Photo by Thomas Strand.
There may be just two places the Chairman of Robins Kaplan likes more than his Minnesota home: his family’s farm in Winner, South Dakota, and any courtroom, anytime, anywhere.
Martin Lueck leads one of the nation’s elite trial and litigation corps, with billions in wins from coast to coast, from $520M in the Eolas case against Microsoft to the much-contested and ongoing $7.25B Mastercard antitrust battle. So it may come as a bit of a surprise that Lueck meets questions about his craft and career with a good-natured, salt-of-the-earth attitude. That probably has quite a lot to do with his rise from a passionate music education student who loved jazz through his nighttime education at William Mitchell Law School, to his role as leader of the 230-all trial lawyer firm—an organization that he entered in 1983 as part-time law clerk and has never left.
Crucial to his success is his deft storytelling. Lueck says he got some of his storytelling talent from his father, a state patrol major who was popular as an after dinner speaker. Lueck has honed those skills to entrance juries with stories ranging from how a web browser is created to the magic behind a camera’s autofocus technology.
We spoke as he and his wife Mallory made the 420-mile trek back to Minneapolis from Winner, accompanied by their Golden Retriever and pet fox. The prior weekend’s activities? According to Lueck, “glamorous things” like cutting cocklebur, barn repair, and mowing tree lines.
Lawdragon: When did you decide to become a lawyer?
Martin Lueck: Growing up, I wanted to be something different every week – from a fireman to a cell scientist. I liked science. I had a chemistry lab, and built model rockets. I caught bugs and studied them under my microscope. In high school I thought I would study physics or chemistry, but I also liked practical technical problems like working on machines with tools. I was a little worried about myself because I never could figure out what I wanted to be.
LD: How did law school come about then?
ML: After graduation as a music major from Winona State, I lived on a farm and took business classes at University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse. I also taught music in southeastern Minnesota schools. I went into teaching because I was toying with a career in music. I found out I wasn’t a very good teacher, and I couldn’t make a living playing music.
A principal I worked for had a PhD in literature. He had an outstanding literature collection, which he shared with me. We had spirited discussions about some of the great works of fiction, which eventually led to his suggestion that I go to law school. I don’t think he saw my future in teaching either.
LD: How did you come to join Robins Kaplan?
ML: In law school the American Trial Lawyers Association, now the American Association for Justice, sponsored a trial competition. My team won the Midwest regional competition in Olathe, Kansas. While we were preparing for the finals, our trial coach was also leading one of the first-ever National Institute for Trial Advocacy Training in-house programs for the Robins firm. He asked if I’d like to come over and demonstrate my closing argument for the Robins partners.
I financed law school going to school at night, and working during the day in a small law firm. I worked straight through the summers and graduated in 3 ½ years. Robins Kaplan represented the opportunity I was looking for; and I made the most of it. Still, I literally had to prove myself at the end of the winter clerkship to get a job. And here I am 33 years later still proving myself every day.
The competition was highly significant in another aspect. It was there that I met my wife Mallory who has been my source of strength and motivation and joy ever since.
LD: Tell me a bit about you growing up.
ML: I grew up in Roseville, a suburb of St. Paul. My father often appeared before the Legislature introducing bills related to public safety. He used to take me to watch night court in my formative years – real court, not the TV show. Looking back, the path to becoming an attorney may have been planted subtly growing up. He had been a navy pilot and aircraft mechanic, so when I was young I was more interested in tinkering with motors and building model rockets than preparing for a career in law. My mother was a homemaker, who grew up in a rural Minnesota family. I inherited a love of cooking from her. I think I was 17 and out of the house before I ate a noodle that wasn’t homemade.
My parents insisted I play the violin in 5th grade. I hated it and I was horrible and, accordingly, the orchestra director asked me to quit after a half year. The next year, I decided to try the trumpet, and I’ve had a love affair with the trumpet ever since.
LD: How else did you pursue your interest in music in and after college?
ML: At that time the largest music publisher in the world was based in Winona, where I went to college, the Hal Leonard Company. They had the contract to publish charts for Count Basie and Woody Herman. Basie, Herman and other great big bands came through Winona frequently giving us the opportunity to jam occasionally with some great musicians.
I still love jazz. I have also been hooked on the Minnesota Orchestra since my dad took me to hear them when I was about 12. Currently, I’m chair of the Finance Committee for the Orchestra and Treasurer of the Minnesota Orchestral Association. Very rewarding. It is a world class orchestra.
LD: Let’s talk a little about your career as a trial lawyer and how that came about. What attracted you to trial work?
ML: The story, the persuasion, and the verbal combat. My father was a great storyteller.
Effective trial advocacy begins and ends with telling a compelling story that reaches people of different backgrounds, attitudes, points of view, and leads them to be advocates for your position when they go into jury deliberation.
I have found that telling a powerful story releases a great passion in me. As a result, being a trial lawyer seems like the most natural thing in the world.
LD: Do you remember your first trial?
ML: My first solo trial was a personal injury case in St. Paul, in state court my second year out of law school. I defended a woman who was an engineer for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
The case involved an incident that happened during a band trip while my client was still in high school. She and the plaintiff, another young woman, were together in their room when they heard a knock at the door. My client opened the door and one of the band members threw a wastebasket full of brackish pool water in her face. She fell back on the bed, hitting the plaintiff, who in turn fell and struck her head.
We believed the plaintiff was greatly exaggerating her injuries. After a 3-day trial, we won a well-deserved defense verdict.
