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Lawyer Limelight: Michael Geibelson

Michael Geibelson is one of those people who inspires confidence. Whether he’s spotting another rock climber descending from a cragged granite wall or sitting in a room of exhibits sorting needles from the hay stack, Geibelson is the guy who makes sure everything is done right.

So it came as no huge surprise that Robins Kaplan elevated the young star to California managing partner when Roman Silberfeld – the acclaimed trial lawyer who built the firm’s California offices – took on a new challenge as National Trial Chair.

Lawdragon: Michael, congratulations on the new position. I understand you’ve been with Robins Kaplan since it opened its doors in Los Angeles in 1995?

Michael Geibelson: That’s right. After graduating from Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, in 1995, I was a law clerk at Simke, Chodos, Silberfeld & Anteau, when six lawyers led by Roman broke off to become the L.A. office of Robins Kaplan. I worked for all the lawyers and did everything. And as we grew I was required to make a decision about what kinds of cases I wanted to work on.

To me, business tort cases and commercial litigation presented the most complex and intellectually challenging issues.

LD: Do you remember the first trial you handled? And was it plaintiff or defense – I know a hallmark of Robins Kaplan is handling both sides of important matters.

MG: Of course I do! We represented a number of calf ranchers in the San Bernardino dairy preserve on a claim for veterinary malpractice. Their calf herds had been decimated by a bovine vaccine that caused them to have horrible injuries and die.

It was a powerful trial – a fraud case where a vet failed to identify the adverse reactions that calves suffered. Several of our clients’ herds of calves died and their businesses collapsed.

The defense raised a privilege I never heard of before – the veterinarian client privilege. We joked that the veterinarian must have whispered to the calves to preserve the privilege. I got involved because everyone else thought it was a terrible case.  We had lost a motion for summary judgment based on the Federal Insecticide Fungicide Rodenticide Act, a name you don’t forget,  and the case was basically as dead as the calves were.

I was told there was a room full of documents in Orange County, to go through them and figure it out. I spent one week going through them, then another. And as I uncovered evidence of problems in ranches all over the Preserve, I realized there was a tremendously good case to be had. I tried it with another lawyer for four weeks in Rancho Cucamonga and got a $4.2 million verdict, including punitive damages

LD: That’s unusual to get trial work so fast.

MG: That’s the way we do things here. That case whet my trial bug – I was only a first year lawyer! While a lot of my contemporaries who went into personal injury and criminal practices had lots of trials, there weren’t many commercial litigation peers who have had as many trials as I have.

LD: That must be a great selling angle in recruiting for the firm.

MG: It’s definitely what attracts people to the firm and the thing that allows us to develop our attorneys’ abilities to make judgments that are better than telling a client they have a 50/50 chance of this or that. That kind of advice helps nothing.

LD: Let’s talk about some other elements of the vision you bring to your new role as California managing partner.

MG: I certainly want to maintain the environment that exists, that encourages people to try hard cases, and provide the resources to train them well – which we do through our Exceptional Advocate Program. That gives them the tools to go out and represent clients in the way we expect. I view my role as maintaining the environment of giving people slightly more responsibility than they can handle – that requires them to step up their game. That’s how I learned, how those around me learned and I’m a better attorney for it.

There’s no safe path to being a trial lawyer. It’s always about going out on a limb and being scared and succeeding through preparation and effort and overcoming everything that’s put before you. I spent a lot of early years in practice being outnumbered, and by lawyers who were much older than me, and it served me well.

LD: I also think it’s interesting that Robins Kaplan has succeeded in building a strong presence in California, where many national firms have landed for awhile and not found traction.

MG: That’s a tribute to Roman and his professionalism. That’s really the hallmark of our offices here. There are people who disagree with him, but I have yet to find a person who has found him disagreeable.

The reputation that he’s burnished over his decades of practice in L.A. and throughout the country have served him and our clients very well and that’s a thing that more than anything else I hope to continue the tradition of in managing the lawyers in California. To maintain the reputation of the firm as one of true professionals that serve the cause of justice.

LD: I know you’ve served as chairman of Disability Rights Legal Center, and are active with both the State Bar of California and Los Angeles County Bar Association. Serving the cause of justice is real to you, isn’t it?

MG: It’s what we do every day. Every lawyer should feel privileged to be a member of the bar and to have the ability to stand up in court and represent a person or a company. It’s a tremendous privilege. And with that privilege comes an obligation. Throughout my years, I’ve attempted to fulfill that obligation by making lawyers better through my work with the State Bar’s Litigation Section and on the editorial board of Los Angeles Lawyer magazine.

More directly, I’ve tried to fulfill my obligation with a variety of pro bono cases – families adopting children, a gentleman denied bus service because he had a service dog with him, and friends who had their last $12,000 stolen by an unscrupulous seller of a home – the privilege to represent those people and make sure their rights are served is as great an obligation to me as to comply with all the other rules of professional responsibility that we have. I view the obligation to do pro bono work as being necessary to preserve everyone’s respect in our judicial system.

LD: You are taking on this leadership role at an interesting, some would say difficult, time in the profession.

MG: It’s a time of change, and we’ve used it as an opportunity. There’s a different focus of attention on companies’ legal spend as a result of changes within those companies, and the way that value is achieved for the client. Value is measured in a totally different way than it seems to have been measured historically. We’ve put in place systems that drive the satisfaction of people’s expectations in the market.

LD: What’s the difference?

