Trial Lawyer Q&A - On the Stand with Michael Sheehan - McDermott Will & Emery

On the Stand with Michael Sheehan



Michael (Mike) Sheehan is the global head of the Firm’s Employment Practice Group. He focuses on unfair competition litigation and has tried dozens of cases to verdict involving large-scale raiding, inevitable disclosure of trade secrets, breach of fiduciary duty and noncompete agreements.

In this Q&A, Mike shares what he’s learned from history’s great trial lawyers and golf, how he prevailed through his toughest case and why he always puts his team first.

In Depth

What do you enjoy most about being at trial?

My favorite part of trial is cross-examination. I enjoy the sport of it.

Irving Younger taught us never to ask a question on cross-exam when we don’t know the answer. I often don’t know the answer, but I’m prepared for whatever the answer may be and where it leads us. The words are only a small part of what creates impact; tone, posture, cadence and the duration of the cross-exam also have important roles.

I like closing argument as well, but it’s not the same challenge.

What is a common issue you see clients face going into trial, and how do you avoid it?

Trial is a roller coaster of emotions. If a trial lasts a week, at least two of those days won’t feel good. Clients usually aren’t expecting all the ups and downs, so I like to spend time with them leading up to trial. I prepare them for the ride and the known unknowns that will occur. As a team, the client and I must remain in sync.

I draw inspiration from golf, which is the best metaphor for life. Don’t let the highs get you too high, and don’t let the lows get you too low.

If you could try any case (current, historical or fictional), what would it be?

I would take on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire trial with the legendary Max Steuer for the defense. Steuer once said, “If you speak softly, they will all lean forward to listen. After all, what you want is their attention.”

During the trial, there were more than 120 witnesses called to the stand over 26 days. Steuer was brilliant. He conducted the famous cross-exam of Kate Alterman, and he had only two hours for closing argument. The jury acquitted his clients after two hours of deliberation.

What is the hardest case you’ve tried?

The hardest case I’ve tried was the Corporate Express v. Eon retrial.

We won the first trial. It took the jury one week to come to a verdict that was later set aside. Eon retained all new counsel, and one year later, we tried the same case to a hung jury.

It’s a challenge to know what to change and what to keep the same after winning a case. For one, Eon’s new counsel clearly read the entire transcript and understood how we tried the case the first time. They knew we won over the jury by baiting counsel into relevancy objections and eliciting mini-closing arguments. Their counsel persuaded the new judge to sidebar almost everything. Nonetheless, it was a toss-up case.

When we were initially hired, I assessed that we could win the case six out of 10 times before a jury. We went 1-0-1. Not bad, eh?

What is the proudest moment of your career to date?

I am most proud of what my team around me has accomplished and that we’ve done it together.

I’ve been practicing for 39 years. To identify just a few on my team, working with me today is my mentor (who just turned 73), our practice group director (who started with me when she was 19) and a partner who I wasn’t sure could take a witness the first time we went to court. That partner is now a far better trial lawyer than me. I could go on . . .

Almost weekly, I learn about the ways in which my colleagues demonstrate the ethos to which I have always subscribed: We are best and strongest together. Put the team first.

Check out more trial lawyer interviews in our On the Stand series.