When it comes to seeking justice, renowned litigator Michael Ciresi constantly pushes past expectations. He did so just six years ago when, after more than 40 years at highly regarded Minneapolis firm Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, he left to build a small firm where he could focus more purely on his clients’ cases. Ciresi Conlin LLP is devoted to a diverse litigation practice representing both plaintiffs and defendants in large, high-stakes trials.
In his illustrious career representing clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to major nonprofits and even the Government of India, Ciresi has built a reputation for passionately advocating for his clients in trial – and winning. Ciresi showed long ago that he was unintimidated by massive cases: In 1998, he represented the state of Minnesota in a tobacco litigation that garnered a $7B settlement.
Nearly $12B in verdicts, awards and settlements later, Ciresi’s track record has continued to build. With millions of dollars and hundreds of hours of service invested in charitable organizations, Ciresi also demonstrates what it means to fight for justice outside of the courtroom.
Lawdragon: I'd love to talk about the founding of your firm. Why did you decide to branch out and start your own firm after your long career at Robins Kaplan?
Michael Ciresi: You mean, why would a named partner who had spent 44 years in one place get up all of a sudden, at his ripe old age of 68, and go off somewhere else?
LD: Yes, that's exactly what I mean.
MC: Well, I realized I really wanted to spend all my time on the practice of law rather than being involved in the non-practice aspect of a larger firm. I stepped down as chair, but my name was still on the door. I was constantly involved in issues related to the operation of the firm itself.
So, I wanted to get out and get back to the true, unvarnished practice of law. I wanted to work with other law firms more than we had in the past, because with a smaller firm we wouldn’t have the same conflicts. And I saw the law changing, particularly with respect to transitioning to the digital age.
When I started, and all the way through up to around the year 2000, firms grew, particularly in litigation. They grew because you needed a lot of lawyers reviewing documents, et cetera, working on the discovery aspect of law. Today, with artificial intelligence, those firms have been hollowed out because those jobs are not as necessary as they were in the past. Now, you can go through millions of documents in short order. It used to be that lawyers were spending a lot of time going through them laboriously, document by document. We went through 33 million documents in the tobacco litigation at our old firm. Today, we could have gone through those documents in hours with an algorithm as to what we were looking for.
So, the practice itself is changing dramatically. In response, our firm focuses on the lawyers who are true trial lawyers, which is what I’ve always done.
LD: So interesting. So, now, with this new firm, are you having to handle any operational aspects?
MC: No, ma'am. Katie Crosby Lehmann is our managing partner, so she, unfortunately, is burdened with the operational tasks, along with being a trial lawyer.
LD: Right. So, tell me what kind of cases you've been working on since you moved over.
MC: Well, it runs the gambit, obviously. On the pro bono side, we had the White Bear Lake Restoration Association v. the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. That dealt with a very famous lake here in Minnesota, White Bear Lake, which is just north of the Twin Cities. Essentially, they're draining the water out of the lake. They're granting permits to all the municipalities without an overall assessment of what impact that is having on the aquifers, so the lake went down dramatically. We took them to trial, and our verdict was affirmed.
Another case is the State of Alaska v. Williams Alaska Petroleum, Inc. Two of my partners were trial counsel against the former operator of a refinery concerning statutory and contractual liability related to groundwater contamination, in, of all places, the city of North Pole, Alaska. There was a multi-week trial up there and we got a judgment in favor of the client. The judgment found the former operator responsible to pay for over $80M in past damages and future liability for PFAS costs related to contamination at the North Pole refinery site. That was a big case. That's on appeal right now to the Alaska Supreme Court.
MC: And then, our medical malpractice team is phenomenal. It's the best in the state. We’ve had a number of very large, multi-million-dollar settlements and verdicts since we've been here. Kathleen Flynn Peterson and Brandon Thompson head that up, and they are just extraordinary malpractice lawyers.
We also do a lot of corporate litigation. So, it's a very varied practice, but 100 percent litigation.
LD: Okay, great. And, in all those varied litigations, what would you say your style is as a trial lawyer?
MC: Preparation, preparation, preparation. I believe that you have to be the most prepared in the courtroom, and that enables you to cross-examine effectively. If I had to say what's led to our success, it's preparation with a strategic approach angled toward looking at documents and seeing things that other people don't see.
