morning and knew exactly what he needed to say.”

“It’s smarter, the way I do it,” McKool says. “I know what’s important and what’s not. And I trust people more. I’ve done it so much, I know what to expect. Fear of the unknown is a huge stress producer.”

But it’s not just his cases on which McKool focuses with such intensity. He pursues his interests—guitar, motocross racing, reading and his friends—with the same focus.

“When something interests me, I don’t think, ‘This is a challenge,’” he says. “I think, ‘I want to do this. This is fun.’”

He started playing guitar as a teenager. When he was in high school, his mother gave him a Goya classical guitar and he switched to that. In college at Notre Dame, and during law school, he taught guitar to earn spending money. After that, he didn’t play for several years. Then one day he heard Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” and wanted to learn to play it.

“I play the guitar every day,” he says. “I’m drawn to it. When I see it, I play it.”

He owns eight guitars and hundreds of compact discs and pieces of sheet music. He recently went on a Beatles jag, voraciously reading books on the group, including some about their music theory. He bought some of their sheet music, including “Hey Jude” and “Yesterday,” and practiced until he knew them.

“I get bored unless I’m learning something new,” McKool says. “Then I really work at it—perfecting it.”

When he travels for a case, he brings his guitar and plays most nights in the hotel before going to bed.

“It’s stress-relieving,” he says. “When you are under a lot of stress, that motor activity relaxes you.”

His wife, Erin, says McKool is always following his interests. They frequently go to bookstores to check out new titles. He reads two books at a time, she says, and their house is filled with them.

“He won’t buy just one book,” Erin McKool says. “He buys 10 books and he reads them. He won’t buy just one CD, he buys 10. And he listens to all of them.”

He’s the same about motorcycles. He always wanted one as a child, but his parents wouldn’t buy him one. In college, he bought his first street bike. As a young lawyer, friends got him to race motocross, which he now loves. He stopped for a while when his children were born, but then one day he and his son were watching a motocross race on television and he decided to jump back in. He bought three motorcycles.

“Motorcycles are fun,” he says. “They go fast. Little boys love them.”

“Once he started it, it was a typical Mike deal. He doesn’t do anything halfway,” says Dick Burleson, a former professional bike racer who lives in Traverse City, Mich. McKool hired Burleson several years ago as a teacher, and they became close friends. “It can be a dangerous sport, if you’re unprepared and cavalier about it. It also takes a focus, and that’s what’s good about Mike. When he’s on a motorcycle, he has to focus. There’s no thinking about cases. It gets him away from the law. If you’re going to do it, you need to do it right.”

For several years, McKool stored his bikes in a warehouse and would spend weekends bringing them to racetracks a few hours away. He got tired of this, so he bought a 300-acre ranch about 50 miles southwest of Dallas and built his own track and trails.

He started with the trails and a trailer to store bikes and change in, Burleson says. The ranch has grown to 1,800 acres and has 30 miles of trails and track, three shooting ranges and a house where he and Erin can entertain on the weekends. They regularly have people out riding, and their guest list has included such motocross aficionados as Lyle Lovett.

“There’s not just one or two motorcycles; there’s a ton,” Burleson says. “There’s not just one or two helmets; there’s a ton. And they’re not all in Mike’s size. It’s not just his collection of motorcycles for him to use.”

Burleson says McKool doesn’t talk much about his law practice while they ride. If Burleson asks, McKool will explain some of the technology involved in the cases he works on, such as how a cell phone works, which he had to explain to a jury.

“Even on very technical matters that would have to do with some minutia of law, he can explain it in a way that if you don’t know it, you can understand it,” Burleson says.

Whether he’s talking to a jury, a judge, an associate or a friend, McKool explains things clearly and patiently. As a child, he got into shooting skeet, where he showed great talent. He left it for several years until a friend invited him to a charity tournament and got him interested again. He built three shooting ranges at his ranch and cohosts an event every year for the Boy Scouts at another Texas ranch. Burleson says when McKool taught him to skeet shoot, he patiently watched and calmly explained what he needed to do.

“You would never want to go into a courtroom against him,” Burleson says “This is a guy who is prepared, he knows what is going on. He’s a really smart guy. There are people who have the aura of the boss … it’s not negative. It’s the aura of power, and Mike projects that.”

McKool’s Favorite Books

When Mike McKool isn’t reading a fact memorandum or brief, he’s probably reading a book. He often has two books going at a time, re-reading books he enjoys numerous times. Here are a few of his favorites:

1. “My No. 1 favorite book remains one of the first books I read that I could retain. It is To Kill a Mockingbird,” McKool says. “I read it my last year in grade school. I’ve read it several times as an adult, and I’ve seen the movie numerous times.”

2. McKool recently began re-reading The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself by Daniel J. Boorstin because he enjoys it so much. “It’s a collection of biographies of several people who were key discoverers,”
McKool says. Boorstin was the U.S. Librarian of Congress when he wrote the book.

3. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, an English physicist with Lou Gehrig’s disease. “The consensus choice is he is probably the smartest man alive,” McKool says. In the book, Hawking explains in lay terms many of the scientific concepts being researched today.

4. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. “I’ve read every book by Charles Dickens,” McKool says. “It’s not his best book. A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations probably is. But David Copperfield is my favorite. It just has a warmth to it.”

5. The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote. “The three-volume set tells the story of the Civil War. It is a colorful and fascinating read about history,” McKool says.

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