The Ride of a Lifetime

Through nearly four decades of litigation, Jon Muth says it’s the people along the way who count

Published in 2010 Michigan Super Lawyers — September 2010

What drew you to law in the first place?

I had it pretty firmly in my mind by the time I was in ninth grade, and in part for all the wrong reasons. I had an aunt and uncle who were intellectual property lawyers, with a very successful practice in Washington, D.C. My aunt at one time was the No. 2 person at the patent office in charge of trademarks and copyrights. My uncle was one of the best chemical patent trial lawyers in the world. I kind of liked their lifestyle. They had a nice house, they lived in a nice area, they belonged to a nice club, so I got interested in law in part because I saw a very attractive lifestyle, which—I didn’t know then, but have since learned—is enjoyed by relatively few lawyers. But I was also interested in debate, public speaking, trying to find leadership positions in organizations, and I think it all just sort of fit together.

 

You’ve handled quite a mix of cases. Was it always your dream to litigate?

No, I came out of law school thinking I wanted to be a corporate and tax lawyer. I had been accepted to NYU’s LL.M. program of taxation. Then I got to thinking about whether I really did want to go to school for another year at that point in my life. I’ve never been a big-city person, so the idea of going to New York was romantic, but once I got to thinking about it, I didn’t know. The firm I’m with was kind enough to make me an offer and tell me they could give me some real good corporate tax experience for a few years, and then if I wanted to go get my LL.M., they’d help me do it. So I thought, well, that’s a heck of a deal. I can make some money, I can find out if this is really what I want to do, and I’ll still have the opportunity to get the LL.M. and perhaps follow it in a different direction later.

 

But you decided on another path.

At that point in time, this firm [Miller & Johnson] was a great deal smaller and it had the wisdom to force its young lawyers to go through a number of practice areas before it allowed them to settle into one. What I found was that I didn’t much like corporate and tax work. I was probably temperamentally unsuited to it. I was much too restless; I didn’t have the attention span to sit and look at a document all day and think it was fun. I made the transition to litigation, and I’ve done it ever since.

 

You seem to be a master of many trades.

A lot of the work I do as a litigator involves professional liability issues for lawyers or accountants. I serve as general counsel to this law firm, so I deal with our ethical issues, and I do a lot of mediation and arbitration work. Over my career I’ve done all different kinds of litigation. In a city like Grand Rapids and a community the size of ours, you can’t be a specialist in one kind of case or you’re going to have one case and then starve. You have to be able to adapt to whatever the subject matter is, whatever the field is, and basically market yourself to clientele that is just looking for a good trial lawyer, not necessarily the guy who knows the most about a certain chemical. So I’ve always had a general practice; it’s evolved over the years depending on what was available to be done.

 

Any cases that really stand out?

I think the people, more than the cases, stand out: the clients you’ve represented, the issues you’ve dealt with. For example, I once had the opportunity to represent Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center in defense of a libel case filed here in Michigan. The claim was that the SPLC’s newsletter Klan Watch had published false and defamatory information regarding a Michigan resident who was active in the militia movement. We were successful at getting the case dismissed, largely by relying on the heightened standard of proof for libeling a public figure that came out of New York Times v. Sullivan. I had the privilege of working with Dees and others at the SPLC, to learn and understand the important function the SPLC serves in the advancement of the rule of law and the equal protection of all citizens, and to gain an appreciation of the personal sacrifices being made in pursuit of these goals. I count Morris Dees and the people who work closely with him among the true heroes of American law.

Another of my most interesting clients was, at one point in his varied career, a minor candidate for the presidency of the United States, albeit one who was capable of making any primary election in which he participated an interesting affair. Morry [Maurice] Taylor, who ran as a Republican and the only pro-choice Republican in the 1996 primaries, was known in the Iowa caucuses for attracting voters’ attention with free beer and uncommonly candid (and usually incautious) statements about any issue. After spending several million dollars and earning about 1 percent of the vote, Morry returned to running his manufacturing company, Titan Wheel International. In a case in which I represented Morry in federal court, the state of Michigan was accusing his parents’ plating company of leaving behind toxic waste. Morry, who was an officer of the company, declined to participate in any preparation for his critical testimony, saying he was going to “tell it like it is” and that nothing I might say could possibly make any difference. Had I abided by the standard of never asking a question to which one doesn’t know the answer, we would have had no direct examination. Morry started his testimony by explaining to the judge what was wrong with the courtroom’s sound system. At another point, he pulled out a jar of salts, which the state was claiming were hazardous materials. He proceeded to eat some of them to show how benign they were. Since I knew nothing of his planned demonstration, about all I could do was to move for the admission of the jar of salts. He didn’t go into convulsions or die, so there must have been something to his claim. My client, though not his parents, was declared not liable in the case.

 

You’ve certainly had an eclectic client list.

In addition to representing some people of notoriety, I have represented many ordinary people who needed help with critical matters in their business or personal lives. Each client, each case taught me something new. If you are going to be a general-purpose litigator, you’re going to be a lifetime learner. It is the challenge of continued growth and new horizons that has made the practice of law so enjoyable to me.

 

Tell me about your service as president of the State Bar of Michigan.

I have the distinction of being the longest-serving president of the state bar, in part because my predecessor, a good friend, became the U.S. attorney in Western Michigan a couple of months into his term and was required by the Justice Department to resign. So I did about 10 months of his term and 12 months of mine. About six months into that whole process, the gentleman who had been the executive director of the state bar for 25 years died, so for a period of time I was the acting executive director, as well as the president, as well as chair of the committee looking for a new executive director, so I had my plate full.

 

Didn’t you also help found the Kent County Legal Assistance Center?

