For Kim Michael, being among the nation’s top plaintiff employment lawyers goes hand-in-hand with her work on the employer side of the courtroom and negotiating table. She says the practice mix has made her a better lawyer for all her clients, which is amply supported by her decades of results in a vast array of employment matters. The N.Y.-based partner at Harris St. Laurent & Wechsler counts name partner and fellow Lawdragon honoree David Wechsler as her most important mentor. The pair practiced together at Wechsler & Cohen for more than 15 years before joining the Harris St. Laurent firm in 2020.
Lawdragon: How did you first become interested in employment law?
Kim Michael: In college, I thought I wanted to get my Ph.D. in psychology. I spent a semester during my junior year working for a professor at Cornell who had interviewed children in the juvenile justice system and was writing a book about the psychological developments that had led those children to where they were in life. I then spent a summer interning for a psychology professor at Stanford University, working on a chapter of his book dealing with whether psychologists (who did not have M.D. degrees) should be legally permitted to prescribe psychiatric medications in addition to psychiatrists. In both situations, I found myself much more interested in the legal issues than the psychological ones, so I decided to go to law school.
In order to prepare myself for law school, and during law school, I worked as a paralegal with David Wechsler, a stalwart in the plaintiffs’ employment law arena, who became and has been for many years my partner and an incredible mentor.
When I started practicing, I found that employment work leveraged my psychology background and interest to a large degree, which is what led me to join David and his firm full-time after spending three years at Mayer Brown.
LD: What are some aspects about this work that you find professionally satisfying?
KM: I spend much of my time working on behalf of employees and find it tremendously rewarding to help individuals embarking on an exciting new opportunity or who are going through an employment separation or dispute, which can be a genuinely traumatic event. On the other hand, when I represent employers, I take it as an opportunity to show employees that companies can treat people the right way but also will not just roll over in the face of frivolous allegations. Working for both makes me a better attorney, as I know how to anticipate and respond to arguments on all sides.
LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve handled?
KM: While the vast majority of the cases I have handled have been employment matters, I would have to say the most “interesting” one was a commercial litigation. We represented an individual who had, in a prior litigation, sued Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss and their company, Winklevoss Capital Management, for their breach of an agreement to purchase our client's stock. The Winklevoss twins then sued our client, claiming, among other things, malicious prosecution and defamation concerning statements our client made in the press about their failure to live up to their end of the deal. We defeated their claims at both the trial and appellate levels, including litigating the issue of whether the brothers were "public figures" for purposes of the defamation claim.
LD: Is there a recent result or case you can discuss?
KM: We recently procured a JAMS arbitration award for a corporate financial advisor of over $2.7M, including liquidated damages and attorneys’ fees, for breach of contract, quantum meruit, and violation of the New York Labor Law arising out of his former employer’s improper withholding of his earned bonus based on net profits of a transaction for which he was the lead investment banker.
When I started practicing, I found that employment work leveraged my psychology background and interest to a large degree.
We also recently represented a leveraged finance executive in a FINRA arbitration against his prior employer, Morgan Stanley & Co., for wrongfully withholding his deferred compensation based on claims the employee allegedly failed to provide required “retirement” notice and allegedly engaged in “competitive activity” by joining a specialized private equity firm. We obtained an award of over $2.2M. This matter was important to the broker-dealer community because it established, among other things, the specious nature of an employer’s claims that narrow private equity work following work for a global investment bank was improperly “competitive.”
LD: Was there a course, professor or experience that was particularly memorable or important in what practice you chose?
KM: My favorite course in law school was a course about gender and the law in which I wrote a paper comparing the portrayal by fiction writers over time of particular historical women.
LD: What advice do you have now for current law school students?
KM: A strong work ethic will take you very far and, while it is a cliché, it is often true that you get out of something what you put in.
LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer? Or, how do you think others see you?
KM: I pride myself on developing working relationships with adversaries while still being aggressive when necessary. It's not about being the loudest voice in the room and burning bridges doesn't help anyone. I'll go to war when needed, but strategically seeking the best resolution for my client is always the top priority. As a result, I often receive referrals from the very law firms and businesses I confront at trial or in arbitration. While I maintain mutual respect with the adversaries with whom I negotiate, they know well that I am unafraid to challenge them when things heat up.
LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?
KM: I practice yoga regularly and am very interested in spirit distillation (particularly whisky and rum) and mixology.