Attorney gains reputation as skilled litigator


By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Vanessa Miller of Foley & Lardner LLP was recently recognized as one of the top young attorneys in the area, but she jokes that one scary misstep in law school almost scuttled her law career before it got started.

The Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association (DMBA) Barristers Section, the young lawyers section of the group, selected Miller as the recipient of its annual DMBA Barristers 2012 “One to Watch” award.

The honor is presented to “up-and-coming Detroit area attorneys in recognition of their significant professional accomplishments to date, as well as their potential for future outstanding achievements within the legal field.”

But back to the law school horror story …

“My very first law school exam (at the University of Denver College of Law) was Criminal Law,” Miller says. “I studied harder for it than I’ve studied for a test in my entire life. I felt I knew the subject cold. I sat down to take the test and was writing furiously. They give you bound notepads to write in. I wrote on the backside of the pages because I had so much information I wanted to give this professor to show how much I knew. At the end of the exam, when the dust settled, I was about to hand in my test when I noticed that the woman next to me was writing very, very carefully and that she was only writing on the front of the pages and only on every other line.”

Miller began to sense an approaching catastrophe.

“At that point it occurred to me that maybe I should read the instructions at the top of the exam booklet. They said, ‘Please skip lines and do not write on the back of the page.’ Just then, the time sounded and I had a heart attack.”

But this grim fairy tale had a happy ending.

“Luckily, the law school dean allowed me, under his supervision, to rewrite my test — skipping lines — and I ended up getting an A in the class.”

Miller has impressed a lot of her colleagues very early in her career and has gained a reputation as a skilled litigator in commercial matters involving discovery challenges and has been lead discovery counsel in a number of complex cases.

She’s also headed up a team in discovery efforts that spanned three continents.

But even if she was preordained to be a success in law, it didn’t originally look like it would be in the Detroit area.

Her law school years exposed her to the beauties and charms of Colorado.

“I loved it in Denver. It’s a beautiful place to live,” Miller says. “The weather’s actually much milder than you would think. Especially in the wintertime, having come from Michigan.”

But she was originally from southeast Michigan and so was her husband. Michigan’s charms called to them, too, and eventually won out.

“What I missed the most about Michigan was the lakes and the water,” Miller says. “(My husband) and I grew up a mile apart and were ‘high school sweethearts.’ We got so tired of taking our vacations back to Michigan, so we finally said, ‘Why not live in Michigan and vacation in Denver?’ “

One other draw to Michigan was her law clerk experience with Judge Patrick James Duggan of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

“My law clerk experience was phenomenal and Judge Duggan is an excellent mentor,” she says. “He exposes his clerks to every avenue of the judicial process. He allowed us to sit in on jury trials, hearings. He encouraged us to come to lunch with him and meet other law clerks and the other judges in the Eastern District. It was a great ‘back door’ look at the law for me, because I didn’t have any attorneys in my family or my background.”

Miller also believes that the amount of responsibility Duggan gives his clerks helped give her a running start in her career.

“Judge Duggan gives his law clerks a lot of autonomy to look at the briefs, make their own decision and then try to argue a conclusion to him,” she says. “If he disagrees, he’ll tell you and you’ll be rewriting the draft opinion. But he expects his law clerks to argue the position that they choose as though they are the attorney arguing the case, which is great experience for when you come to a law firm and have your own clients.”

Now that she has those clients, many of them automotive suppliers, Miller’s advising them on business strategy as well as legal strategy.

“We spend a lot of time counseling our clients on the difference between the leverage they have on the ‘buy side’ from their own suppliers versus the ‘sell side’ to the customer,” she says. “You have to do that to ensure that you can pass along some of the risks.”

It all adds up to a stellar beginning for a law career that promises to be long and distinguished. Does she foresee ever following her mentor to the bench?

“I know every federal judge loves their job, so that would certainly be a job to aspire to someday,” she says. “But I think law firm life is more for me.”

For now, she’ll continue to build her practice and, hopefully, more recognition like the “One to Watch” award will come.

“When I learned I had been selected I was very honored,” she says.