The Storyteller

Eugene Driker on preparation, inspiration and the essence of the case

Published in 2006 Michigan Super Lawyers — September 2006

General Motors was none too happy when global purchasing chief Jose Ignacio Lopez de Arriortua bolted for Volkswagen AG in 1993, allegedly taking other top employees and confidential documents with him. Naturally GM sued.

The world’s largest automaker successfully blocked Volkswagen’s attempt to transfer the case to a German court, and in early 1997 achieved a settlement in which VW paid GM $100 million and agreed to purchase $1 billion worth of parts from GM.

The reason why VW settled, according to GM general counsel Thomas A. Gottschalk, was the intense preparation and well-crafted arguments of Detroit lawyer Eugene Driker, a specialist in complex, big-dollar legal disputes.

“Gene is my go-to person for the highstakes cases,” Gottschalk says. “He has a great capacity to cut to the jugular and make winning arguments. He has an unusually effective argument style.”

Driker, a founding member of the Detroit law firm Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker, has a simple explanation for his courtroom style. “You try and tell a simple and direct story. You try and tell a human story, even in a complicated business dispute,” he says.

“It’s not just what was done, it’s why things were done. Judges and jurors are often curious, not simply what’s happened, but why has it happened. What’s the motivation behind it? People want to fill in the blanks, whether it’s a judge or a jury, they want to understand how this all fits together.”

Explaining how this all fits together is where Driker shines. “Our firm was involved in probably the longest civil trial in Michigan history, the Dow Chemical v. Consumers Power lawsuit,” Driker says. The trial lasted 23 months, before the case was settled in 1986.

Driker defended the utility — now known as CMS Energy Corp. — against Dow’s $500 million lawsuit for problems related to construction of a nuclear power plant in Midland, in a case involving some 6 million documents. “We had probably 100 staff people helping us out with that. It was very complicated,” Driker recalls.

“We lived up in Midland for two years, four days a week,” he says. But the hard work paid off. Driker’s thorough defense led Dow to settle, and the parties eventually formed a partnership to complete the project — about the best outcome Consumers Power could have hoped for.

“Nobody reasonably expected that we would come out ahead in that case because this nuclear power plant, which was supposed to be done in two or three years and cost about $150 million, wasn’t done after 20 years and cost over $6 billion,” he explains. Plus, Dow had the large, powerful Chicago firm of Kirkland & Ellis as its legal representation.

“It’s a daunting task when you’re up against firms with much greater resources, but we seemed to come out just fine in that case,” Driker says. “There’s a certain nimbleness when you’re small and flexible. You can do some things that perhaps larger opponents can’t do as easily.”

Dow executives were so impressed that they later hired Barris Sott. CMS Energy remains a client two decades later.

“He’s got a marvelous reputation in town and he’s a pleasure to deal with,” says Alan S. Schwartz, partner and CEO of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn, a Detroit law firm that has turned to Driker on numerous occasions.

A pleasure to deal with — unless, say, he’s cross-examining you. Driker represented the Teamsters union in its opposition to a proposed joint operating agreement (JOA) between The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press in 1986. Gannett Co. owned The News; Knight-Ridder owned the Free Press. Both owners are powerhouses of the newspaper business.

“I took this case kind of on a whim,” Driker recalls. He met the publisher of the Free Press at a wedding and became interested in the issue. “When the Teamsters were looking for an antitrust lawyer, I said, ‘What the hell, I’ll represent them.’”

Driker calls the experience one of the best times he ever had in a courtroom, even though he was flying by the seat of his pants. “Sometimes the most fun is when you have the least time to prepare,” he says. “We had no budget. The Free Press and The News spent millions on this. We took a flat fee of $175,000, which probably didn’t pay our copying costs in the case, but we just had an absolute ball.”

The highlight for Driker was questioning Gannett Chairman Allen H. Neuharth. “He came into that courtroom,” Driker says, “he thought he was the king of the world. He walked off that witness stand, he was a wimp. I had made chop suey out of him. That was fun.”

According to GM’s Gottschalk, that command performance is typical of Driker, who is low-key and unassuming until he gets into a courtroom. “In court, he comes on like gangbusters in terms of making very direct and forceful arguments,” Gottschalk says.

The result of the trial was the nation’s first rejection of a newspaper JOA by a judge, though a limited agreement won approval in 1989.

Following that case, Driker became friends with his opposing counsel. “He sent me some significant work after this. We respected one another,” says Driker. “I don’t recall getting a Christmas card from Mr. Neuharth after the trial, but his lawyers and I certainly got along.”

It is this type of relationship building that has helped Driker win friends, clients and admirers throughout his 45-year career. After graduating at the top of his class from Wayne State University Law School in 1961, Driker got his first job as an antitrust attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice. His three years in Washington represent the only period the native Detroiter has lived beyond the city limits.

“It was a heady time. Robert Kennedy was the attorney general. He wasn’t that much older than I was at the time, so it was a very exciting time,” Driker says.

