The Wading Game

From fly-fishing to courtrooms, Carey Matovich wades instead of floats, and it’s made all the difference

Published in 2019 Mountain States Super Lawyers Magazine

There’s a frequent debate among those who fly-fish in Montana. You’d think everything was fine as long as you caught a few, but how you fish might say a lot more than what you catch.

One camp floats, on a boat, maybe nursing a cold one and moving with the waves. One camp wades, all in, wet and most likely freezing.

Matovich Keller & Huso founder Carey Matovich knows her camp. “I wade,” she says.

It’s the thinking behind it that she likes.

“You have to read the water and think like a fish—and pick a place where fish may like to live,” she says. “When you are floating, you have a much broader area to fish.”

 Even 35 years into her career, “I never enter a courtroom without knowing everything I possibly can about what I’m walking into,” she says. “You don’t walk into a courtroom without knowing what the other folks are likely to be thinking and perceiving. You want it to be a place where the people aren’t uncomfortable. A gracious woman attorney who is now a federal judge once told me that, when she approaches a case, she wants everyone else to feel as though they walked into her living room. You try to make it comfortable so the court pays attention to you and what you think is important.”

Attorney Michael F. Lamb has walked into Matovich’s living room many times. And while it’s a comfy place to do business, he still "laments his bad luck" every time.

“But your second—and enduring—reaction to facing her is one of appreciation for her fair-minded directness, objective professionalism, candor and reasonableness,” he says. “She is one of those talented lawyers with whom you can engage in fractious litigation, and then agree to use as a mediator in an equally messy matter involving other counsel.”

 

It’s a snowy day in late winter, and 67-year-old Matovich has spent the morning working at home. But tomorrow is a deposition day, so she heads into the office.

On the way, she listens to a book on tape.

“A murder mystery,” she says. “Something totally entertaining.”

It was a murder tale—the real kind—that drew her into the law some 40 years ago.

She studied journalism as an undergraduate at the University of Montana in the early ’70s, then reported news for several local radio stations. Because big crime stories made for the kind of news that went beyond the region—the kind a national news service might pay someone on the ground to report—her attention turned to the courts.

“I knew no other reporter who was covering them on a regular basis, so I started attending these sensational criminal murder cases,” she says.

As a stringer for The Associated Press, she covered two local killings: one was of a store clerk, the other of a woman stopped on a rural highway by two men claiming car trouble. After getting to know some of the local attorneys, she ended up working for one as a paralegal.

“Ultimately, because everything of consequence had an end result in a courtroom, I started law school,” she says.  “At the same time, I didn’t know if I wanted to practice as a lawyer. I convinced myself, driving across a mountain pass, that if I didn’t like law school, I wouldn’t have to return the next day. But I found it interesting, so I continued on days two, three and thereafter.”

Matovich says the storytelling skills she developed as a cub reporter help her be a better attorney. “We as lawyers have to know how to communicate,” she says. “Because if we can’t, our positions and arguments are really of no use. … As in a newspaper story, you start out with the most important facts and you try to build on that.”

Which, she says, she thinks most journalists are trying to do every day. “I don’t believe that there is ‘fake news,’ as Mr. Trump appears to believe,” she says. “I think that reporters are doing their best effort at doing their best jobs. Like in every profession, some are better than others and some are more accurate than others, just as there are politicians that are more accurate than others.”

Matovich grew up in the 1960s on a ranch that sprawled along Calf Creek in Garfield County, Montana, where the family raised commercial Herefords on some 23,000 acres of land.

“In Eastern Montana, you need a lot of acres to sustain any one cow,” she says. The land featured rolling hills and plenty of coulees, but no mountains; the ranch was 10 miles from the closest highway and 50 miles from the nearest town. Under these conditions, the family was a tight-knit unit. It was her, a brother, sister, and her parents. There were times in the winter when they might not get into town for a week. “The experience taught me a lot about self-sufficiency and planning ahead,” says Matovich.

Their father, the kids joked, was the original Marlboro Man. He taught them the importance of caring for your horse before yourself—even when the horse throws you off. You get back on, was the Matovich mantra. A musical clan, her father played fiddle and her brother guitar.

For a few years, Matovich and her mother boarded in town so that she could attend elementary school. At 10, she attended a country school, which required her to drive herself to the highway, but she walked the last quarter-mile. “I wasn’t legally able to drive,” she says with a laugh.

