by Cynthia Price
No matter the legal professional standard, attorney Jon Muth can meet it — and surpass it.
Michigan Lawyers Weekly this month acknowledged that by naming the Miller Johnson attorney the 2011 Lawyer of the Year, putting him at the top of its list of “Leaders in the Law.”
Muth’s list of accomplishments is extremely impressive, even at a quick glance. He is the only State Bar of Michigan president to serve for 18 months, and that during a time when he also had to fill in doing executive director’s duties. He was the active force in establishing the Kent County Legal Assistance Center. He successfully represented the national Southern Poverty Law Center in a suit brought by a member of the Michigan Militia. He served for ten years on the Kalamazoo College Board of Trustees, earning the college’s Distinguished Service Award. He has been so committed to mentoring young lawyers that he was given the Grand Rapids Bar Young Lawyers Section Service and Mentoring Award in 1999.
He reflects that mentoring others is a way to give back for the incredible mentors of his own past. “I’ve said before, I may not be the best lawyer in the state but I’m the luckiest — in a lot of respects: lucky in terms of my upbringing, lucky in my family, lucky in the firm I joined,” Muth states. “I’ve only worked one place, a place that had very high standards in terms of work quality and professional obligations and ethics. Art Snell and John Cummiskey were great people and great mentors, and [Judge] Gordon Quist was a friend and mentor too.”
Muth, who celebrates 40 years of practice this May, says he is also grateful to Miller Johnson Snell and Cummiskey, the firms’ full title, for giving him the chance to rotate through various practice areas. “I came out of law school thinking that I wanted to be a corporate and tax lawyer. If I’d been pigeonholed right away, I would’ve been miserable. But I fortunately was able to try other things- I got involved in some litigation and I knew that was it for me.”
It is in litigation that Muth has excelled, with trial successes numbering in the hundreds. Along with winning in court, Muth won the respect of his peers, locally and statewide.
Says Anthony Asher of Sullivan, Ward, Asher & Patton, PC, in Southfield (which has a Grand Rapids office), “Some lawyers are known for their keen legal minds. Others are known for their tenacious courtroom skills. Jon has the unique combination of both. He also demonstrates that lawyers can conduct themselves with honor and integrity, and is a role model for all members of the bar.”
Rhett Pinsky of Pinsky, Smith, Fayette & Kennedy, who has known Muth personally and professionally for decades — including through membership in the same book club — says, “Simply put, Jon is a natural leader. Inevitably, others gravitate toward him. They listen when he speaks. He embodies integrity, wisdom, and curiosity... Fiercely competitive professionally and personally, he always exercises this spirit within the bounds of decency and fairness.”
Muth has indeed accomplished all that he has professionally and in the community without sacrificing personal and family time. “It’s a balance between legal work, service to the outside community and professional activities, and also family — and the third piece of it can get lost if you’re not careful. The higher your ambitions the more likely it is that something is going to be lost by the attainment of your goals. Fitting it all in is a challenge, but for me a big part of it is just focus.” Muth says he concentrates all his energy on doing something well, particularly with community work.
He has two sons. One is Jeff, an attorney to whom Jon Muth famously wrote his State Bar president’s 1997 message (it was reprinted in 2006 by another admiring SBM president); the other is Dan who is an environmental scientist in Maryland. Jeff Muth and his wife have children aged 8, 7, and 6. “I absolutely love playing with those grandkids,” Muth says.
He is also forthright when it comes to what he doesn’t like to do. After his 10-year stint devoting time and energy to the State Bar, near the end of which he filled out six months of the term of the previous president who passed away, Muth served in the House of Delegates to the American Bar Association. He decided not to pursue it because “what they spent a lot of time doing was talking – they certainly were talking about issues that were significant, but I prefer to get things done. My goal when I left the State Bar presidency was to come back to Grand Rapids to facilitate actually doing something.”
One particularly impressive example of his facilitation is the Legal Assistance Center. “Everybody knew about the problem of people representing themselves, but no one had come up with a comprehensive solution.” Creating the LAC seemed the best approach, and he pulled people together to make it happen.
Approaching 50 years old, he bicycled almost 3000 miles across the United States in 23 days to kick-start fund-raising for the Center.
The LAC is named after Muth’s mentor John Cummiskey, to whom he once referred as “something of a second father.”
Muth also had to reinvent his career in the late 1990s, when he was unexpectedly hit by a triple threat: major client Upjohn was purchased and moved to New Jersey; tort reform made drug product liability defense a very different game; and environmental litigation diminished as courts finally brought clarity to the “SuperFund” law.
But reinvent he did, moving over the years into legal malpractice defense representing lawyers and judges, and increasingly into mediation. Litigation skills are not tied to subject matter, he says, and “in a way that’s what’s kept me young for 40 years — every case that I have requires that I learn something new. I don’t just keep pressing the same cookie cutter through the dough.”
Mediation is now a focus for Muth; he is almost exclusively doing that and arbitration, and for the most part taking no new litigation clients. He feels that his years of work around the state set him up for that successful mediation career, because having a good reputation is critical. “I also work with the younger lawyers in the firm as general counsel,” he adds, which may involve litigation.
About being named Lawyer of the Year, Muth says, “Of course I’m honored and humbled. If I had to articulate as a young lawyer where I wanted to be at age 65, this would have been what I hoped: recognized by my peers and successful for my clients — and an honorable person.”