He recalls his first meeting with the attorney general, when Kennedy had a gettogether for Justice Department employees. Driker, dressed up for the occasion, made his way to Kennedy’s oversized and wellappointed office. “He was just sitting there at his desk with his shirtsleeves rolled up and a can of beer in front of him,” Driker recalls. “It was a sight I’ll never forget.”

In January 1963, Driker and wife Elaine — then about eight and a half months pregnant — took a ride to see the Eero Saarinen-designed terminal at the newly opened Dulles International Airport. Robert Kennedy’s Hickory Hill home happened to be along the route they took to the airport, and, just for fun, they decided to drive by the estate. “Here, coming up the road, were Robert and Ethel Kennedy, walking this dog the size of a Volkswagen,” Driker remembers. Driker stopped the car and they introduced themselves to the famous couple. “It was one of those brief but memorable moments you never forget for the rest of your life.”

Some of Driker’s contemporaries in the Kennedy-era Justice Department included future Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell; Jack Martin, who went on to become general counsel of Ford Motor Co.; and Sanford M. “Sandy” Litvack, later a vice chairman of Walt Disney Co. “We were all young lawyers together and saw some very smart people and learned from them,” says Driker.

After the birth of his first child in 1963 — and just months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — the Drikers returned to Detroit. The still-young attorney joined Friedman, Meyers & Keys, which had a large business and real estate practice.

Donald E. Barris was a senior partner at that firm. “He was a very skillful and smart trial lawyer, and I started working with him,” says Driker. Four years later, the two would join with David L. Denn, Herbert Sott and William Barris to start the law firm that still bears their names.

The firm now has 35 attorneys and 40 full-time support staff. “We’ve never tried to be the largest firm in town. We try to practice a very high-quality law, but we’ve never had any particular interest in size for size’s sake,” Driker explains.

“We try to work very hard. We work as a team. We’ve got very bright people in the office, great researchers and writers,” he adds. “This is not a one-man band. This is a collegial effort.”

Driker links many of his corporate clients to the connections he made in Washington, D.C. When Jack Martin took the helm of Ford’s legal department, he called on Driker, his old Justice Department colleague, to represent the automaker. “If you do a reasonably good job on one matter, it leads to good jobs on others,” Driker says.

Referrals also got Driker right in the middle of a very public legal battle among the billionaire family that owned Dart Container Corp. Driker represented company founder W. A. Dart and his wife in a suit brought by one of their sons, who felt shut out of the family fortune.

The seven-year litigation involved federal and state court proceedings in Michigan, Florida and New York and the  public airing of a lot of private grievances. “Ultimately, that case was settled, as it should have been,” says Driker.

Two other clients are the Buffalo Bills and their owner, Ralph Wilson Jr. Wilson, a native Detroiter, was referred to Driker about six years ago by another lawyer. “So now I’ve got to read Sports Business Daily. I’ve got to know what’s going on in the sports world. You’ve got to know their field,” Driker says.

Of course, preparation is just the beginning of the process. “I’ve watched good lawyers, especially my law partners, and I’ve learned to think a lot about a case, to think about the problems, not just to do it the same way it’s been done before; to try to figure out what’s different about this case. How do you break it open? What are the Gordian knots you have to slice to get to the essence of a case?

“We, as a matter of firm practice, spend a lot of time thinking about a client’s problems,” Driker says while taking in the view of the Cobo Center and the Detroit River from his Fort Street office. “Looking out the window and thinking.”

Now 69, Driker has broken his string of working most Saturdays for 30 years, but he still has the occasional 12-hour workday. “I don’t do the drudge work as much as I used to, taking depositions and arguing every motion, but the most important time is the thinking time,” he says.

Schwartz calls Driker “a person of great intellect and judgment. … When we have a conflict that requires difficult decisions on how to proceed, we send it to Gene because we know clients will get very good attention.”

Driker’s work ethic comes from his parents, Russian Jewish immigrants who also instilled in their son a strong sense of community responsibility. “They came here with nothing,” Driker says. “They fled pogroms of Russia, and America was a very important haven for them. So when I see all these parades of immigrants, I’m very sympathetic to their plight.”

Driker’s father owned a candy store and a hand laundry, above which the family lived for a time. “He struggled, but sent three kids to college,” Driker says.

“My parents were great believers in leaving a place better than they found it. They were plain people, but very dedicated to social justice.”

Driker is trying to follow their example. In 2005, he and a close longtime friend, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, accompanied two Palestinian Americans and two Jewish Americans from the Detroit area to the Middle East, where they helped promote economic development in the West Bank and Gaza.

Driker has also served on the Wayne State Law School Board of Visitors for many years and the Board of Governors for four years. He chaired the law school’s “Campaign for the 21st Century,” which raised $19 million. In appreciation of his service and his career, Wayne State now has an annual “Driker Forum for Excellence in the Law.”

Although he has no plans to retire, Driker has made a promise to spend more time with his five grandchildren than he did with his own son and daughter. “There were a lot of soccer games missed and a lot of recitals missed,” Driker laments.

But he insists that he has no real regrets. “It’s been a great run,” Driker says. “I’ve had a great time practicing law. I’ve loved every minute of it.”

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