Marin-ating the Law

Michael Marin fights for fairness, whether his client is a huge corporation or the average Texas juror

Published in 2007 Texas Super Lawyers — October 2007

A few years ago Austin trial attorney Michael D. Marin noticed that Texas had a hard time attracting jurors—particularly Hispanics and other ethnic minorities—and he recognized this as a danger to the state’s system of justice. He blamed the problem on the fact that jurors received only $6 a day, which did not allow them to serve without financial hardship. So he went into action to find a solution. Now, thanks to Marin’s efforts, since January 1, 2006, juror pay rose for the first time in 52 years, to $40 a day.

“There is no lobbyist for the average juror,” says Marin, a partner at Vinson & Elkins. “We were advocating out there for the average juror, the average citizen, trying to make things happen.”

Marin’s commitment to keeping the legal system open, and to the Hispanic community, does not stop with the juror project. As past president of both the Austin Bar Association (2004-2005) and Austin’s Hispanic Bar Association (1997-1998), Marin strives to diversify the legal profession through mentoring and scholarship programs. As president of the Austin Bar Association, he worked with the Austin Independent School District to create “Pick Me! A Jury of My Peers,” an award-winning three-day program teaching high school seniors the importance of jury service.

When Marin won the American Bar Association’s prestigious “Spirit of Excellence Award” last year, it hardly came as a surprise.

“He is a magnificent litigator,” says V&E’s Donald F. Wood, administrative partner of the Austin office. “Where he finds the time to do all this other work, ranging from the Austin Bar Association and State Bar Board to the V&E Jury Project, I have no idea. He’s a role model for the rest of us about how we should behave in our professional lives.”

Marin quickly points out that V&E’s Jury Project was “a team effort.” He praises co-leader Rob Walters, a Dallas partner, for securing institutional support; V&E’s director of communications Mark S. Curriden, a journalist with a J.D. who, as national legal writer for the Dallas Morning News, had done a 16-part investigative series on the role of the jury; and partners Ron Kirk and Harry M. Reasoner.

“It was a three-part effort,” says Walters. One part involved exposure, whereby he, Marin and Curriden wrote articles to heighten public awareness. Another part involved demographic and statistical studies resulting in “thousands and thousands of man hours” assisting lawyers in criminal cases with Sixth Amendment challenges to venire panels and analyzing data, including hundreds of thousands of juror records. The last part involved drafting and promoting the legislation.

Walters says he “cannot think of a more effective advocate” than Marin, whom he describes as a partner who “always speaks … about ‘we’ and not about ‘I.’”

Marin says they found that jury pools were under-represented in the number of Hispanics, young people between ages 18 and 24, and low-income people, recognizing the overlap among these groups. “If Hispanics aren’t participating, it undermines the legitimacy of the system because they won’t believe in it,” says Marin. “They’re charged criminally and in civil cases, but are not participating as jurors proportionally. All of a sudden people are saying, ‘Well, of course the jury convicted them …’ So the project was good for the system, good for society and good for democracy.”

The Practice

Marin’s trial practice, far removed from the jurors he worked to empower, includes media, technology, insurance, construction and commercial disputes. He won a significant victory in February when Judge Sam Sparks of the U.S. District Court dismissed a case against his client MySpace, Inc., and its corporate parent. In this case, a 14-year-old girl and her mother sued MySpace for $30 million. The allegation: through postings on MySpace, the plaintiff met a 19-year-old who sexually assaulted her.

“MySpace is just a public square,” says Marin. “Nothing bad happened on MySpace. … What happened happened in the offline world. … The 19-year-old called her on the phone: Are you going to sue AT&T? He drove to pick her up in a car: Are you going to sue GM? Where does it stop?”

The court relied on the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which provides immunity for things arising from online postings of third-party users. Plaintiffs have appealed to the Fifth Circuit.

Client Marc Vockell, senior litigation counsel at Dell Inc., a V&E associate from 1999 to 2004, has worked closely with Marin over the years, and praises him as a mentor.

“He taught me that it’s very important, whenever he gets a new case, to not just look at winning the case, but to also look at other ways to end the dispute that might be less expensive,” says Vockell. “I appreciate that now that I’m in the client’s shoes. … Mike sits back and thinks, ‘What’s really in the client’s best interest? Is there a creative way to handle this?’ That is something that distinguishes him in his practice.”

A Youth of Slim Pickin’s

Born in El Paso in 1967, Marin was raised in Canutillo, a small, predominantly Mexican-American farming community he describes as being “about as far west as you can go without leaving the state.” Adds Marin: “It was pretty rich in colorful people but not rich in terms of money.”

As a child, Marin recalls helping his mother pick onions and tomatoes during the summers. As a teenager, he mowed lawns, bused tables and washed dishes at a local restaurant to earn money to buy a car. His mother, who emigrated from Mexico in the 1960s, left school after second grade. His father, of Mexican descent, was born in Canutillo, and left school after eighth grade in order to help support his family before enlisting with the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Marin’s brother, 15 years his senior, joined the Marines while Marin was a small child, although they remain close to this day.

A motivated student who earned top grades in high school, Marin applied to and was accepted by the U.S. Naval Academy, Air Force Academy and West Point. He chose the Air Force.

“It was a great eye-opening experience,” he says. “I got to go to Brazil; I got to go to Europe; I got to fly gliders; I got to jump out of airplanes; I got to do all sorts of things that I probably would not have done had I gone to a regular college.”

Nonetheless, after three years, he decided he did not want a career in the military. He transferred to the University of Texas, El Paso, where he graduated in 1989, having majored in political science and minored in engineering. From there, he served two years on active duty in the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

“I was not a weekend warrior,” says Marin, who worked as a heavy equipment mechanic and as the administrative assistant to a commander. While on active duty, Marin earned his MBA (1991) at night with highest honors from San Francisco’s Golden Gate University, which had a satellite at the Air Force base. “But I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” says Marin. “I always saw lawyers as people who could make a difference in society. There were no lawyers in my family—I was first in my family to go to college—but I thought, ‘Look at all these people doing great things. They can do great things because they are lawyers. I want to be a lawyer too.’”

While a student at UTEP, Marin attended a school career seminar where he met attorney Phil Martinez, today a U.S. district judge in El Paso. Martinez encouraged Marin to go to Harvard Law School.

“I’ve always admired his great work ethic,” says Judge Martinez of Marin. “He was mature in judgment, so I thought he would be a great member of the profession, which is a very demanding profession. He certainly has lived up to every expectation I ever had. I think his feeling about helping others stems from a hunger for justice and an awareness that things aren’t always as they should be.”

Reflecting on his career, Marin says, “It all goes back to the beginning, to my parents, who taught me not only to work hard, but to help other people less fortunate. … I’ve had a lot of people give me opportunities as a young student, so when I have the opportunity to help and encourage other lawyers to help, I’ve taken advantage of my position as a lawyer, in order to help students achieve their maximum potential.”

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