Living in Eastern Montana on the empty plains can make leaving feel like a threat to the family. “I was the only one in my family that finished college, but the others were not discouraged from doing so,” she says. “And I was encouraged to go to law school when I decided that was the route I wanted to take.”

At Holland & Hart in 1981, she stumbled upon her first specialty when an employment litigation case offered her an early chance to go to trial. Similar cases followed, giving her an early niche in employment litigation. Since then, she’s developed a specialty in complex commercial litigation.

A partner at Holland & Hart, Stephen Foster, gave her some small but priceless advice that she wouldn’t fully appreciate until years later: “Try to return every phone call on the day that it comes in,” she says. “His message was simple: Have a great work ethic.”

There were not many women in Montana trying cases back then, notes Carolyn Ostby, former U.S. magistrate judge. “She’s smart, hard-working and very diligent, very civil to both co-counsel and opposing counsel,” she says of Matovich.

Ostby throws in courage, too: Matovich opened a Billings office for Holland & Hart, and she could have stayed there and had a very successful career, Ostby notes. “It’s an outstanding firm,” she says. “But she left, along with Geoff Keller, to start their own. And I really admire that she did it at a time when it was not easy for a woman to do.”

A few years ago, Matovich handled a case between two out-of-state, large-scale beekeepers who had joined forces and built a business in Montana. All went well until they had differing ideas about how the bees should be cared for, and about their business model, and ultimately they decided to part ways. She represented one of the partners. “We did go into litigation, filing a complaint that caused the other one to hire a good Montana lawyer,” she says. “By having good, capable counsel on the other side, we negotiated a settlement that allowed them to dissolve their business relationship.” 

It wasn’t a headline-grabbing case, but “a people case,” as she puts it. “You learn in this business how important even the small cases are to the people who are in them,” she says. “It was a complicated case, with complicated legal theories and analysis, but nearly every case has difficult nuances. You learn to deal with those in the bigger commercial cases.”

Another case she found interesting had roots in publishing.

“I represented a business whose executive director had written a memoir about why he went into the nonprofit industry building schools for girls in Afghanistan,” she says. “The reason he did it was because of some life experiences he’d had in the mountains of Afghanistan. The memoir was used, in part, to solicit contributions to the nonprofit he was operating.” Except, after the book came out, readers learned that not everyting in the memoir was accurate, so they filed a lawsuit in federal court against the author, his company and the publication house.

“[They asserted] that the author had created some sort of fraud by saying the book was true,” she says. “It was a fairly short-lived case—maybe a year or so before it was dismissed—but there were legal questions like, ‘Is a memoir required to be accurate in every respect?’ and ‘If you don’t like a book, can you sue to get the purchase price back?’”

The best part of her work? Puzzling through the complexities.

“The more complex the case, the more novel the issues, the more interest,” she says. “You bring the knowledge you gain in the complex cases to every case you deal with thereafter. They can add a nuance that, who knows, I might not have known to bring 20 years ago.”

And then there’s losing—which, she says, brings perspective. “I learned what was not persuasive, what was not seminal to a jury or a court,” she says. “Any loss brings you knowledge.”

And if you’re going to lose, there are worse places you could do it.

“Montana is a very collegial bar,” she says. “You get to know your opponents, and the nature of the state often brings both sides together. If you go out of town on a deposition and other Montana counsel is involved, it’s common to share a plane, a car or a meal. It lends a personal touch to the practice. We tend not to snipe at one another because we know what goes around comes around.”

 

Matovich has a husband and two cats, and when she’s not working, the couple leave the felines to fend for themselves and go fly-fishing. Out there under so much blue Montana sky, work seems a long way off.

“I like the solitude,” she says of the outdoors. “I like the opportunity to not fret about what is going on in the office or in your clients’ businesses. You simply don’t think. You absorb the beauty and rhythm of nature. It’s one of the reasons why those of us who live here chose to live here.”

A favorite spot to fish is the Stillwater River, about an hour’s drive from home, on the edge of Yellowstone National Park. (But she won’t give the specifics—every fisherwoman knows that.)

“Unlike the law, fly fishing is very rhythmical and paced, and as long as you are doing things correctly, there should be no surprises,” she says. “Law is erratic. There are so many nuances and changes of direction that you have to be prepared to meet. But I have found, throughout the past 30-odd years, there are always new questions. I’m never bored.” 

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