Moving forward while still taking the time to pause, relax, and look back.
My guest today is Dallas Texas Family Lawyer Mike McCurley, whom I have invited to speak with me today not only because of the fact that he has an outstanding family law career and has greatly contributed to the practice of family law, but also because Mike and his family lawyer wife, Mary Johanna McCurley, have really taken the time to design their lives in relation to their practice to help them achieve more balance and harmony.
I know both Mike and Mary Johanna personally and think highly of them, and I wanted Mike to share some of his insights on what he has done to help them achieve this balance. But before we get started, let me begin with a bit of background about Mike McCurley.
He is Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He has garnered recognition from professional organizations in the community, and was recognized in 2002 as Texas’ top family lawyer in Texas Lawyer newspaper, which is published every five years, and he ranked among the top five again in 2007. In 2001 he earned the prestigious Sam Emison Award for outstanding contribution to the practice of family law from the Texas Academy of Family Law Specialists.
He has earned recognition on every Texas Super Lawyers list since they began in 2003, including recognition among the Top 100 Lawyers in Texas and Top 100 Lawyers in Dallas-Fort Worth. He was also recognized by Worth magazine for high net worth people as one of the Top 100 Lawyers, not just among family lawyers but all top lawyers in the US.
He has earned multiple honors by D Magazine as one of the top divorce lawyers in Dallas, and as one of Lawdragon’s 500 Leading Lawyers in America. Additionally, he has been recognized in Best Lawyers in America, Best Lawyers in Texas, Who’s Who in the World, Who’s Who in American Law, and in the Forbes, Town & Country, and Vogue magazines. Mike’s executive-style leadership at the firm has also been the focus of a profile in D CEO Magazine.
In 2010 and 2011 Mike was invited to participate in Renaissance Weekends. Bringing together preeminent authorities and noted innovators in their fields of expertise from around the country, these invitation-only retreats are dedicated to personal and national renewal. Mike is a sought-after source for reporters looking for expert analysis on family law matters, and he serves as a frequent resource for some of the nation’s leading print, broadcast and electronic media outlets, including the Associated Press, Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, USA Today, New York Daily News, and Chicago Tribune, as well as on programs such as Good Morning Texas.
As a lecturer, Mike has also spoken on family law matters across the United States and internationally, and has authored a number of papers and publications on every aspect of family law and trial techniques. You can find a good number of articles Mike and his partners and associates have written on for lawyer magazines. He was one of the 30 people who was and still is contributing to the family law magazine. You can learn more about Mike and his firm, McCurley Orsinger McCurley Nelson & Downing, on their website, www.momnd.com
I feel like we’re halfway done with this interview, Mike because we’ve taken up all our time listing the recognitions you’ve earned, and which I know you’ve deserved. Let’s just start back in the beginning and tell people how you got interested in the practice of family law, how it all started.
Well, actually, I got all my teaching from when I got divorced myself in 1973. It was at a time earlier on, when I was still a business lawyer. Going through the divorce myself I was not very impressed with what I saw available to help me deal with divorce and adjust with the situation. When my divorce was over, I converted my practice from focusing on business law to divorce law.
So when you started out was your goal just to make things better than what they were? Did you plan to grow a firm at that time or did you have other plans?
At that time I was already with a family law firm and I wasn’t thinking to grow another firm at that point in time. I was just thinking that this is an area that needs people that are more precise and skilled in what they do. So I thought about devoting my career to this particular area of law and when I saw that the more I got into it the more I liked it. Of course, I did it at a certain level because being a business lawyer was a necessity. Frankly, to do business you need to have business.
That’s the main reason. It’s a natural thing for transition; it was just the catalyst from personal experience.
Did you have a mentor in your early days when you were starting out in family law?
No, not really. I did have many mentors thereafter, but I mostly had myself as my own mentor. When I first started in family law the reason I did it was because I had chosen to work in it.
So you initially started with your personal opinion of how it should be practiced rather than emulating someone else who was doing a good job in that field.
That is correct. At that point in time divorce law was kind of a necessity that other firms had; it was not a priority.
Were there any major influences in your life in terms of people who pointed you in the right direction?
Yes, I would have to say that there’s a couple of people that certainly made a real big difference in my skills, particularly in the area of family practice and divorce law. One is a gentleman named Lion McGuire, who is still practicing today though only part time. Another is a man by the name of Bill Coon, who is retired now and no longer practicing. Those are the two people that have had the biggest influence in my life as a trial lawyer and a divorce lawyer.
What was it about them that influenced you; was it their style? Was it their personalities or was it the strategic way they looked at cases? How did they influence you?
I would have to say as a complete answer, all of the above. What you listed is an important combination of traits for any one individual, and both of them had all of the above.
Now I know that when you are on a case you tend to develop things from a business point of view, and while I haven’t been a client of yours I suspect that you have a good handle on the emotional situations that people are in when they go through divorce as well. What sort of work have you done to properly understand the emotional, psychological aspects of divorce?
