Of Counsel Interview with Michael Ehrenstein
When you talk to Michael Ehrenstein, you come away charmed by his easy going nature, modesty, sense of humor, and warm social engagement. You also can’t help but notice the genuine passion he has for his legal practice and the positive approach he takes in serving clients. But don’t let that warmth fool you. As a litigator in the courtroom he can be fierce— if that’s what’s called for—with his competitive streak clearly on display. He really, really wants to win—and he usually does. “Mike’s friendly, fair, and everyone loves him,” says Ross Fishman a Chicago area- based law firm marketing consultant who’s very familiar with Ehrenstein and his impressive litigation track record. “But when he’s protecting his clients against attack, there’s a subtle ferocity that his opponents never see coming. In court, in litigation, Mike has learned not to telegraph his strategic moves — his opposing counsel just wake up on the ground wondering how the hell they got there. THAT’S a great trial lawyer.” A business trial attorney at his Miami based firm Ehrenstein|Sager, Ehrenstein has earned a stellar reputation for successfully representing a wide range of clients in regional, national, and international disputes, which include a host of large companies, individuals-in-need and even the Republic of Angola. Recently, Of Counsel spoke with Ehrenstein about his path into the legal profession, his career, how his mastery in the martial arts enhances his legal practice and other topics. The following is that edited interview.
Of Counsel: What attracted you to the legal profession, Mike? What sparked your interest in law?
Michael Ehrenstein: Yes, the catalyst. Well, I’m embarrassed to admit it but the truth is I was supposed to be a doctor, like about 90 percent of the freshman class that was entering Middlebury College in Vermont at the time. Most of us wanted to be doctors. That would have been great because my dad was a surgeon, and I was hoping to follow in his footsteps. What ended up happening was I did relatively well in high school in chemistry, math, physics and bio, and because I had done well in high school I didn’t have to take the basic [classes in those subjects] that were required of a freshman for a pre-med-type major. I spent all of my time freshman year, being a freshman and learning about important things – like beer. I realized quickly that theater, philosophy and language were all fun and easier on my brain. So when sophomore year started, and I was taking organic chemistry and advanced bio, I recognized I’d have less time for extra-curricular activities – like skiing. So I changed my major to philosophy. By the end of my junior year, my dad asked me, “Son, what are you planning on doing with the rest of your life because I don’t know many people who are paying high salaries for resident philosophers? [laughter] What do you intend to do when you graduate?” I told him, “I intend to put a backpack on and go to Europe and hike east until I can’t go any further.” He said, “You’re going to be 21 years old. If you need to go for a long walk to figure out who you are, you have a problem. Unless you have a better solution for how you’re going to put a roof on your head and food on the table, you’re going to go to law school.” I was deeply offended because he was the guy who told me, “You don’t have to be a doctor. It’s your life. Do what you want with it.”
Of Counsel: Did he recognize that law would be a good fit for you?
Michael Ehrenstein: Yes, my dad’s a genius in some respects. He saw in me something I didn’t see in myself – that I love a good fight; I have some linguistic skills; and I’m a natural advocate. He kind of pushed me in that direction initially. As it turns out it wasn’t a hard push. Both of my parents are from Istanbul. My mother was a bit of a Jewish scholar, and she drilled into us the importance of, “justice, justice, justice shalt thou pursue,” which is a phrase in the Torah. It was something she lived and breathed, and it was part of her essence. I think I got my love of a good fight from her. It was already in there. I just didn’t know it. This is a long-winded answer. But what started my interest in the law? My father pushed me. My mother had already laid the groundwork. And then I spent the summer after my junior year in college working for a law firm, where I inhaled the power of what it means to be a lawyer, and I loved it. All of a sudden I realized, “Oh my god, my dad was right.” I have to give the man some credit. He saw it. I pursued and so far, I’ve had a very wonderful and fulfilling career.
Landing at the Right Firm
Of Counsel: You grew up in Florida, attended undergraduate school in Vermont and got your law degree at the University of Miami. What did you do after you graduated from law school?
