Sleepless in St. Louis

During the day he trades legal blows; at night he invents Rachel Gold

Published in 2005 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers — November 2005

The question needs to be asked up front: When does Michael Kahn sleep?
 
His job as an intellectual property litigator with the high-powered St. Louis firm Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin is enough to keep him awake at night, but that’s only the beginning. Consider what else chips away at his precious time:
  • While most people are winding down at the end of the day, Kahn, 53, is banging away at his computer. Since 1988, he has authored eight mystery novels. “Nobody has time to write a book,” says Kahn. “My theory is that if you break it down and write a page a day, you can write a book in a year.”
  • Kahn isn’t the father of one, two or even three kids. His is a supersize family, with five children ranging in age from 17 to 25.
  • He is addicted to St. Louis Cardinals baseball — which, truth be told, sometimes has an adverse effect on his writing. “It’s usually harder to get my books written during the summers,” he says.
  • Teaching is another of Kahn’s passions. To feed that need, he periodically heads to nearby Washington University School of Law and teaches a class on entertainment law.
  • Then there is music. At one point, he immersed himself in learning how to play blues harmonica, though he says his future as a professional musician is “about as bright as my future as an Olympic skier or a Victoria’s Secret lingerie model.”
  • Not wanting to ignore the physical aspect of his being, Kahn runs every morning. All that roadwork has helped give him a trim and tone physique that belies his age.
 
So … when does Michael Kahn sleep?
 
“He doesn’t do a lot of sleeping,” his wife of 30 years, Margi, says. “Generally from 11 or 12 at night to five or six in the morning. He doesn’t want to waste a single minute. He really has an exuberance for life.”
 
Enough exuberance to fill several lifetimes. Kahn’s interests are so varied that, as a younger man, he had no real idea where they would lead him.
 
After graduating from Amherst College in 1974, the St. Louis native took a job as an elementary school teacher in Chicago that paid around $10,000 per year while he earned his master’s. One sleepless night — no surprise there — Kahn heard an El train creak past his and Margi’s apartment, and a thought entered his ever-inquisitive mind: What happens on the El at 3 a.m.? The next night he decided to find out. “My wife kissed me goodbye like a war bride,” he says, “and I headed off at quarter to 12 and rode until dawn.”
 
Kahn didn’t get maimed or even bruised on his journey. Instead, it filled his head with ideas. The result was the first of several articles he wrote on offbeat topics for Chicago magazine. Now Kahn was a teacher and a writer, but soon his life would twist in a different direction.
 
“There were no lawyers in my family,” Kahn says. “So if you were a big mouth in high school, they said, ‘Oh, you’ve got the gift of gab. You ought to become a lawyer.’ I had no real idea what law school was. I thought it was just memorizing laws. I applied to law school on a lark.”
 
For a lark it paid off: He got into Harvard Law School. After graduating in 1979, he quickly made a name for himself in copyright, trademark and First Amendment litigation — first in Chicago with Reuben & Proctor and then back in St. Louis, starting in 1985 with Gallop Johnson & Neuman. In 2002 Kahn jumped to Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin, where he is a partner and works mainly on media and creative-arts cases.
 
“Mike has about the best presence, both as a person and as a trial lawyer, that you could have,” says Blackwell’s managing partner Bob Tomaso, the man responsible for bringing Kahn to the firm. “He’s equally at home with CEOs and people who clean the floors after hours, which I think is a big asset. Juries warm to him, as do judges and CEOs.”
 
Opposing lawyers even warm to him. Rob Golden, of Lackenbach Siegel in New York, went up against Kahn in a trademark case involving Everlast Worldwide and Eveready Battery Company. The two men spent months trading legal blows — Golden for Everlast, Kahn for Eveready — but after the dust settled they were friends. In fact, Golden sent Kahn a pair of boxing gloves as a memento.
 
“Litigation, by nature, is pretty contentious, and that often spills over into the relationship between counsel,” Golden says. “But Mike was very good at separating his client needs from the personal. So while he diligently fought for his client, he didn’t let that interfere with his personal relationships.”
 
Everything has a place for Kahn. The same focus that enables him to juggle his myriad personal endeavors applies to his work as a lawyer, particularly when assessing the needs of his clients.
 
“[What] set him apart from a lot of other litigators is that he didn’t let his ego interfere with what was best for his client,” Golden says. “Even though he had a client who was willing to, and capable of, spending a lot of money, he was willing to explore a variety of settlement options rather than simply fighting.”
 
But even as he has risen up the ranks as a litigator, he never has been able to purge that fateful night of riding the rails from his system. The creative writer in Kahn is here to stay.
 
