Perseverance: Butzel attorney overcame series of setbacks

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

It was not a straight path to legal success for Butzel Long attorney Dan McCarthy, one of the firm’s top appellate practitioners.

His career road, in fact, was filled with obstacles and lined with potholes, many of his own making.

“I will confess to being a less-than-stellar student,” said McCarthy, a native of the Bronx who spent his formative years in Danbury, Conn., the home to little known Western Connecticut State University where he obtained his bachelor’s degree.

“I had an abysmal GPA, something like a 2.50, before I started to buckle down going into my senior year of college,” McCarthy lamented. “Although I did very well my senior year, pulling a 4-point, it was a case of ‘too little, too late’ to make much of a difference in my overall academic standing.”

His dream of attending law school – any law school – took a further hit when he struggled on the LSAT, even after taking a $2,000 prep course for the entrance exam.

“I actually bombed it,” McCarthy admitted. “I was pretty discouraged, but it also became a quest that ‘I have to do this’ if I’m going to make it in life.”

Then, McCarthy became acquainted with an upstart law school in “Lansing, Michigan,” a school that had a reputation of “easy to enter – and hard to stay.”

In the case of McCarthy, Cooley Law School proved different, granting him admission, but three years down the road in 1996.

“I barely got in on account of my academic record and LSAT score, so I ended up working for my dad until I started law school,” said McCarthy, whose 81-year-old mother Jane lives in Florida. “I even received a warning letter from Cooley’s founder, Justice Thomas Brennan, saying that based on my record that I should seriously consider immediately taking a legal writing class to give me a taste of what would be expected of a law student.

“I took that letter to heart, enrolling in a class taught by a judge,” McCarthy noted. “I worked during the day and took the class at night, finishing with the highest score in the class. It gave me a tremendous shot of confidence, so I began pleading my case with Cooley to start earlier in 1994 or 1995, but they only budged a bit, allowing me to start a semester early in January of 1996.”

Once enrolled, McCarthy said he experienced more than his share of first-year jitters, wondering how he would stack up with class full of students with impressive academic backgrounds.

“There were a lot of students who had earned master degrees and some with Ph.D.’s, so I really felt out of place with just my bachelor’s,” he said.

Evidently his fear of failure became the great equalizer, inspiring McCarthy to hit the books hard each day from 3 p.m. to 2 a.m., time he spent reading and briefing cases. By the end of his first year, McCarthy ranked No. 1 in his class, setting the stage for an opportunity to be on the law review and to eventually land a clerkship with state Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly following an internship with U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Richard Suhrheinrich.

After a short stint as a pre-hearing attorney for the Michigan Court of Appeals, McCarthy applied for an opening at Hyman Lippitt, where he hoped to pursue his interest in becoming a transactional lawyer. But the two principals in the firm, Norman Lippitt and Leonard Hyman, had other plans for McCarthy, slotting him in as an associate focused on litigation work.

“It wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but it was a job and it afforded me the opportunity to develop my skills as a litigator, learning from several of the finest trial lawyers in the state,” said McCarthy.

He would spend nearly 20 years with the firm, working on a potpourri of interesting cases, including a high-stakes matter involving billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun, the late owner of the Ambassador Bridge, and his siblings. It was just one of many litigious affairs that McCarthy would be involved in while working at the firm before he joined the Appellate Specialty Team at Butzel Long in September 2019.

“It was not an easy decision to leave, but I was excited about the opportunity to focus on appellate work and to help the firm build a strong identity in that practice area,” McCarthy said. “The chance to work with two former justices of the Michigan Supreme Court in Maura Corrigan and Kurt Wilder made my decision to join Butzel even more attractive. What other firm can offer that kind of perspective from attorneys who know Michigan appellate procedure inside and out. Working with them and all the other talented members of the team has been a real joy. I can’t speak highly enough about them.”

Justice Wilder, who joined Butzel in 2019 after 27 years in the judiciary, has high regard for McCarthy on a professional and personal level.

“Dan is a great lawyer, knowledgeable on longstanding and emerging legal doctrine, strategic, and willing to find a reasonable compromise or do battle as the situation requires,” said Wilder. “I admire his legal abilities greatly, and on top of that, I have great respect for him as a person and immensely enjoy our friendship.”

McCarthy and the Appellate Specialty Team were in an unexpected spotlight during the first year of the pandemic, helping various Michigan businesses and organizations challenge the Governor’s executive orders addressing the spread of COVID-19.

“We had a number of business clients approach us about contesting the executive orders that Governor Whitmer had issued, contending that those orders were causing them irreparable harm and were disrupting their operations in significant ways,” McCarthy indicated. “Of course, aside from their legitimate business concerns, there also were a lot of political issues for us as a firm to consider. Inside and outside the firm, there were plenty of people with very strong views on the topic, and the more time that went by, the more politicized the situation became.”

The Butzel Long board, after weighing views from both sides of the hot-button issue, gave the go-ahead to begin challenging the Governor’s declarations, a five-month legal battle that culminated with a 4-3 Michigan Supreme Court decision in early October 2020 that the Governor violated her constitutional authority by continuing to issue the executive orders without the approval of the state legislature.

“It was a very difficult time, as we were working day and night surveying cases and trying to stay focused on the legal issues at hand while we were getting significant pushback from some people who objected to our involvement in the cases,” said McCarthy, who did his best to stay out of the political fray. “Whatever your political views are on the issue, I really give our board a lot of credit for considering all of the legal and business ramifications and agreeing that the matter should be settled in the courts. As a firm, I really believe we came out of it much stronger, as the views and needs of each practice area were balanced before a decision was reached.” 

McCarthy gained his own sense of balance early on in life by working for his father, Justin, who began his own telephone installation business, a Connecticut-based company that serviced a tri-state region.

“My dad, who dropped out of school in the eighth grade, had an incredible work ethic, starting and growing the business to a point where he had 15 employees and was the number one rated company of its type in the region,” McCarthy said of his late father. “He really wanted me to eventually take over the business, but I pretty much hated every part of it even though I learned a lot while working for him.”

Among the company’s customers were a number of municipalities and law firms, including a large firm in White Plains, N.Y. that was delinquent on paying for a $150,000 phone system.

 “My dad was a street guy and he hated lawyers,” McCarthy said with a touch of irony, recalling an episode where his father decided to take legal matters into his own hands with the law firm in the affluent suburb of New York City.

“One Saturday morning he woke up me and my brother to help him with a work job,” McCarthy recalled. “It was way early in the morning and my dad got into the law offices by saying he was ‘with the phone company’ and needed to do some work.” 

The “work” involved pulling out all the phones at the law office until full payment by certified check – plus a $1,000 re-installation fee – was secured.

“His plan worked,” McCarthy said.

Almost flawlessly, in fact.

“Someone from the firm called – from the phone on the fax machine – first thing Monday morning, wondering what happened to their phones and pleading for help,” McCarthy said with a laugh. “Score one for my dad.”



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