Well, you have to strike a path of proper balance. Of course you have to maintain professional distance to a certain degree, but at the same time if you pull back too far you then lose empathy for your client. You must maintain a balance at all times. I’ve done a number of things to try to improve my own abilities, one of which is to be in an on-going study of CLE law and coaching as well as psychology and psychiatry to better help me understand how the brain works. A lot of what we are talking about with this emotional aspect is fear-driven. So unless you understand the concept of what fear does in an in-depth way you will not be able to understand how to help these people in this process. I can understand, having been through divorce myself, how fear would be a large factor in people’s lives when facing divorce.
Do you also see that in the opposing counsel? That some of their motivations and some of their reactions and the way they operate is due to fear?
Of course. The law practice, and not just in family law, is a fear-driven profession. They used terms like “deadlock.” You know that they don’t call those “sick lines.”
It’s a fear-driven concept in lots of ways, and you have to be cognizant of that. The best thing in the world as far as I am concerned is to be a good family lawyer and to be proficient in what you do by not operating out of fear. Be a firm rock; be more strategic in your thinking. It’s sort of like martial arts.
So you are in a firm with how many partners?
Could you give me a history of your firm, how it has grown over the years and what the benefits of growth are? Perhaps mentioning what some of the downsides of having a larger firm are, if there are any.
Well it is a decision that you make consciously. So if I thought of any significant downsides I would probably downsize. My goal was to actually set about building and maintaining the most proficient, efficient divorce firm that I could that produces results and values and supports the client in every spectrum of need. So that when someone comes here I feel good about them consuming the product that we deliver. That was my goal and I believe that we have achieved it.
I know that you work more with businesspeople and executives and other high net worth people, but do you offer a range? Can your firm deal with middle income people as well as upper middleman or upper income?
Oh sure. Our firm, (I was about to joke about the second floor level, we have two levels and two floors here in our firm) has lots of young lawyers, and they don’t all start at the top. So yes, we can deal with any needs, but we deal mostly with the needs of upper middle class and above; those are the people we want. We offer different hourly rates, of course. There are different expertise levels, but always with someone watching over those with less experience and mentoring them if they need it.
It’s that sort of process. You can’t have a firm that size and made out of nothing but high net worth lawyers. That’s the way it once was and that’s just doesn’t work anymore. You have to take the youngsters and build them up and give them the experience and impress them as they work themselves up. And the good ones rise to the top and the ones that aren’t superb move out, and that’s what I have done over the past 41 years.
You must be good at it, because the firm has grown to the point where it is now and has always been highly respected.
So do you have any recommendations if somebody were starting a firm now? What do you think they should be doing, especially if they want to grow a firm? Are there any strategies you think would help in that area?
Well, I can give a general answer to that question because part of it is general and part of it is personalized to each individual. I guess you have to start with a goal. That can be something as simple as asking how large you want your firm to be, and how long it will take you to get there. I would also encourage these people to concentrate on where they want to be. In making a firm, specifically, never hire people you’re not willing to be partners with.
Because they could eventually end up right alongside you.
Well, that’s true. And another thing is that it’s just another good weeding out process. If they do not meet any of your qualifications intellectually and character-wise then you wouldn’t care to let them be your partner. That should result in you not hiring them in the first place.
Of course we hire from the top of the class which is typical for all firms. We look at a variety of things: their ranking in the class, how they did in new court competitions (because we do a lot of litigation here), what is their undergraduate work and how well they are doing with that. We pay attention to how well-rounded an individual they are, whether they have extracurricular activities or any particular interests. What have they done to pay back to their community?
All of those things make a person proficient and efficient, and reflect on their good character. Those are what I’m looking for.
Do you feel in terms of your own goals that are you achieving them? You’ve said that you tend to reflect on them every 5 years, because they change during that time.
What about your partners. Do you have a partners’ meeting with your all 6 of them? Do you sit down and say what the goals of the firm are for the future?
Yes, we do that monthly and we have a year-end meeting that is a time where those concepts are shared with all the partners. So the end of the year meetings are important, but there are monthly ones above that.
Have those put you on course as far as the direction you’re headed?
Sure. We don’t wait till the year’s end for the assessment.
Let’s just go back and talk about balance in terms of your work and your personal life. You and Mary Johanna have been in practice together and so the two of you must have looked at your own personal goals and thought about if you were working too much, and how much time you needed to spend away.
I know you both love to travel. Was there any particular decision made that caused you to look at your work-life-balance? Since I’ve known you these past 15 years your course your life is taking seems to be in balance. But that’s looking from the outside. Was there ever any point in time where you realized that you needed your life to strike that balance, or have you always just thought that way?
No, I guess I could say my life was probably out of balance until about 20 years ago. I am by nature sort of a self-driven individual, and so is Mary Johanna. I was raised in and was a product of the Depression and a father who believed in hard work and lots of it. That’s the main reason I am a hard worker.
