Legends Limelight: Ronald J. Schutz

Born and raised on a dairy farm in Southern Minnesota, Robins Kaplan Chairman Ron Schutz has an easy Midwestern charm that belies an aggressive courtroom style, bold leadership and an unending hustle.

Equally at home at the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan and sitting in a duck blind in the backwoods of Mississippi, Schutz is an adaptable trial lawyer who knows how to connect with judges and juries alike, no matter what jurisdiction he’s in. 

Schutz has put equal amounts of energy into charity work and leadership roles alongside several decades of stunning wins in complex commercial cases – all while finding time on the side to scale literal mountains, including Mount Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu and Everest Base Camp.

Schutz had aspirations from a young age of being a lawyer, even though there were no lawyers in his family. “I just knew I wanted to be in a courtroom,” he says. Equally attracted to logic, strategy and leadership, Schutz built a foundation for his career with a markedly wide breadth, pursuing engineering and serving in the army all with an eye to the law.

A Fellow of the elite American College of Trial Lawyers and a Lawdragon Legend, Schutz has practiced at Robins Kaplan for over 35 years. He is currently Chair of the firm’s Executive Board.

Schutz started his legal career with the U.S. Army JAG Corps doing criminal trial work for four years, serving as both defense counsel and prosecutor. He tried 20 felony-level jury court-martials during that time, securing a murder acquittal and several rape convictions.

Prior to law school and military service, Schutz earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering, which has come in handy during several high-stakes cases in his career that have centered around intellectual property and technology.

Schutz’s background in engineering and aptitude for math and science made him well-suited for the explosive growth of IP litigation that started in the 1990s. He secured tens of millions of dollars in recoveries in separate actions against Sony, Fuji and Canon over digital camera technology patent infringements. He even won a patent infringement case against Apple in 2011 over technology used in their iPods.

Taking Down A Titan

Schutz first made a name for himself as an adept and fearless lawyer in a patent infringement case involving MRI technology against General Electric, at the height of the company’s grandeur. The case was in federal court in the Eastern District of New York, before Judge Leonard Wexler.

The result is one for the history books: “We waxed them."

Schutz represented Fonar, a company that produced commercial MRI scanners, and Fonar’s founder, Dr. Raymond Damadian. Damadian owned the first patent on an MRI machine in the U.S. and is credited with inventing the first MR (Magnetic Resonance) scanning machine which led to the technology behind the MRIs used today.

This case was contentious and very closely watched, in large part because GE was one of the largest corporations in the world at the time, run by the widely respected CEO Jack Welch. The company spared no expense with their legal team, which were all strategically chosen.

One of GE’s attorneys, Doug Wyatt, “was chair of the ABA committee on patent litigation, and a big name patent litigator in New York,” says Schutz. “Then there was John Bracken chairman of the Nassau County Republican Party and a good friend of the judge who had helped him get appointed to the bench.

“Then a month before trial, a new lawyer, Tim Quinn showed up. He was very happy to tell me that GE hired him because he had tried and won the most cases before Judge Wexler.”

With GE pulling out all the stops, Schutz and his partner and best friend at the time, Martin Lueck, rolled up their sleeves and dug in. They were both in their 30s, trusting their guts that this case was a winner. To up the ante further, the case was on a contingency fee basis.

The result is one for the history books. “We waxed them,” says Schutz. They won the case at trial for $113M, a stunning result in the IP space in 1997. Welch was not pleased: Following the win, “everybody at GE who’d been associated with the case was gone within a year,” says Schutz. GE filed an appeal, bringing in new legal counsel, Donald Dunner, a legend in the patent law world who helped birth the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals and Carter G. Phillips of Sidley and Austin, one of the premier Supreme Court practitioners at the time

During the appellate process, Schutz and his team sat down with Welch to discuss options. “It was an interesting meeting,” says Schutz. “We met for an hour in Jack Welch’s private conference room at 30 Rock. He wanted to settle and offered us $85M. We said, no thank you.”

The calm and understated Minnesota mindset wins again: The case was affirmed on appeal, and the final verdict of $110M was cited at the time as the largest patent jury verdict ever to be upheld on appeal. With pre- and post-judgment interest, GE wrote a check for $128M.

Respect is Earned, Loyalty is Proven

Schutz’s first legal mentor was Major Tim Court, his boss in the military. “I was a hyper aggressive, young lawyer and I stepped on some toes,” says Schutz. Court intervened on his behalf and took the time to counsel Schutz on decorum and respect for his superiors.

By the time Schutz landed at Robins Kaplan (at the time, Robins, Zelle, Larson & Kaplan) a few years later, these newly formed virtues were tested again when two name partners, Larry Zelle and Dale Larson, left the firm – and wanted him to join them.

Schutz had thus far been working under the wing of Dale Larson on environmental insurance cases stemming from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, commonly known as the Superfund law.

We met for an hour in Jack Welch’s private conference room at 30 Rock. He wanted to settle and offered us $85M. We said, no thank you.

The purpose of the law was to assign liability and force the cleanup of hazardous waste sites. When Schutz was an associate, “it was the height of insurance litigation between insurance companies and their policy holders over coverage for polluting events,” he says.

But when Larson announced he was leaving the firm, Schutz found himself at a major turning point in his budding career.

It was July 4th weekend, and he was back at his parent’s farm, out driving a tractor, when the call came in. “Twelve partners and 15 associates had left the firm to start a new one, and they wanted me and a handful of other associates to join them,” recalls Schutz. They were offering immediate partnership and a doubling of their salaries.

