First One In, Last One Out

Michael D. Sirota makes it his business to work harder than the competition

Published in 2011 New Jersey Super Lawyers — April 2011

As a teenager, Michael D. Sirota was a middle-of-the-road student. No one in his family had graduated from college, and he was content fixing bicycles at a local shop. “Looking back, I can say that I wasn’t setting the highest standards for myself,” says Sirota.

His mom had other ideas. “Being brutally honest, I think she was concerned that, not being the best child in the world, if I didn’t go on [to college], God knows what could happen.”

So Sirota enrolled at Ramapo College of New Jersey and found a reason to care about succeeding. “I got competitive with a buddy of mine who was doing very well,” he says. “I said, ‘Geez, if he’s doing well, I should be doing well.’”

That was enough higher learning for Sirota—but not for his mother. “Actually, going to law school was not something I envisioned [until I got] a good kick in the ass by my mom,” he says. “Once I got into law school at Syracuse, I sort of became fairly competitive about it.”

Today, Sirota puts those competitive instincts to use as co-managing shareholder of Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard in Hackensack, where he’s co-chair of the bankruptcy and corporate restructuring department. “When you start to put yourself into an environment where people are working hard and doing well, I never wanted to be the guy left behind,” he says. “I had a pretty simple formula. I used to ask people, ‘What time does the hardest-working guy get in, and when does he go home?’ They said, ‘He comes in at 7:00 and leaves at 7:00.’ And I said, ‘Well, I can do that! I’ll come in at 6:30 and leave at 7:30.’”

When Sirota decided to focus on bankruptcy work, only one other lawyer at Cole Schotz was working in the practice area. Now there are more than 25, and Sirota is working on some of the biggest restructuring projects in the Northeast and nationwide. “It’s a great job for the following reason,” he says. “Our firm only does borrower-debtor restructuring work. … So I have the ability every day to walk into the office and work on Tropicana [Atlantic City] Casino at 9 in the morning; Tarragon Development Corp., a billion-dollar real estate concern, at 10; then Zayat Stables, the largest thoroughbred-horse owner in the country––the diversity of businesses that I get to try to restructure is the most fascinating part of it. I learn every day what it is that makes these businesses tick.”

His clients have appreciated his extra-long workdays. And his candor. “There’s a component to what I do that people are afraid to speak about. You become a psychologist as well,” Sirota says. “When you go into a closely held business, where [family businesses] are about to hit the wall, the stakes are: Do their kids go to college? Are their lives uprooted? You not only have to tell people, ‘Here’s where I think we end up and here’s how we get there,’ you have to talk them off the ledge.”

That’s where his experience working in bike shops and bars comes into play. “Doing things that allow you to understand and engage with people has been indispensible,” Sirota says, “because you deal with it by being brutally honest. Compassionate, but honest. My clients know, when they come into the conference room, that they’re going to get it straight down the center.”

The human connection is important to Sirota. “I would describe my job as assisting clients in distress,” he says. The Zayat Stables reorganization, in which he worked closely with horse-racing entrepreneur Ahmed Zayat, particularly stands out. “You walk out of court with a gentleman whose world was rocked,” Sirota says. “Now you see him get in a car with his family and everything’s fixed––his wife comes up and hugs me. You don’t get that when you’re representing a publicly traded company.

“They’re the hardest cases, but there’s nothing more satisfying than reorganizing a closely held business and letting a family get back to their life. To me, that’s the best.”

Sirota gets results like that because of his intense preparatory habits. “[The people who help me before trial] would tell you that I’m a preparation maniac,” he says. “I cannot walk into court unless I think I know more than anybody else, or without trying to anticipate every conceivable question and issue. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”

Sirota’s love of competition has served him well, but at least once it’s gotten the better of him: The first time he tried to wear his now-standard bowtie, it took him four hours to cinch it up correctly. “Once I invested the time,” he says, “I never took it off.”

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