Attorney's service as a Judge Advocate in the Marines laid the foundation for his career

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Attorney George Donnini recalls finishing a clerkship in Manhattan on a Friday and driving to Quantico, Virginia, to check in that Sunday in his camouflage uniform to start a six-month infantry officer training course.

“That was quite a wake-up call,” says Donnini, a shareholder in Butzel Long’s Detroit office and vice president of the firm. “I went from living near Times Square and commuting to federal court in a suit and tie to spending weeks at a time out in the field with 200 other Marines.”

His four-year service as a Judge Advocate in the Marines gave Donnini an excellent foundation to build his law career.

“I spent a significant amount of my active duty time as a criminal defense counsel,” he says. “That experience was similar to being a public defender – I was handed a ton of files and my boss basically told me ‘good luck.’ I worked out a lot of deals, tried a bunch of cases, and got yelled at by a whole lot of judges. It was great. I got a lot of ‘on your feet’ time in the courtroom, which is something most people a year out of law school simply don’t get.”

Honorably discharged in 2003, Donnini joined Butzel Long where he is a criminal defense attorney of white-collar crimes including fraud, public corruption, antitrust, environmental, tax and SEC enforcement actions; and routinely conducts corporate internal investigations for public and private companies. He also addresses inquiries related to the auto industry including unintended acceleration, airbags, ignition switches, auto parts MDL (antitrust cases), and more.

“When someone’s liberty, future, and/or professional career are on the line, I’m called in to confront the government’s allegations head-on to obtain the best result possible for my clients,” he says. “I have a knack for understanding the critical issues faced by my clients – whether companies or individuals – and helping them get through them.”

He worked with David DuMouchel and now federal district judge Laurie Michelson on a huge health care fraud prosecution out of Boston, where the government settled with the company.

“The business paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and penalties, and the government prosecuted a dozen executives from that company,” Donnini says. “The case went to trial and all were acquitted following a three-month jury trial.”

In an environmental fraud case that went to trial in federal court, the client was ultimately convicted following a jury trial (although not of all counts in the indictment), but the sentence imposed was less than a year.

“If it had been settled prior to trial, the sentence would have been much longer,” Donnini says.

Named to dBusiness Top Lawyers, and Michigan Super Lawyers, Donnini serves as Midwest regional co-chair of the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section’s White Collar Crime Committee, and is a member of the Section’s Book Board; and is a frequent presenter at conferences on topics relating to white-collar crime.

He is also a founding member of the Detroit chapter of the Veteran’s Bar Association.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for lawyers who served in the military to join together for professional development, networking and camaraderie,” he says.

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of George Washington University, Donnini earned his J.D. from Duke University School of Law.

“I’ve always been interested in criminal law – it’s what drew me to go to law school in the first place,” he says. “Most law students get over that fascination pretty quickly, but I didn’t. I was fascinated by the subject matter and had a great professor who piqued my interest in white-collar crime.”

After graduating from Duke, Donnini clerked for the Hon. William H. Pauley III, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

“I found myself gravitating toward criminal cases and helping my judge toil through the very difficult task of sentencing people before him,” he says. “As you might imagine, I tended to lean toward lighter sentences.”

A native of New Rochelle, N.Y., Donnini is happily settled in his adoptive Wolverine state. He makes his home in Birmingham and coaches sports teams for his children, including baseball, flag football and soccer.

His own sports interests include running, swimming, skiing, and triathlons; and for the past two years he has organized a team of attorneys from law firms across metro Detroit to participate in “Tough Mudder” endurance challenges at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), whose purpose is to raise awareness and enlist the public’s aid for the needs of injured service members.     

“A friend of mine who I served with in the Marines was seriously injured while deployed to Iraq – shot in the head by an enemy sniper,” says Donnini. “Thankfully, he survived – after many, many surgeries – and is an absolute inspiration to me.”

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