Lawyer Limelight: Sanford Michelman

Sanford Michelman is one of several lawyers Lawdragon has interviewed in the past year who can not only tout a busy practice but also the accomplishment of having built and expanded his own law firm. Last year, Michelman stepped down as managing partner of the Encino-based Michelman & Robinson after serving in the role for the first 10 years of the firm's existence. The firm, which has offices in New York and New Jersey in addition to the four California offices, also has added lawyers during the economic downturn instead of laying them off.

Lawdragon: What legal matters are keeping you busy these days?

Sanford Michelman: My practice is commercial and business litigation and regulatory. These days, I am very busy with shareholder litigation, partnership disputes, consumer class actions, and enforcement actions. It may be a sign of the times.

LD: How did you come to focus on litigation and regulatory work?

SM: The regulatory work was a function of my first job as a lawyer. The litigation was not what I thought I would do. I was doing corporate transactional and regulatory and was asked to get involved in litigation. I took to it quickly and loved it. I have since made it my focus.

LD: Is there a case early in your career that stands out in terms helping to build your reputation or establish you in the field?

SM: Yes, the Survival Insurance enforcement action filed by the California Department of Insurance to revoke its license. In the industry it was a high profile matter. We resolved the case in our client's favor, and it had a significant impact on my practice. Following that case, I handled five more of a similar type, as a direct result of the Survival case. I am pleased to say I prevailed on all of them.

LD: Can you talk a little bit about what led you to start your own firm?

SM: I was a partner in another firm. It was a small firm. I found it to be a good working experience; however, I desired more of a social environment. I believe that most lawyers work hard. Clients want us to and we have to in order to be successful. However, we spend a lot of time in the work environment, so, for me, it must be a place that is also fun to be at, given how much time we spend there.

As such, Mark Robinson and I decided to start the firm with the game plan, so to speak, of seeking to make the work environment fun, social, and exciting. We have kept to our roots, and have created such an environment. So, what led me to start the firm is the desire to have more fun while working, and I believe we are accomplishing that on a daily basis.

LD: What were some of the biggest challenges of the early days?

SM: Finding the extra few hours a day. We have been fortunate in that we were able to have very talented lawyers join us early on and support from our clients. We never really faced any significant challenges, other than maintaining the quality of our work.

LD: What advice would you give lawyers interested in doing the same?

SM: Make sure it is something you really want to do. It is a tug of war between being a practicing lawyer and operating a business. It requires tremendous hours, patience, and a long view towards where you want the firm to go. Finally, I would say that with every hire, make sure it is a cultural fit - don't chase business originators in any way that may sacrifice your culture. Define your culture and make that you do not deviate from it.

LD: What has been key in having the firm succeed in recent years during the downturn economy?

SM: The downturn in the economy led many firms to shave off expenses without really looking at the long-term impact. We were fortunate in that we grew during this period. The key to the growth was our forecasting in 2005 and 2006 that the economy was going to turn. We began to look at our practice areas and analyze what the work would look like in a bad economy. We then started to focus on those areas. I don't think it was a big decision, but rather one we saw earlier than some.

LD: What led you to step down as managing partner last year, and what is your present leadership role in the firm?

SM: I believe the early success of the firm was the vision, passion, and drive I had to create a fun and exciting place to work. With the firm being new, I was able to test new ideas and keep it fresh, so to speak. After a decade, the ideas may not be as fresh. As such, when we started the firm, I stated that the MP position should not last for more than 10 years. It is a two, five-year term position. This way, the firm can always be experimenting with new and exciting ideas to stay with our "fun" and "work hard - play hard" roots.

My role now is the Chair of our executive committee. I look more towards the future of the firm many years down the road, than the daily operations. We are fortunate to have Dana Kravetz as our new MP. He has tremendous energy and terrific ideas about how to improve the firm that I probably would have never came up with.

LD: What is the firm's long-term strategy for growth?

SM: Our growth model is not driven by head count. It is driven by making sure we can provide the services to our clients that are in demand. Our current growth is to round out some departments that our clients are asking for more services in, such as taxation. Beyond that, it is to hire in response to client demand. We are not trying to be a certain size.