Going the extra mile to resolve legal issues

April 4, 2011
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Jon R. Muth doesn’t view himself as a big wheel, but he has no problem hitting the road for extended mileage on his bicycle as a confirmed “long-time roadie.”

It’s a hobby that’s grown into a passion as a way to escape the rigors of a profession pursued by an accomplished veteran attorney with a track record of finding answers and getting disputes resolved in and out of the court system.

“It’s a great form of exercise — a wonderful release from the tensions of the job,” Muth said of his target of riding about 3,000 miles a year, many of those commuting via bike trails the dozen miles one-way to work from his Rockford area home to Miller Johnson’s downtown Grand Rapids office.

“I’ve always believed in paying attention to diet, rest and exercise. I’ve always just loved the exercise part of that.”

Muth said he turned to cycling 20 years ago, after being active in triathlons before he hurt his Achilles heel. His bicycle travels have included journeys through Europe and the Alps. This summer he plans an extensive trip through Vermont. That’s a brief road cruise compared to the 2,831-mile, coast-to-coast trip he made in 23 days as he neared his 50th birthday.

He is currently involved “as the oldest board member” with the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition, which is working with the city of Grand Rapids to establish the Complete Streets Bicycle concept. The effort seeks to assure that future transportation projects consider all user groups, including pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders, people in wheelchairs and motor vehicles. The group worked to gain a Bicycle Friendly Community designation for Grand Rapids in 2009 and continues to advocate for safe and accessible cycling.

“It’s a real energetic group of people who are very active,” Muth said.

Last month, Muth, the 60th State Bar of Michigan president and a Grand Rapids-based litigator and mediator, was named Michigan Lawyers Weekly’s 2011 Lawyer of the Year.

Miller Johnson
Title: Attorney at Law
Age: 65
Birth Place: Dowagiac
Residence: Belmont
Family: Wife, Carol; sons, Jeff, 38; Dan, 36.
Business/Community Organizations: U.S. District Court, Facilitative Mediator; Michigan State Bar Foundation; Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition.
Biggest Career Break: Joining Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey.

At the 2011 Leaders in the Law luncheon and awards ceremony at the Detroit Marriott in Troy, Lawyers Weekly Publisher Don Stemmermann said that Muth “stood out as someone who we believe represents everything that we would expect a Michigan legal leader to be.”

The event saluted 25 lawyers recognized by the publication for outstanding service to their profession and communities.

Muth said at the ceremony he was “humbled” by the honor, but told the audience of more than 300 attendees that he’d be remiss if he didn’t remark “that none of the 25 honored here today and none of the 25 honored in the prior year ever got here by ourselves.”

He added, “I stand here today on the shoulders of a great, great many people who have helped me get here, and I hope that when you consider your own career, you look back and recognize those who assisted you.”

Besides acknowledging his parents and wife, Muth mentioned Art Snell and John Cummiskey, the founding partners at Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey PLC, where he’s practiced for 40 years; as well as Jim Robinson, George Googasian, Victoria Roberts, Tom Cranmer and Tom Kienbaum, who worked with Muth leading up to and during his 1994-95 presidency.

“I think I was very fortunate to land at Miller Johnson,” Muth told the Business Journal of his early path to the Grand Rapids firm after his admission to the bar in 1971.

“I wasn’t very sophisticated and didn’t understand the difference between one law firm and another. I landed a situation where I had great mentoring here, particularly from the older lawyers, including Art Snell, John Cummiskey, and Gordon Quist, who later become a federal judge.”

“They allowed me to develop a career in ways that interested me,” Muth recalled. “If I set off in a particular direction, they were supportive. They provided mentoring relationships. And I formed relationships with lawyers outside of the firm.”

Muth said attorney Tom McNamara, one of his frequent trial opponents, encouraged Muth’s involvement with the State Bar of Michigan.

“I ended up running for the state bar commission,” Muth said. “I really enjoyed myself. If not for Tom, I might not have become as involved in trying to have an impact on the profession and an impact on the system of justice in the state.”

His mark on the profession is evident through the numerous distinctions he has been granted. Muth, who currently serves as Miller Johnson’s General Counsel, has earned a reputation as one of Michigan’s pre-eminent complex commercial, legal liability and malpractice litigators, and is recognized as one of the state’s foremost mediators.

His contributions to the area’s legal processes included strong advocacy for the formation of the Legal Assistance Center during his bar presidency in 1994-95. The organization now serves 16,000 people annually.

Muth received his undergraduate degree from Kalamazoo College in 1967, and his Juris Doctor degree cum laude in 1971 from Wayne State University, which has elected him to the Order of the Coif, an honor society for law school grads.

He also has received the Roberts P. Hudson Award, the State Bar’s highest award for professional achievement and service to the profession. He is a Fellow with the Michigan State Bar Foundation, American Bar Foundation and the International Society of Barristers.

He is a life member of the Sixth Circuit Judicial Conference. Muth is recognized with a first-tier ranking in Chambers USA’s Leading Business Lawyers in the Commercial Litigation section and is named in The Best Lawyers in America in practice areas of alternative dispute resolution, bet-the-company litigation, commercial litigation, ethics and professional responsibility law, legal malpractice law, and professional malpractice law.

Muth also has been named a Michigan “Super Lawyer” in general litigation and is on the Top 10 list. He is recognized in Benchmark Litigation as a Local Litigation Star for Michigan.

Acknowledging that law has become much more like a business over the last 40 years, he said the dynamics of the profession has seen swift sea changes, marked by familiarity.

“The emphasis when I started and emphasis today continues to be on the professional aspects of the practice,” he said. “But certainly in today’s economic climate in Michigan, there have been significant economic pressures on the practice of law. There’s more firm-to-firm movement. It used to be unheard of when you would have significant movement of attorneys between firms. Now it’s not uncommon.

“There also are out-of-town firms not headquartered in Grand Rapids establishing a presence in Michigan and doing it very aggressively. There’s a lot more mobility and less loyalty to the firm you’re with at the moment. The same is true with clients. There’s not the same long-term client loyalty. You’re only as good as your last result.”

Muth’s practice has evolved to a point where his emphasis is on litigation with a focus on mediation.

“I’ve always enjoyed the trial practice and have loved the advocacy piece of it. It’s regrettable so few cases now get tried and so few lawyers have those opportunities. A huge percentage of cases get resolved without a trial. I enjoy mediation work that involves looking at both sides of the case.”

As his firm’s general counsel, Muth also has regular opportunities to work with young lawyers seeking his advice and direction on legal challenges. It’s a role he has played with some familiarity.

While he was state bar president in 1995, he wrote a “President’s Page” column in the form of a letter to his son heading off to law school. He shared his thoughts on the practice of law and what it meant to be a “good lawyer.” Jeff Muth is now a partner in the litigation section of Barnes & Thornburg and was named a Rising Star by Michigan Super Lawyers in 2009.

“I told him not to judge the profession vicariously through his father — your really have to make up your own mind,” Muth related.

“It’s always good to just provide an ear and some time to share insights on dealing with situations and people. It’s an enjoyable part of what I have done for the past few years.”

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