Lawyer Limelight: Michael Ciresi
Photo by Hugh Williams

By Victoria Hughes

Michael Ciresi, one of the most acclaimed trial lawyers of his generation, continues to rack up massive verdicts and settlements. In November 2013, the perennial Lawdragon 500 member and University of Minnesota Law School graduate secured a $2.7 billion arbitration ruling for client Kraft Foods Group/Mondelez International Inc. against Starbucks Coffee Co. over the coffee-maker’s early termination of an agreement giving Kraft/Mondelez the right to sell and distribute Starbucks products.

The Minneapolis-based Ciresi is a name partner at the powerhouse litigation firm Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi. Among his many high-profile cases, Ciresi represented Minnesota in its $7-billion settlement with the tobacco industry in 1998. As he has continued his success in the courtroom, Ciresi has also devoted much of his time to charitable work.

Lawdragon:  What led you to take on the Kraft/Mondelez case?

Michael Ciresi: General Counsel for Kraft/Mondelez considered three lawyers for the assignment and I was one of them. The case presented complex and fascinating legal and economic issues and I was very intrigued by it. I interviewed together with the other two lawyers and was chosen by Kraft/Mondelez for the assignment.

LD: With Kraft/Mondelez once a part of PMI (Philip Morris International), an entity you have litigated against, was it a surprise to get a phone call inquiring about your interest in leading their case against Starbucks?

MC: During the course of the tobacco litigation, I developed a respectful, professional relationship with Marc Firestone, who was in-house counsel for Philip Morris. When he and Gerd Pleuhs contacted me for possible representation, I considered it a compliment and a reflection of the respectful relationship we had established as adversaries while Marc had been at PMI.

LD: What about this particular case made it a complex one to lead?

MC: The complexity arose from the extended factual narrative, which bore upon the relationship between Kraft and Starbucks and the unique valuation issues arising from the Supply and License Agreement between Kraft/Mondelez and Starbucks.

LD: You’ve cemented your place as one of the nation’s finest lawyers by taking on big cases such as The Government of India v. Union Carbide and the State of Minnesota’s fight against Philip Morris Inc., all of which had monumental rulings. When beginning cases such as these, do you have any initial understanding of how big the final outcome could really be?

MC: One of the things we look to, in considering a representation, is the degree of difficulty of the case and the magnitude of the issues at stake. The magnitude of the issue can either be monetary or a principle that needs to be litigated. In that context, we always know that when we’re involved, the stakes will be significant, monetary or otherwise. I am privileged to work with an extraordinarily talented and dedicated team, which enables us to take on these types of high-stakes litigation.

LD: In addition to business litigation, you are known for your mass-tort cases, such as the Dalkon Shield litigation, which saw women using this form of contraception left with fertility issues. Are cases like this harder to work on due to the emotional and life-changing experiences your clients have had?

MC: I think the simple answer to that would be yes, but the process of handling them is more complex. I have always taken on cases which, because of their nature, you could not help but be emotionally involved. However, it is critical to the objective handling of these matters to control that emotion within proper channels. You really have to dedicate yourself to making sure that the cause does not become personal, such that your judgment and objectivity would be compromised.

LD: You were quoted in The American Lawyer as saying the history of your firm is that you would “take cases for all segments of society, so long as the cause was just.” How do you or the firm define what is a just cause when looking at potential cases?

MC: Our firm was founded by two Jewish lawyers in Minneapolis in 1938. At the time, Minneapolis had pronounced anti-Semitism and although the founding partners graduated at the top of their class, they were unable to obtain employment in top-level law firms. As a result, they started their own firm on the bedrock principle that we would represent all segments of society, regardless of wealth, race, creed or whether plaintiff or defendant. We have always believed the purpose of a trial lawyer is to provide a level playing field for all parties. That principle is in the firm’s DNA and it guides us in selecting cases with a willingness to share the risk with our clients.

As a result, we have a history of carefully selecting causes, many of which have been rejected by others, and seeing them through to a successful conclusion. We are known for our willingness to try cases. We staff those cases with small teams of lawyers, each one of whom is required to know all aspects of a case. It is that approach which allows us to economically achieve justice on behalf of our clients. The approach also attracts the type of entrepreneurial lawyer who understands that the ultimate responsibility of a trial lawyer is to serve the cause of justice above all other causes.

LD: In 2000, you embarked upon a political career when you made a bid for the U.S. Senate as a candidate of the Minnesota Democratic party (officially the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party). What was it like stepping into this new arena where the case you were arguing was, in fact, yourself and your ideas – was this intimidating or easy, thanks to your courtroom experiences? What did you take away from your political experience?

MC: The political process was not intimidating, but rather invigorating and a growth experience.  Discussing the issues, which affect all of us, with your fellow citizens is a tremendous experience. The skills that I learned and developed as a trial lawyer served me well, albeit not well enough to get elected. However, as I have told anyone who asked, it was an experience that I will never regret and I wish that all of our citizens could experience. You quickly realize that you can learn from everyone you meet and that no one has the ultimate truth.

LD: You’re a strong supporter of children’s rights to a good education. You’re on the board for Minnesota Early Learning Foundation; the MinnCAN (Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now) organization; and Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi Foundation for Children, to which the firm recently made a $5 million donation. What inspired you to support causes such as these?

MC: Our children are our mirror to the past and our hope for the future. It is absolutely essential that we educate all of our children so that they have the ability and opportunity to reach the full measure of their potential. America does not provide equal results. What it must do, to be true to the Constitution and the principles upon which our nation was founded, is to ensure that all have the opportunity to succeed. Critical to this is the education of our populous.  I firmly believe that the opportunity for equal education is the civil rights issue of our time.

LD: Your career spans more than forty years. After all this time and success, what is it that continues to drive you?

MC: The primary motivation for me is the injustice and the unequal playing field that I see in our courtrooms. Our system of justice must constantly rededicate itself to the principle of real equal access to our courts. We, too often, see disproportionate advantage bestowed upon those who have greater resources. The vigilance necessary to continuously strive for equal access is required of both the bench and the bar. I truly love the practice of trial law because a jury trial is, I believe, the purist form of democracy.