LD: What outside of the firm has taught you about advocacy?
ML: Gerry Spence’s “Gunning for Justice” was an eye opener. He was relentless and unapologetic in championing his clients. He always told a powerful story in the courtroom.
Life itself is a great teacher. I grew up in an environment of respect for self and for others. That translates to courtroom advocacy. You must let the jury know that you respect their collective wisdom and you trust putting your client’s cause in their hands.
Teddy Roosevelt said the credit belongs to the man in the arena stained with sweat. That’s so true about trial lawyers. We don’t get to choose what cases go to trial, what rulings judges make about how evidence is presented. What we do choose to do is put it all out there as trial lawyers. Sometimes it can leave some scar tissue. It makes you that much stronger the next time.
LD: Of your numerous significant verdicts and settlements, can you tell me about three of your favorite and why?
ML: There was the Unocal trial in 1997, which was closely watched by the oil industry. [Robins Kaplan won a $91 million judgment after a jury verdict for Unocal in a patent infringement action regarding its patent on gasoline fuel]. Mike Ciresi and I tried it against John Keker and other wonderful lawyers on the other side. We had a great trial judge in Kim Wardlaw. The caliber of lawyering on both sides was extraordinary.
The other one that will always be a favorite was a trial against Microsoft in Chicago, which I tried with my partners Munir Meghjee and Richard Martinez. Judge James Zagel presided. We represented Eolas and the University of California Regents against Microsoft [claiming its Internet Explorer improperly infringed an Eolas patent]. The expertise of all of the witnesses was extraordinary – and I’d say my finest direct examination was of Ed Felton, Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University.
We did seven live experiments in the courtroom. We did everything from teaching the jury how to write computer code to building a website. I think we had the first live Internet HD IP address in the courtroom and we created a webpage in the courtroom, and put it out on a server on the Web and downloaded the page.
We bought computers off EBay from the era in which the work had been done and returned them to their prior art state, so we could show how the technology actually worked. We used a Smartboard to summarize Dr. Felton’s testimony. When we were done with the examination, we put the Smartboard back on a truck to Minnesota. The next day, Microsoft asked to borrow it and I told them it was somewhere north of Beloit.
LD: Any other cases come to mind that highlight the importance of story to a successful case?
ML: One other direct stands out in my mind, of Norm Stauffer of Honeywell, the father of direct-focus technology. Doing a direct exam of him was like driving a Ferrari in the courtroom. The case was Honeywell v. JVC over autofocus in video cameras. My partner Matt Woods and I tried it in St. Paul, and got a jury verdict of $30,041,191, which was down to the penny what we asked.
Stauffer’s story was classic. One of failure after failure. He did a demonstration with a Lucite block filled with water he had built. When he was able to show the jury how autofocus worked – at the moment the object came into focus – he looked at the jury with a sparkle in his eye and said “See! It’s like magic!” As trials go, it was pretty easy after that.
LD: How do you manage running the firm and your trial work?
ML: It’s been rewarding to have this dual career as both a trial lawyer and a business leader. I am fortunate to practice with partners whose own great skill and success allows me to do both. The people I practice law with, especially of my generation, are so highly focused on building this organization for the future and continuing all of the great traditions of this firm. It is an organization committed to the notion of doing good while doing well.
LD: How does the Robins Kaplan of today resemble the firm you joined?
ML: I reflect on that often. The firm that I joined was full of high-energy, high-stakes, very sophisticated, excellent trial lawyers who were capable across a broad range of types of cases and issues. And it is the same today. If you go back to before I joined in 1984, you had Solly Robins, who created much of the emerging law in Minnesota and the Midwest around torts and business litigation. He was a truly marvelous trial lawyer in his age and he had a lot of disciples.
I look at the lawyers I learned my litigation and trial skills from, and I see how they were tied to what they learned from Solly. And, I apply much of his approach as a result. We remain committed to making sure our young people grow as trial lawyers in the same tradition.
And then there’s the spirit of our people. People ask, “What’s it like herding cats?”
I don’t herd cats, I herd lions. Every single one of our lawyers wants to eat first, eat the most, and take a swipe once in awhile at the lion next to them. That’s what it was like when I joined, too. We are unrelenting competitors for our clients and their causes.
When you have Robins Kaplan on the other side, you know we are going to do everything we can to press our cause forward, and you’re going to get scratched up a bit.
LD: It’s remarkable how the firm has elevated its national reputation for litigation while maintaining a core group of strong values – especially in the current law firm environment.
ML: As I look back, we have maintained the core practices of the firm that were here when I joined in as pillars in organization. The fact we represent everyone from individuals all the way to some of America’s largest corporate institutions brings a unique perspective to our lawyers. Apart from that, it’s tremendously rewarding to be able to participate at all levels of our society and economic structure; it brings a unique richness to the practice of law in our firm.
As we represent all segments of society, our partners’ meetings are naturally an eclectic mix of business, patent, insurance litigation and the like. But it is the stories and struggles of injured individuals for whom we have secured justice that remind us of what is important in life and refreshes our humanity.
The culture of the firm allows one to indulge yourself in so many different aspects of trial and litigation law that it’s truly, fascinating and challenging. I feel like as a lawyer I’ve had the opportunity to remake myself many times over. It goes all the way back to that kid who couldn’t decide whether to be a fireman or a scientist. As a trial lawyer I get to do it all, see the world and the way it works through representation of the clients we serve and the journey we take together.