Michael Ehrenstein: It was 1990, and I had done fairly well in law school but I was having a hard time finding a job. The savings and loan crisis had gutted the legal profession in Florida. I was near the top of my class but still couldn’t get an offer. It was really hard to get a job. I ended up meeting somebody who suggested I talk to this one firm called Kluger Peretz Kaplin & Berlin that was getting a lot of the work from the Resolution Trust Corporation. Alan Kluger met me, liked me and hired me. That was it. I was told I was going to be a commercial litigator, and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. I landed at a great firm doing great work that was made up of great lawyers who were great teachers. They ran a wonderful firm, and I stayed there for 17 years or so. We grew from 18 lawyers to about 50 or 60 lawyers. It had grown to the point where I wasn’t enjoying the collegiality it had when I started.
Of Counsel: And then you opened up your own shop. What year was that?
Michael Ehrenstein: Yes, I opened my own shop in 2007.
Of Counsel: You’ve handled so many cases but which one or two were the most rewarding or important or both?
Michael Ehrenstein: I’m sure in all of your interviews with great trial lawyers you’ve found no shortage of war stories. I will tell you two stories, one of which was one of the first cases I had. I represented a woman who had been divorced in post-dissolution proceedings to collect. Her ex-husband was a dangerous man. Ultimately, we prevailed and collected on everything that needed to be collected. But in the process it took seven or eight different lawsuits. He sued everybody that ever touched any file that he came into contact with, including judges and every attorney who ever touched a file. I had to work hard. Ultimately, he ended up shooting my client and then shot himself. She survived. To me, that was an extremely important case – not because there was so much at stake in terms of dollars and cents but because there was so much at stake in terms of the dignity of it. It was important because I was able to protect somebody and help somebody who really needed it. There was a little of my character back then that was rougher than it is now where I relished that kind of confrontation. I still relish a good fight but now I have kids and don’t put myself in those kinds of cases. I stay far away from family law. The thing about that case, and really with every case, is: If there isn’t some aspect of the case that really resonates with me in terms of justice, justice, justice, I won’t take it.
Of Counsel: Just so I’m clear. The ex-husband who shot your client and himself died, right?
Michael Ehrenstein: Yes, he died and she survived. To this day, every December 14th, I give her a call because that’s her second birthday, the day she survived.
Of Counsel: I’m sure she very grateful for what you did back then and that you call her on that day every year. That’s quite a story. What’s the other case you were thinking of?
Seeking Justice, Erasing Exposure
Michael Ehrenstein: The other cases that have been particularly fulfilling are all cases where there is some aspect of justice that is missing. One that comes to mind was a large case and the dollars and cents of it were important. I was asked to represent a private equity group that had purchased a big health care company from another private equity group. After a few years that private equity group sold it to another group for a lot more money. In the middle of all of this there was a whistleblower who was saying that the original owner of this chain of diagnostic centers had some improper billing practices, and the value of the company that had been sold wasn’t what anybody thought it was. “Oh and by the way,” he essentially said, “the Department of Justice is taking a hard look at this and you guys are going to be in the middle of some hot soup.” So we were asked to review this and we came up with a strategy. There was a Department of Justice qui tam that had been undertaken against all three – the original seller, my client and the ultimate buyer. So there was qui tam litigation, litigation between the private equity groups themselves. There was litigation in Palm Beach and litigation down here in South Florida and litigation in DC. It was fast and furious with a lot of hard work done in a short period of time, and we were able to position our client – who had somewhere just shy of $100 million of exposure – in a way that all of the exposure was picked up by the original seller and the ultimate buyer. We were in the middle and we were unscathed. We had no exposure and put out nothing, which to me and my client was a relatively miraculous result and one that was existential for the client. I know private equity funds have lots and lots of money. But anyone who takes a $100 million hit – that’s significant. It saved a lot people money. It saved a lot people’s reputations and saved the business. The same principle was applied in that case: Where’s the justice here? The thing we latched on to is that we really were an innocent purchaser and an innocent seller. None of the information that ultimately came out was known to us at the time we purchased or at the time that we sold. But it was known by the original seller, and it was figured out by the subsequent buyer. So if you’re really looking for justice, justice, justice, you can’t be dinging the guy who’s acting innocently in the middle of a bad transaction. It was a very important case for me.