If you use your creativity and imagination, you're able to piece documents together to reconstruct what actually took place. Keep in mind that, when showing evidence, trial lawyers are constantly recreating history. You're putting on a production of events that took place sometime in the past, and you have to have a sense as to why those events took place. I think that's the key to trial work.
LD: You’ve linked trials and film production a couple of times. Are you using more media in the courtroom these days?
MC: Absolutely. We were the first ones in the nation to bring computers into the courtroom during litigation for multimedia presentations of evidence, going back to the Minolta Camera litigation in 1991-92.
The use of media is extremely important – particularly today, as you have changing demographics in younger jurors. A lot of them, that's what they grew up with. And, the more senses you can appeal to in a case, the better off you are. In other words, if you can see something, hear something, smell something or touch something, it makes more of an impact on you. And, keep in mind, throughout the course of a trial, people have varying attention spans.
MC: You have to make sure that you're keeping each one of those jurors attentive for the longest possible time during your presentation. The way to do that is to appeal to a variety of senses, in a variety of different ways.
And so, the trial of a case is, in fact, a production. It's a lot like a movie when you think about it. You've got a director, you've got a producer, you've got the actors, you're creating an environment. All of that is essential.
LD: I really like that description. Now, you say cross-examination is a particular strength area for you. Do you feel like you picked up those skills from anyone in particular?
MC: Well, I think you might have to have an innate ability to do things like that. You need to see things that other people don't see. Maybe it's a product of my upbringing; I don't know. I have a very fertile imagination. I look at something and I start looking at it from all sides, even the ones that aren't immediately apparent.
That's very important in cross-examination. There have been many cases where I've said to somebody in cross-examination, "And then, in fact, you did this. Didn't you, sir?" And they look at you like, "How did he know that?" There's no document on it. He hadn't testified to it before. But it just made sense when you look at all the other factors surrounding the event. And then you're off and rolling because you’ve got them on the string after that. And, if they say, "No," because of the way you've set it up, they're going to look like they're lying. So, that's part of the strategy. I love cross-examination.
LD: I can tell. That’s so exciting. You said, "Maybe it has to do with my upbringing." If I can ask, where did you grow up?
MC: Born, bred and educated in St. Paul, Minnesota. My dad’s parents came from Sicily, but he was born here. He only had a seventh-grade education – he worked from then on, selling fruits and vegetables. He went to a small fruit stand, and then a grocery store, and then a smaller liquor store. I worked with him in the store from the time I was six years old.
My mother died of breast cancer when I was 12, so we were required to get out to the store and help with the work. As a result, I was exposed to all kinds of people.
I think that’s the background that I'm talking about with my upbringing. It was so enriching to see such a diverse group of people, and I learned a lot about them at a young age. I think that has a lot to do with who I am today.
LD: Wow, absolutely. And then, finally, I'd love to hear a little bit about your very active community involvement.
MC: Right. Our philanthropic work is primarily in education and with the children's hospital, where I’ve been on the board since about 2009.
We started a charitable foundation after the tobacco case at the old firm. We funded it over three years with $30M from the proceeds of that case.
It was always independent of the firm, so when I left the firm, the foundation came with me. Roberta Walburn was the co-creator of the tobacco litigation with me at that firm – she’s another unbelievable lawyer and a very dear friend. We changed the name of the foundation to the Ciresi Walburn Foundation a few years ago.
That foundation has given out about $26M in grants since its inception. Most of those grants have been in the education field, because we have a tremendous disparity in quality of education between children of color and white kids in Minnesota, which is tragic because we have a very good school system otherwise.
LD: So, the organization particularly focuses on aiding disadvantaged children?
MC: It's dedicated to where the disparities are. So, we're really looking at creating systemic change to make sure that there's more, for example, teachers of color in classrooms so that the programs are more culturally attuned to the kids and educated in where the kids are coming from, so they can meet them on their territory. We distribute about $2M in grants per year at the present time.
LD: Oh, that's excellent.
MC: Education is the key. You have to educate all of our children. That elevates everybody. And we like to say that all children are our children.
LD: That’s wonderful. Where does your love of education come from?
MC: The value of education was pounded into me by my dad. Just a guy who had a seventh-grade education, but he never saw a bond issue he didn't love. He supported education across the board because he had such a fervent belief in its power to elevate people. That's what he wanted for his kids, and he instilled in us that's what we should want for all of our children.
LD: Oh, that’s beautiful. And it sounds like it’s gotten you far.