“It was not easy,” he says, “but the five of us conferred and made the decision to stay.” Then they immediately jumped in with retention efforts. “We said to the chairman at the time, Elliot Kaplan, how can we help?” They made calls across the firm, and quickly stemmed the outgoing flow: Very few lawyers left after that.

His loyalty and dedication – along with his consistently outstanding trial results – were never forgotten by the leadership of the firm.

But that did not stop his hustle – not by a long shot.

Much of the Superfund work that Schutz had been working on as an associate had left along with Larson. Shortly after the exodus, the firm had a meeting with Burlington Northern Railroad, which was facing a slew of litigation from environmental protection agencies over the creosote they had been using in their railroad tie treatment plants.

Schutz proved integral to the work.

“I was the only one in the firm who had deep environmental litigation experience,” he says. They decided to hire the firm and wanted Schutz to lead the work. “I was the billing partner even though I was still an associate,” he says. “They made an exception.”

At the same time, he took the initiative to reach out to Eugene Lang, founder of the REFAC Technology Development Corporation, one of the first companies to operate as a non-practicing entity in the IP space.

REFAC’s model was representing inventors of technologies that were now in wide usage, and helping them to reclaim their rights to their IP since they often didn’t have the resources to do that on their own.

At the time, they had a big case against Yamaha over the technology behind electronic musical instruments – and Schutz discovered that the law firm they were working with had just filed a motion to withdraw from the case.

Schutz got a meeting with Lang, and showed up with a three-ring binder full of facts in the case, the filing history, and his initial thoughts on ways to move the case forward.

“I had done my homework,” he says. Lang was impressed, so he connected him with the inventor, Mel Clark, who “insisted” he hire Schutz. Still an associate, his talent was evident and now he had proven his loyalty as well as his ability to secure big business.

Schutz made partner at the end of that year.

Stepping Up to Leadership

In 1996, nine years after joining Robins Kaplan, Schutz became the head of its Intellectual Property Litigation Department. At 40 years old, he was the youngest department head to date – and more than up for the challenge.

“I enjoy the leadership piece and the law piece put together,” says Schutz. “I like having a lot of things going at once.” Schutz took naturally to the role, having developed his leadership skills early on, through his time in the military and in the military’s college program, the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). He was later elected to the firm’s executive board, and then he took over as Managing Partner at the New York office a couple years after it opened.

He stepped into his current position of Chairman of the firm in May 2019, maintaining the role through the shifting sands of the pandemic. “It’s been a challenging couple of years to say the least,” says Schutz.

Not least of which because he was in the midst of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro when the early lockdowns and restrictions first hit, living in a tent with no cell coverage from March 9 to March 12, 2020.

I enjoy the leadership piece and the law piece put together. I like having a lot of things going at once.

“It wasn’t until March 13, when we were high enough on the mountain that the guide said: ‘If you stand on that rock and hold your left leg in the air and your right arm out, you might get a signal,’” recalls Schutz. He was able to reach his wife and asked how things were back home.

“She said, ‘Well, the President closed the borders for travel from Europe with no announcement about what's going to happen with American citizens overseas. But I'm working on it, we'll make sure that you get back to the country,’” says Schutz. “And she said, ‘also the stock market crashed, so we don't have any money. How's your climb?’”

Never one to leave a hard task unfinished, Schutz finished the climb, taking in the sunrise over Tanzania before getting down the mountain and taking a circuitous route back to Minneapolis. He quarantined for two weeks before heading back to the office – where he’s been every day, aside from travel, since April 2020.

“Part of it's my nature,” says Schutz. “I like to be around people. The other part of it was look, the boss should be in the office. I'm a firm believer that you spend time with the other lawyers, with staff. I walk around the office, I know everybody. I knew it was important that I'd be in the office, even if very few other people were.”

A long-time mountain climber and marathon runner, Schutz works out every morning and climbs the steps of his office building three times a week while reading emails on his iPad. But he was forced to take a pause in his active lifestyle when, in 2016, he was diagnosed with a rare form of Leukemia.

“Thanks to modern medicine and chemotherapy I came out it,” he says, “but by the time I was out of chemo I was barely able to walk. It’s a blood cancer and the chemo just wipes out your red blood cells and your hemoglobin. I was highly anemic.”

Never one to linger on setbacks for long, he started “putting one foot in front of the other,” rebuilding his strength. In a show of tenacity and perseverance that has been a hallmark of his life and career, ten months after getting out of chemo Schutz ran the Boston marathon.

“I didn’t have a qualifying time,” he says, ever modest. He ran it with a charity team, raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Schutz also spends time with another charitable organization close to his heart, called Tee It Up for the Troops. The veteran support organization hosts charity golf tournaments to raise money for wounded veterans. One of their biggest grant recipients is Fisher House Foundation, which provides support for families of veterans who are being treated at a Veterans Affairs hospital.

“They do important work,” he says.

Meanwhile, Schutz’s family is expanding, as they welcomed their first grandchild into the world this past February, born to one of his three children. He and his wife and high school sweetheart, Janet, have been married for 45 years.

As Chairman of Robins Kaplan, Schutz is focused on shaping the next generation of trial lawyers to develop the same work ethic and eternal hustle that made him a Legend.

His advice for young associates: “Always raise your hand and ask, what can I do to help? Ask for the hardest assignment and communicate with the people who are giving them to you,” he says. “Think of every case as if you owned the case and you were going to try it yourself.”

“Become invaluable so that whoever's running the case, whether it's a senior associate or partner, when they need an answer, you're the first person they think about.”