Exercising Judgment and Artistry
Of Counsel: I can see why. I want to move onto something else – your martial arts skills. How do martial arts influence your work in the courtroom, your service to clients?
Michael Ehrenstein: How much time do you have? [laughter] I’ll summarize as best I can. I have maybe 40 years of experience as a martial artist and only 30-some years of experience as an attorney. The more I train in the martial arts and the more I advocate in court, the more I realize that fighting is fighting. Whether you’re fighting with your fists, fighting with weapons or fighting in court, it’s kind of the same process. The thing that martial arts in particular has taught me and that I use in my practice every day is that fighting is a technique but it’s also an art. I could teach you how to throw five different punches and five different kicks, and you could stand in front of somebody and I could say, “Throw this punch. Throw this kick. Throw this punch.” But that’s me telling you. Until you’re in it and you’ve done it and you’ve learned what’s worked for you, you’re not in a position to exercise the judgment, the artistry of being a fighter. It’s an art. It has to be beautiful, and for it to be effective, it has to be a genuine expression of yourself. Trial practice, or being a lawyer at all, is the same. There are all kinds of techniques and technology that we learn and use. We learn in law school and as young lawyers-in-training and by practicing law. But to be effective we have to make enough mistakes on our own that we learn how to exercise the right judgment to throw the right punch at the right time. We have to exercise the right judgment to file the right motion at the right time, or to exclude a piece of evidence or include a piece of evidence at the right time, to cross-examine loudly or to whisper. To be effective, all of those calls – and a thousand of them get made during the course of any trial – need to be based on an understanding of what the technique is but also they need to be chosen as a genuine reflection of the person who’s making the call, the artist, the advocate. Those are some of the things I’ve learned from martial arts that really do influence the way I practice law.
The Bad and the Good
Of Counsel: Mike, I want to ask you what you like and don’t like about the profession. Let’s start with what annoys you, and then we’ll end the interview on a positive note, ok?
Michael Ehrenstein: By nature, I’m more of a happy-go lucky, glass-is-half-full person. There aren’t many things in the profession that annoy me. I would say that there are things coming that are worrisome to the profession, which lots of other people have spoken and written about. For example, the mental and emotional health of our profession is a challenge that we’re all trying to come to grips with. I don’t know many lawyers who haven’t lost a mentor or a friend to depression or alcoholism or substance abuse, which are prevalent problems in our profession at much higher percentage rate that they are in the general population. There are just a lot of people who are doing the work that we do who are doing it not because they have a love for it but because they have found that that’s the path of least resistance in their life, which is sad. I think another issue that is facing our profession and one that presents challenges but also opportunities is the increasing pace of consolidation of practices. When I graduated in 1990, a count of 100 to 120 lawyers was considered large – I think the largest firm in Miami had 100 lawyers. Today we’re living in a world of the megafirms, and the megafirms are being challenged by the accounting firms, and there’s more and more consolidation, which hopefully will ultimately provide clients with better value. But I don’t believe that’s righteous thinking when it comes to what we do, and that’s a challenge. It does, however, present smaller firms an opportunity to provide true professional service rather simply operating in the business of law. I think there’s a tension between the profession and the business of law and, in my opinion, the profession should always be first. I think the consolidation is driving the business side of things ahead of the professional side of things.
Of Counsel: Thank you. And what do you like about the legal profession?
Michael Ehrenstein: This is going to sound completely corny and hokey but it’s genuine. What we do is important. It’s easy to look at what I’m doing these days as moving money from one pocket to another. One big company is saving money or one big company is spending money. It’s not just that. What we do counts. It makes a difference in a very important and fulfilling way. Whether I help a woman who was dealing with an ex-husband who was murderous or I’m saving a private equity group a whole bunch of money – what we do counts. The wheels of our economic engine need to keep moving. Without lawyers in that process, without us standing up as advocates to fight the good fight, the engine doesn’t run smoothly. I’m not someone who believes everything is always sunshiny with blue skies but there is virtue and honor in what we do. And for me that makes it fulfilling. It’s a wonderful career for me to have had.
Interview by: Steven T. Taylor