Yes. We’ve raised a little over $1 million to get it off the ground. It now has a budget of about a quarter-million dollars a year. It serves 16,000 to 18,000 people a year who are representing themselves in our judicial system. The whole idea was to serve that population that Legal Aid can’t serve. There are huge, huge percentages of people in our courts without lawyers. The idea of the KCLA Center was to bring together resources in this community that already existed, and if they didn’t exist, to create resources, that would help people help themselves. So at least if they were going to represent themselves in court, they did so halfway competently.

 

What type of assistance do you typically offer?

One of our staff people will listen to whatever the problem is and suggest resources. We’ve found that a lot of people who thought the courts could help might be better able to get assistance elsewhere. Maybe they just have a housing need. If it really is a legal situation, we try to qualify them for Legal Aid. If they aren’t able to qualify, the next step is to use the services of the Grand Rapids Bar Association’s lawyers referral network, which provides a half-hour of free counseling and opportunities for lower-cost representation. A lot of people’s legal questions get answered in that free half-hour and they don’t need a lawsuit after all. Finally, we give them assistance with self-representation if that is their choice. We’ll not give legal advice, but we’ll tell them how to fill out a complaint form, where to take it, what the filing fee is, how you serve it on a defendant, what the schedule is going to be once you get it filed in terms of things you’re expected to do, when you have to be in court. Legal Aid doesn’t do domestic-relations cases unless there’s spousal or child abuse taking place at the moment or if a noncustodial parent is trying to get custody away from the custodial parents. So that leaves the vast majority of people in divorce, child-custody and property-settlement disputes either to hire their own lawyers or [be] left to their own devices. About 70 percent of the cases that the legal assistance center deals with are domestic.

 

How did you meet your wife, Carol?

We met at Kalamazoo College. She caught my eye pretty quickly, and we’ve been together ever since. We were foolish enough to get married at age 21, and we have our 43rd anniversary this year. Marrying her was by far the best thing I’ve ever done.

 

You and Carol have two sons?

My oldest son’s a lawyer. He’s been practicing about 10 years. He’s a partner with Barnes & Thornberg. He’s going to be 38 and he’s married and has three kids that are the real treats of my life—and my wife’s—at this point. My younger son is 36 and he is just wrapping up his Ph.D. in environmental science at the University of Virginia and going on to some post-doc fellowships.

 

What lessons did you learn from your own parents?

An emphasis on education, I think a very strong moral ethic—not religious so much as in the sense of a very strong commitment to the ethics of doing things right—being honest, giving a good effort, helping others, being a responsible citizen, giving back to your community. Those were all things that were emphasized in the household, and I’m not so sure it was emphasized in the sense of me being on the receiving end of a number of speeches; it was a behavior my parents modeled. It wasn’t as if I felt that there were these expectations that were artificially created for me; I grew up thinking that’s what everybody was supposed to do.  Having raised kids myself now, I understand the limits of lecturing. There’s only so much you can say. When my son turned 15, I lost 40 IQ points. By the time they were 25 or so, I’d gotten a great deal smarter.

 

That is so often the case. Back at the office, how do you handle stress?

I’ve always been active physically. I’ve gone through phases; my most recent has been bicycling. But it’s also been racquetball, it’s been tennis, it’s been cross-country skiing, it’s been triathlons, it’s been running—it’s been different things at different times. By nature I am goal-oriented and competitive, so I’ve always enjoyed those things and to a great extent it’s been a release valve for a lot of the stress that goes along with the practice. It’s kept me more or less sane over all these years.

 

You helped out Legal Services by cycling in a cross-country fundraiser?

Yes. The primary reason was that I was turning 50 and wanted to get myself back in shape. This was a very aggressively paced trip. Most people who go across the country do it in six to eight weeks; this was in 23 days, which was a long time to take off from my law practice but not a long time to pedal across the United States. We went from San Diego to Charleston, just about 3,000 miles, and so we averaged 130 miles a day. We rode every day, rain or shine or anything in between.

 

How long have you been cycling?

I got into triathlon first, then my knees weren’t working very well, and I never could swim, so that left me with the bike. That was probably 20 years ago. I think I’m a better lawyer when I work hard eight or 10 hours a day, then go play, than I would be if I were to sit in an office 18 hours a day and just crank stuff out. I think good lawyers by and large lead pretty balanced lives. That’s one of the challenges in the profession: to avoid being eaten up by it. I commute to work on a bike as often as I can. I rode in this morning.

 

How far is that?

Oh, about 12 miles. My bike stays right here in the office. I change my clothes next door at the little athletic club, and keep a closet full of shirts and suits here that I replenish. I’ve got a firm meeting tonight; I’ll be done by about 8 o’clock, and I’ll be on the bike and home before it gets dark. It’s a great transition. By the time I get home, my mind isn’t at the office anymore.

 

What do you consider your greatest strength and weakness?

My greatest strength is probably my big-picture view of things. I’m pretty good at taking a mass of information that isn’t in any particular form, simplifying it, making it coherent and explaining it to someone else. I think my weakness is in the area of attention to detail. I think any good lawyer has to be detail-oriented, but it’s something I just have to work at. I understand the importance of knowing the details in order to make the judgment as to how to formulate the big picture. A lot of any success that I’ve had is due to the efforts of a lot of people who do extraordinarily good work in backup roles. I’m very, very grateful to a whole succession of young lawyers, some of whom are no longer young and have gone on to have very successful careers themselves. The lawyers who get to the top, there isn’t a single one of them who got there by herself or himself. They had to come out of supportive atmospheres, they had to have great people working with them, and a lot of being good at anything is just sort of showing up in the morning and hoping you get lucky.

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