20 Questions with Mike Conner
1. You gave a very compelling presentation at Renaissance Symposium II in Watercolor, Florida, about a small town in southern Georgia that had its own version of justice and the legal process. You also practice in a variety of metropolitan areas. How do you handle what many of us call "home cooking" when you have cases in various Southern enclaves?
It is important to either know the people or learn the people. If we do not feel comfortable in the jurisdiction, we obviously associate local counsel, but we also make an effort to spend time in the jurisdiction before a trial. We get the local newspapers. We take the extra time to eat lunch, breakfast or dinner in the local establishments. Furthermore, it is always imperative to treat the local people with respect and utmost dignity – from the local judge to the courthouse janitor. Your reputation for the manner in which you treat people circulates quickly.
2. Since beginning your own practice after many years with Savannah's most storied firm, you have enjoyed immense success. What have been your guiding principles in building your firm?
I have a very strong faith and give credit to my Creator. The values that we as a firm follow are honesty, excellence, and diligence. We will be honest and ethical – period. We have the intellectual and technological capacities and practice experience to be excellent, and therefore, insist on it. We will be the best – period. Finally, we work hard; we are diligent.
3. As the father of two young sons, one of these days you might be asked by one or both whether they should pursue a career in law. If they were older today, what might you tell them about following in your footsteps?
I would tell them the legal profession is, in fact, a noble and honorable profession. I would also tell them that most lawyers are good and honorable people. I would definitely encourage either or both to pursue the profession of law, but would emphasize the profession and service aspect of it, as opposed to the business aspect of it. We lawyers need to regain the public service component of our profession.
4. You maintain a satellite office in your hometown of Jesup, Georgia. I would imagine the cases there, or perhaps even the counseling you do, are substantially different than what you see most of the time in Savannah. Do you tend to maintain a broader practice in Jesup? If so, do you find unique and different rewards in that atmosphere?
We practice throughout Georgia and into South Carolina. We specialize in commercial matters, business litigation, and government representation. We represent those interests throughout a large practice area. The law and procedure are obviously the same, but the facts, people, and places are always unique. We enjoy the challenge of the different venues and the complexity of matters that you might have to litigate in small places.
5. We have discussed implementing within The Trial Law Institute a concept about which you are passionate, which is the advanced training of young lawyers. That is, educating young lawyers on not just the nuts and bolts of trial presentation, but creating in young lawyers the ability to present a case utilizing the sage wisdom of LCA Fellows who are willing to share their collective years of experience. What elements would you like to see within such a format?
I refer to the concept as “Leadership LCA.” My primary vision is to inspire young lawyers to be great and to recognize the greatness of our profession. I believe that giving young lawyers exposure to great lawyers through the LCA will motivate young lawyers to follow in that tradition of greatness. People, even lawyers, need heroes, and the LCA is full of them. The second goal is to educate young lawyers as to the trial practice.
6. What impact do you think the discovery process has had on the number of cases being tried?
Certainly, the costs of litigation, which often are driven by discovery costs, have reduced the number of cases being tried. In addition, there is just too much information available in some cases (all of which comes out during discovery) making it difficult to pare down what we think is really important to or for a jury. I think that some lawyers and clients are uncomfortable with abandoning certain facts or arguments in the interests of economy and conciseness. I really believe that discovery sometimes leads us to believe that the case is “too big” or too complex to be entrusted to six or twelve every-day people. Finally, I think that discovery leads to fewer cases being tried because we generally have to expose our warts during discovery. We generally all know the good and the bad of our cases, and I believe that risk intolerance reduces the number of cases tried. Lawyers worry about the bad, and the revelation of the bad during discovery (or the threat of that revelation) often drives pretrial resolution.
7. What was your evolution toward litigation, and did it begin before, during or after law school? That is, did you want to be Perry Mason growing up, or did you want to become a trial lawyer after getting out of law school and reading contracts all day long for the first six months of your career? Better yet, as a Georgian, was Matlock the trigger?
I have an accounting degree from the University of Georgia, J.M. Tull School of Accounting, and expected to become a tax lawyer. However, during my early career in Savannah, I was “drafted” into service by one of Georgia’s most famous trial lawyers, Sonny Seiler, and the rest is history. Sonny was Matlock, Perry Mason, Ironside, and Magnum P.I. all rolled into one. He hooked me.
8. I once practiced with a fantastic, though legendarily difficult trial lawyer named Olin Zeanah. One of my partners, beginning when we were associates, kept a list of “Zeanahisms.” They were little gems of knowledge that Zeanah would occasionally impart. Did you have a trial icon or mentor in your early years of practice who shared with you the wisdom of years of practice? If so, please tell us about them.
