Michael Baum, the senior managing partner and president of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, built his firm to reflect a simple premise, immortalized by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
His work in personal injury and other civil plaintiff actions does just that: He and his teams have exposed serious health hazards to consumers, including pesticides in litigation against Monsanto and suicidal risks of certain antidepressants. His wins have brought relief for clients and protected against future injuries, and his advocacy has influenced public policy, at home and abroad.
A member of Lawdragon's 500 Leading Plaintiff Consumer Lawyers, Baum has helped his firm build a portfolio that ranges from aircraft, truck, bus and train crashes to whistleblower cases.
Lawdragon: What first drew you to this type of practice, focused on helping consumers and individuals?
Michael Baum: I preferred holding wrongdoers accountable over billing. That gave us the opportunity to make a difference in general public safety and medical science integrity while helping our injured clients.
LD: After 30-plus years, what keeps you engaged and excited about the work?
MB: I like working with world-class experts and co-counsel to find out what actually happened – what are the scientific bases for our clients’ conditions – then compiling the internal documents that show the improper steps companies have taken to suppress or cover up those mechanisms and making the documents and expert analyses publicly available to show the world what actually happened. That’s all exciting. Seeing that our clients’ rights are vindicated and that steps are taken to prevent the wrongdoing from happening again – that’s what fuels us.
LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve handled?
MB: Tough call. Maybe just because of recency bias, I would say the Monsanto Roundup-induced non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma trials that led to three large verdicts and widespread publication of the actual science and the efforts Monsanto has taken to suppress the actual science. It was particularly gratifying to see that our work to declassify documents, publish expert analyses and, of course, earn big verdicts had a huge impact on pesticide and scientific regulation around the world, especially in Europe. Unfortunately, the present U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], as shown by the documents we declassified, is still acting like an agency captured by the companies it is supposed to be regulating. But in the end, I believe the truth will win out.
LD: That’s incredible. Can you talk a bit about the challenges you were up against, taking on such a massive and politically powerful corporation?
MB: Monsanto waged a massive PR attack against our experts, our cases and our law firms. They used ghostwritten articles, created faux websites, engaged in deceptive litigation and legislation techniques, manipulated the EPA to alter study results by not counting tumors by their established guidelines. That battle is ongoing, but declassifying their PR battleplans and the emails showing the manipulation of scientific journals, EPA and legislators has helped fend off much of that attack.
We also had the benefit of having courageous world class experts prepared to stand their ground against the personal and professional attacks levied against them by Monsanto as part of their “Whack-a-Mole,” “Let Nothing Go” and “Freedom to Operate” programs to suppress independent science.
LD: All of this must have been tough on the clients.
MB: It is hard on the clients suffering from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma to have accountability dragged out and to continually have to deal with Monsanto’s misinformation campaign, despite having lost three high-profile trials. Again, I think getting the real story, with the underlying documents and expert testimony, has made a difference.
LD: Do you have a takeaway or lesson from this case?
MB: Get good protective orders that provide for a declassification protocol and use the internal documents and actual science to support your experts.
LD: Given the nature of your work, is that something you’re up against a lot, the tension between science and corporations’ drive for profits?
MB: Absolutely. The propensity for large corporations to manipulate scientific results, pressure academics and scientists that expose the manipulation, use political muscle to attack legitimate, independent science like the International Agency for Research on Cancer [IARC], and set up ghostwritten reporting and “scientific” papers promulgated by paid supposedly independent opinion leaders and faux websites – that all keeps us busy. Regulatory capture, as well as pharma/chemical industry dollars controlling reporting of science and medical harms in the media, poses a very serious risk to overall public health. Institutions like IARC and the U.S. legal system’s discovery rules are among the few things preventing corporate spin completely taking over science as we used to know it.
LD: I’m glad we have people like you fighting to get the truth heard. Switching gears a bit, I’d love to hear how you got into the law.
MB: Some of my inner circle of friends that played softball, tennis and cards together suggested we go to law school and make a firm together – which is what we did.
LD: I love that! And is this the type of practice you imagined you’d have?
LD: Amazing. What did you major in for undergrad? And did it have an effect on your legal career?
MB: I was an English major, so we had to read closely and explicate poems, plays and stories with supporting excerpts, a discipline that closely parallels analyzing cases and statutes. That training to write clearly made a lot of difference in what I have been able to do as a lawyer.
LD: Is there a specific reason why you chose your law school over another law school?
MB: UCLA had a great reputation and ranking, it was near where I preferred to live and the campus felt like home from the first time I stepped on the quad’s grass.
LD: Do you have any advice for current law school students?
MB: Think about how having a license to practice law can make a difference in the world, how it can level the playing field and play a part in overall health and safety.
LD: How has your practice changed since those early days?
MB: We have grown from local to national to international impact, standing up to bigger and more sophisticated defendants along the way.
LD: Can you share a lawyer you have come up against in a negotiation or case that you admire, and why?
MB: Sam Griffin, formerly of King Spalding – he staunchly defended GlaxoSmithKline Plc, or GSK, against our Paxil suicidal behavior cases in depositions and negotiations but was intellectually honest enough to recognize the science we had that supported our cases. He would discuss the real weaknesses of a position or a client’s case. Sam showed some of the most integrity that I have ever seen in someone representing a major corporation.
LD: Is there a matter or client in your career that stands out as a “favorite” or one that is particularly memorable?
MB: Some of my clients, like Kim Witczak and Wendy Dolin, whose husbands died from antidepressant-induced suicidal behavior, have picked up the documents we declassified and have become activists to lobby and educate legislators, opinion leaders and physicians, as well as the public in general, about antidepressants’ hidden suicidal behavior risks to help prevent others going through what they and their husbands went through. They are inspiring.
LD: How would you describe your firm to a potential recruit?
MB: We really work hard to focus on our clients’ needs and interests, while finding and exposing what really caused the harm they suffered.
LD: How has firm management changed since the start of your career?
MB: Lawsuit advertising and financing has been a game changer.
LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?
MB: Live music in small venues and boogie boarding on weekends.
LD: Are you involved in any public interest activities?
MB: I help academics with getting ghostwritten journal articles, and the editing decisions that tolerated them, exposed.
LD: Do you have a favorite book or movie about the justice system?
MB: “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Still gives me chills.
LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now?
MB: Writing stories about ethical, political and metaphysical dilemmas.