MG: With a decrease in outside litigation spending, there have been a variety of cases being handled exclusively by in-house lawyers with modest assistance of outside lawyers. Cases are taking longer to resolve, and there’s an increasing amount of segmentation of the work being doled out. With that, there’s an increased expectation that lawyers will work with other law firms for particular parts of large cases.

With segmentation companies may want one firm or their own provider to provide a particular service – like document review or e-discovery.  So there’s a constant dialogue that has to occur for the best ways to accomplish the integration of work. We’ve done those things when asked but we’ve also done other things we found to be superior.

We developed our own e-discovery platform, built our own stable of contract lawyers that review documents to provide regularity and whose work product is excellent. We have created our own budget management software that helps us predict the cost for similar sorts of cases, and the cost of various phases of those cases, for example.

That helps inform the judgment calls required at the beginning of every case about the best way to handle them. For example, in some cases, full electronic discovery makes sense, while in others production of pdf’s without  metadata is the best way to litigate.

LD: You certainly bring practice experience and a thoughtful approach.

MG: We look at the world from the perspective of the trial backward to the beginning of the case so we don’t try to boil the ocean.

The same reasons that people criticize us for representing plaintiffs and defendants seem to be the reasons that our clients applaud us. The perspective we bring to cases from being on both sides of the lectern lends credence in litigation and settlement to what the positions are going to be, and that the other side is likely to take, and what is reasonable to do and, more importantly, not to do in a given case. It’s that judgment that our clients appreciate. The judgment you have a 50/50 chance is never helpful and seldom given around here.

LD: What about other changes, for example in class action litigation?

MG: We are at an interesting crossroads in class action cases these days. The pendulum continues to swing on a variety of issues related to standing and arbitrability and the standards for an injury that will support a class action.

We regularly defend retailers and technology companies against class action cases, and there is an increasingly rigorous analysis of whether individual cases should continue as class actions or not.

Once again, that has meant the value of counsel has evolved to really being able to determine from the outset of a case whether something will or not be able to be certified. It is no longer acceptable to just litigate for a while and see what happens. It is in many ways the whole ball of wax and early investigation and early determination of whether a case is susceptible to class certification is a very important part of what we do, and increasingly so.

LD: Do you see that with particular emphasis with technology companies?

MG: I do. As the patent damage standards and patentability standards evolve, more and more companies are looking to trade secrets as a way to protect various kinds of information. There’s an obvious and important intersection between that and data security. Everyone talks about it, but it remains astounding how few companies are truly prepared and how many companies’ data has been compromised by unscrupulous people.

That’s created a number of issues, whether technology infringement or theft, or consumer class actions, or obligations to comply with various data breach laws. There really is an evolving need to understand what data companies have and to either use it or not keep it, or never obtain it in the first place. People’s fascination with big data is going to need to be refined to match their needs for that data, otherwise they’re increasing threats unnecessarily.

LD: Have you seen the need to deal with data in action?

MG: Absolutely. We recently tried a class action that was decertified at the end of trial. Part of the reason for decertifying the class is that you couldn’t do anything with the data that was collected. You couldn’t identify people from the data. And so it was exceedingly difficult to establish who members of the class were. In fact, you couldn’t.

It was going to take individual trials to determine who was in the class. That’s an issue other companies are dealing with, because they’re collecting data – because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do – even though people are not taking full advantage of it or not keeping it in ways they should.

It’s often said there are two kinds of companies: companies that have had data breaches and companies that don’t know they have. Figuring out which one you are is often a difficult story.

LD: Whenever your tenure as managing partner ends, what do you hope will be said of your achievements?

MG: I hope to have provided the tools for everyone to practice in the way that the practice is evolving, which is an attempt to seamlessly match the assets we have around the firm regardless of where people sit, to whatever and wherever the case is. Today, for example, I talked with a lawyer in Minneapolis about a civil enforcement action in California; worked on a class action pending in Boston; dealt with a commercial case to be filed in the Northern District of California; and discussed a potential matter in Florida with counsel in Pennsylvania. I expect that to become more typical and it absolutely is more efficient if you can bring to bear the right resources for the right problems.

LD: The firm has certainly grown from its origins in Minneapolis and seems to be going through some interesting changes. How do the California offices – including the recently opened Silicon Valley office – fit into that picture?

MG: It’s my hope the L.A. office will continue to reflect the practices of the firm, that it will be a net exporter of work and that we’ll add practices in this office which are complementary to those in which the firm practices. We’ve already demonstrated our ability to avoid conflicts that the largest firms can’t sidestep. There’s a niche here for people with those practices and cases that don’t fit elsewhere.

Silicon Valley is already clicking with IP work. My hope is to grow that office to mirror what we do elsewhere throughout the firm.

LD: Any areas in particular that you hope to grow?

MG: Video gaming and multimedia law. Both are areas that are ripe to be grown within the firm. We’re also interested in people who specialize in omni-channel sales, IP and antitrust. Despite the evolution of the law, IP will continue to figure prominently in everything as we go forward. And we expect growth in these other areas as well.

LD: I know you are quite an outdoorsman. Will you still have time for that – and does rock climbing help you in your practice?

MG:  I’ve introduced lots of adults and kids to the outdoors. There’s a dear family friend who said to me as I lowered her off a rock, “I would not have trusted anyone else to lower me.”

That type of responsibility, helping others learn to enjoy the outdoors, is the type of responsibility I feel every day for my client’s causes. When I stand up in court, I’m their rope.

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