I benefitted greatly from three great trial lawyers, Sonny Seiler, Walter Hartridge, and Roy Paul. Sonny was the storyteller. Walter was the procedural technician and master of obscure pleading and motion maneuvers. Roy was the federal law clerk turned lawyer that brought it all together. One lawyer that I worked with had a black notebook with quips from case law that he often used in argument. I still use such a notebook today. Another lawyer, whose prime predated the modern rules of discovery, kept the “secret file” of negative client documents in every case that he withheld from discovery on the grounds of “bad documents.” Fortunately, I abandoned that idea long ago.
9. Do you read legal fiction? Which author in particular do you think nails the practice of law more closely than anyone else?
Yes, and I would say the obvious choice is Grisham. I still read Harper Lee’s masterpiece every few years, because it inspires me. I also enjoy David Rosenfelt’s books, but they are certainly less representative of the practice than Grisham’s books.
10. What has been the biggest change in the way law is practiced between the time you first began until now?
The practice is now a business and is all about marketing.
11. Litigators tend to travel a great deal. What are some of your favorite cities or places and what fascinates you about them?
I have been to Munich, Paris, London, Schwandorff, Dax, and other European cities on cases, but I love America and her cities. Miami, New York, Philly, Baltimore, Jacksonville, and Charleston are some of my favorites. In Savannah, we live on the water, and [I] naturally enjoy cities on the water.
12. Have you ever had a case in which your opposing counsel went over the line ethically in representing their clients’ interests? How did you deal with it?
Yes, it happens. I generally call the lawyer on it. We oppose that kind of activity in almost every instance.
13. Has trial law’s golden age passed or have we yet to reach it? What intrigues you about prior generations of trial lawyers?
Very tough question. Arbitration clauses and tort reform have also contributed to the reduction in the number of cases tried. I would say that the answer to this question is certainly up for debate. In terms of prior generations of trial lawyers, I admire their ability to have simply picked up the file and tried their cases. They did so without months of pretrial discovery, depositions, and box car document production. They found their witnesses, interviewed them and put their cases up. One senior trial lawyer that I worked with would often say that we just needed to pick up the file, try the damned case, and leave the paper pushing to the accountants.
14. What is the first thing that comes to mind if I ask, “If you were a judge, what would you do differently from what you deal with most frequently in your practice before presiding jurists?”
I would first remember the constitutional right to a jury trial that exists under most state constitutions. Second, I would not force mediation of cases where there was no real desire by the parties to mediate. Third, I would treat lawyers like the professionals that they are.
15. What is your greatest extravagance?
Labrador retrievers, ducks, shotguns, fishing rods, and boats.
16. What object in your office serves to re-energize you when your mood needs an adjustment?
My six-year old son’s drawing of me as a lawyer with the caption: “An important job is u (sic) lwyar (sic).” You bet an important job “is a lawyer.” We have the honor of serving as lawyers, and should never forget that it is an honor. I never want to do anything that would bring disgrace on fellow lawyers.
17. If you could meet anyone from history, who would it be, and why?
Hamilton and Jefferson, and I would ask them exactly what they meant and how they would apply the constitution to our society today. I frankly think that they would come up with about the same answers as we have come up with.
18. Diversity, along with excellence and integrity, is central to the LCA’s mission and plays a fundamental role in our selection of Fellows, growth, and goals. We want to quote you on diversity in Litigation Commentary & Review, as well as the Diversity Law Institute's website. So in a word, sentence, or paragraph, what in your opinion is the significance or importance of furthering diversity within the profession of law and throughout our system of justice?
It empowers those who have been weak and gives hope to those who need our help. The legal profession is about creating and exploiting options for our clients. As members of a greater society, embracing diversity also creates options for those who may not have previously had any options.
19. What trait do you most value in your friends?
Honesty and commitment – commitment to your faith, family, and profession.
20. What is your motto?
Be honorable, be excellent.
David Michael “Mike” Conner is a principal in The Conner Law Group, P.C., which has offices in both Savannah and Jesup, Georgia. He is a highly-touted litigation attorney, specializing in commercial, business, and construction litigation and related business organization and planning, as well as the prosecution of catastrophic personal injury cases. Mr. Conner is a Fellow in the Litigation Counsel of America. He is recognized as a Georgia Super Lawyer (since 2006), Best Lawyer (since 2007), Georgia Trend Magazine’s Legal Elite, and is member of the National Trial Lawyer’s Top 100 Trial Lawyers. In addition, Mr. Conner is also an invited member of the Council on Litigation Management, a consortium of the nation's top business and legal professionals dedicated to the promotion of integrity in dispute resolution. Related to his work in the personal injury field, Mr. Conner is a member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and the Multi Million Advocates Forum. Similarly, The Conner Law Group, P.C. has been recognized by U.S. News & World Reports as a “Best Law Firm.” Mr. Conner and The Conner Law Group practice throughout Georgia, but focus principally in Savannah and Jesup - where Mr. Conner is the City Attorney- and surrounding southeast Georgia.
By G. Steven Henry