So you have to be cognizant of my upbringing. Left to my own devices I work way, way too much. And so we to take time off and we use travel for that. We have a home that we go to; it’s a good sort of short-term resting place. We sit down each quarter and plan out where we are going to be and where we are going to travel and what we are going to do and then strike a balance because if you don’t calendar the balance, it won’t happen.
If you are a hard charging, hardworking person, it is the best thing to be working and that is what I want to do. If I don’t calendar it, it doesn’t happen. Because that’s what I do.
You said something about left to your own devices, so was there any point that you had a wake-up call, because most of the time we’re not exactly conscious of the fact the way we are running our life- it’s just running.
I know that you’ve gone to different retreats and resorts and those sorts of things that help with being rested. Did they have any impact in terms of helping you recognize that you need to take control of your life?
Sure. About 25 years ago I went to a place, the well-known Canyon Ranch in Tucson, North Arizona, and they have a weeklong intensive workshop with something they called the Laughing Center, or something like that, and my laugh was going really good. My laugh was really fast and I laughed and I enjoyed it. Going through that workshop I laughed with a grandmother and a man who was about a hundred, and at the rate I’m going I probably won’t make it that long.
And after being with those folks, I felt that I needed to start looking into what they were talking about when it came to the way I laughed. I go back there every year now, at least once a year, and this is something that I think keeps me on track.
According to them what you need to do is pick one thing to change about how you’re living your life each time you come in, and of course I wasn’t satisfied with that. I started doing two or three things at a time, and I’ve been doing the same thing ever since. I’ve even started sharing that concept when I visit other countries, teaching it to people of different cultures, religions, whatever. All of it is the idea that you’ll live a more balanced, serene, successful kind of life.
So I calendar good amount of time for it every year.
But you have to stand tough right? Otherwise, as you’ve said, the way you are wired is to work, work, work.
And my wife is a jealous mistress. She’ll get you if you are not there.
I know that you have made a significant contribution in the practice of the family law and maybe you could just talk for a moment about that, since you are also the president of the Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and you’ve worked with that organization for many years. Is there anything that stands out for you in terms of contribution or changes that you helped make to the practice?
Well, I was the President of the Matrimonial in 1999, and what came out of that of course was that I started a committee that deals with affected children, the effects of divorce with children. I also created a committee that continues today to do that it’s been very rewarding to help others in that way.
I think that it will outlast me, which is good because we’re protecting children affected by divorce and there’s so much more still that we can do for that. I am very pleased with how I set that goal and how it has continued on with that committee. The other thing is the idea of helping other people cope with divorce successfully.
We have a laugh workshop we give periodically to groups (including the one at Canyon Ranch) about how to go through divorce and get out of it successfully. Divorce is one thing that can tax people. Even the most sophisticated consumer, I don’t care how much their net worth is, can be caught off-balance by divorce, and kept off-balance. So that’s the contribution that I really enjoy and I am going to keep doing that for the rest of my life, professionally and perhaps even after my career is over.
In terms of other careers do you have any particular goals you’ve set that are important to you and that you want to achieve? I don’t know if you ever thought of retiring, but do you see an end to your legal career at some point and maybe starting another career where you work with people more personally, either coaching or running the sorts of courses you mentioned?
Well, what I have done in the past is that I’ve become more selective about how I spend my time and am going to continue to do that. I’ve been particularly good about knowing when not to comment, because it takes a lot of time to do speech. I still enjoy it though, I’m just more selective now, both about that and what cases I decide to take.
I have become selective in everything that I do and am not yet in the process of my retirement. I can’t think of retirement because it’s a step toward death. My grandfather lived until a hundred and five and I am not ready to start facing that, but I think in my mind the wiser thing is that I continue this state of transition rather than retirement.
I’m not sure where I would go. My life is on track now as far as I’m concerned, and how I would want to move past that depends on where my law practice would go. The prospect of change in this area really excites me, where we might be headed next. All I want to do is to stay on the cutting edge all of the time, and I hope that this continues and from where I sit today I foresee it moving on into the future.
Have you noticed much change in the practice of family law in the past 5 years?
In what ways have you seen it change, and where have you seen the most change?
Oh, 5 years is a short number of years, but I can answer it if you enlarge it to 10-
Okay, let’s say 10 years.
If we include the past decades that provides more definable parameters, and we have a lot of things that have changed. We have lawyers that are more educated and have better skills that what others had in the past.
I think the quality of lawyers available for a person to hire to or to build a law firm with has improved. There are better resources for students now and these kids are getting brighter and are really, really willing to work, which was a problem for a while. The divorce practice, I think, is getting better and better through SLEs from states to states and national organizations. African-American and matrimonial lawyers, the education of matrimonial law for our lawyers, organizations dedicated to furthering family law, all of these are in a better state than they used to be.
Mike McCurley is a well-recognized Texas Super Lawyer with years of experience in family law and more accolades than can be easily listed. He is one of the six partners with the firm McCurley Orsinger McCurley Nelson & Downing, and you can visit their website at www.momnd.com.