His wife Margi saw to that back in the mid-’80s, when Kahn was commuting from Chicago to Kansas City while working on a lawsuit. Kahn would buy a paperback in the airport before each trip, and then make the same pronouncement to his wife upon returning home: “You know, it’s not a bad book, but I’m telling you, I could do better.” Margi, tired of listening to her husband’s complaints, issued a challenge:
 
Margi: “Why don’t you either write a book or shut up?”
 
Michael: “What are you talking about?”
 
Margi: “I don’t want to be around you when you’re 80 and boring your great grandkids by saying you could have written a book.”
 
Kahn thought about his wife’s words of wisdom, and then he started writing. And writing. And writing. Kahn was having the time of his life, but there was a slight problem: He had no idea how the story would end.
 
“What I really wanted to do was write about the law from the point of view of a young lawyer,” Kahn says. “It seemed like a mystery would work best. I learned an important lesson, which is: You ought to solve your mystery before you start writing it. I finally figured it out around page 300, and then I had to rewrite the book so I could have clues along the way.”
 
As with everything else Kahn has undertaken — with the exception of that blues-harmonica experiment — the finished work, The Canaan Legacy, was a success. The young lawyer conjured by Kahn, independent-minded Rachel Gold, “the reform Jewish lawyer with the Orthodox Jewish boyfriend,” was so compelling that his agent immediately commissioned two more books with her as the protagonist. “I wasn’t intending to do a series,” Kahn says, but there now are seven Rachel Gold books. Kahn’s latest offering, The Mourning Sexton is the first that doesn’t feature his heroine. It is written under the pseudonym Michael Baron so as not to confuse readers of his popular series.
 
Kahn isn’t the first in his profession to turn to mystery writing; the list includes such heavy hitters as Scott Turow, John Grisham and Richard North Patterson. Kahn has a theory about why so many lawyers wind up penning courtroom dramas: “You can control everybody. You can control the judge, you can control the other side, you can get all the witnesses to say what you want them to say and you can make it come out the way you want it to come out. Every lawyer has sat there just aghast as a witness blows up on the stand. I’ve joked about that with these other authors.”
 
Not surprisingly, some of the most loyal fans of Kahn’s books are lawyers. Gerry Carmody, a prominent litigator in St. Louis who has worked with and against Kahn on cases, has read all eight of the books. Carmody sees a lot of Michael Kahn in Rachel Gold, skirt and high heels aside.
 
“I kind of chuckle as I read his books, with his descriptions of big-firm litigation and throwing a lot of lawyers at cases,” Carmody says. “I think it reflects his views of how cases should be prepared for trial. He always has this cynical tone about over-lawyering. He has more of a lean, mean approach to litigation, finding out where the true battles are. I always admired him for that. He’s level-headed.”
 
Indeed, whether Kahn is garnering praise for his lawyering or his writing (he’s won many awards, including a recent one from the Historical Society of St. Louis County), he always manages to maintain perspective. Kahn has represented some of the biggest figures in entertainment — talk show goddess Oprah Winfrey, former baseball slugger Mark McGwire, comic-book creator Todd McFarlane, the National Basketball Association — but he shrugs as he talks about them.
 
His eyes light up, however, when the conversation shifts to people such as Willie Woods, a name that probably doesn’t ring a bell. Woods is a musician in St. Louis who filed a lawsuit against a recording studio and a hip-hop producer, claiming he wrote the music to a hit by Nappy Roots called “Po’ Folks.” Kahn handled the case and wound up settling it to the fledgling musician’s liking.
 
“These are people who don’t have a lot of money, but their issue means as much to them as some corporation’s claim for $200 million,” Kahn says. “Sometimes you get a lot of satisfaction out of the little cases, the little man. That’s part of what keeps you going.”
 
Where, though, will Kahn go next? Not even he knows for sure.
 
“I’ve been asking myself that question a lot,” he says. “I don’t want to be doing this 10 years from now — I don’t want to be doing litigation in a big firm. But I don’t know what I want to be doing. I love writing, and I love teaching. I still think the most fun would be to teach literature in high school.”
 
So much to do, so little time. It is the story of Michael Kahn’s life. One feat continues to elude him, though: the ability to stop that confounded clock from ticking.
 
“I envy the guy who is able to put in more hours than me,” he says, the muscles in his face contorting into an expression of angst and wonderment. “In a complex commercial lawsuit, each side may turn over hundreds of thousands of documents. There is the proverbial smoking gun in one of those documents. When you’re up against some people, you know you’re going to have to look at every single document because they’ll find it. They’ll find it at 3:30 in the morning.”
 
Chances are, Kahn will also find it. What’s another sleepless night?

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