Arnstein & Lehr's Chicago Managing Partner Featured in Law Bulletin
You’ve probably never heard of Chief Justice Michael L. Gesas.
“My first step into the management side of the legal business was at John Marshall, because I was fortunate enough that the school asked that I run the moot court program,” Gesas said.
“They gave me this great title: ‘chief justice.’ Can you imagine that?”
The title is for people who run the moot court program at The John Marshall Law School, where Gesas earned his J.D. in 1984. As chief justice, Gesas, then a student, ran moot court competitions both locally and nationally.
Learning to manage people “started in a big way at John Marshall Law School,” he said.
He would go on to run Gesas, Pilati, Gesas and Golin Ltd., the firm he founded in 1985 with August A. Pilati. He is now managing partner of Arnstein & Lehr LLP’s Chicago office, which hosts 90 of the firm’s 146 attorneys.
Among Gesas’ favorite triumphs was the firm’s work with Heritage International Christian Church, a West Side congregation that in September 2013 was 24 hours from foreclosure.
Gesas and colleague Michelle G. Novick helped the church file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Two years later, the congregants are still packing the sanctuary on Sunday mornings.
“I would tell you that in a good number of the smaller or middle-market (bankruptcy) cases, you have very appreciative clients if you’re a success,” Gesas said.
“When you get into the larger cases where the ownership is diluted through many people, for the obvious reasons the heartwarming appreciation sometimes is tempered. And that’s just natural, I think.”
At Arnstein, Gesas manages an office that highlights gender inclusion as part of its brand. While discussing his interests and responsibilities, he shared his thoughts on the notion of “work-life balance” and why it should apply equally to men and women.
In this interview with the Daily Law Bulletin, condensed for space, the labor and employment attorney discusses his ongoing relationship with the church, his desire for more community-based clients and gender equality at his firm.
Law Bulletin: You and I first spoke in January about Heritage International Christian Church. Have you kept in touch with Pastor Gunn and the members of the church?
Michael Gesas: We have. We’ve talked to him from time to time and everything appears to be going very well over there.
LB: What do they talk to you about in terms of questions about finances and where they go?
Gesas: Future growth of the church. Their participation levels have remained very strong.
We also have discussions with them regarding any other civic (or) religious organizations that may be having difficulty. …
We have had many discussions on community cases where we’re offering our services — similar to the church — to try to assist them, either in or out of church.
LB: You joined Arnstein in 2008 after 24 years with Gesas, Pilati, Gesas and Golin. Which Gesas were you in those Gesases?
Gesas: I will always be the second Gesas. The first was my father Leonard. …
Gesas, Pilati, Gesas and Golin was a small boutique bankruptcy firm of which I had one other equity partner and then at any time three to five non-equity partners. And for the entire period we were housed in the Monadnock Building at Jackson and Dearborn. One of my favorite buildings.
LB: Why make the move?
Gesas: I came to Arnstein for the classic lateral reasons. I needed a larger platform, especially planning on going to Detroit for several years to work with the automotive industry. …
And at the time I thought that it would be most productive to not be the lender, HR director, PR director and chief bottle-washer and focus on practicing law. In other words, to not have the burden of the management task that you have when you run your own firm.
LB: It’s interesting to hear you say that you wanted to get away from management responsibilities, since last October you became managing partner of Arnstein’s Chicago office.
Gesas: About 18 months prior to the transition in October, the then-chairman and managing partner Ray Werner had requested that I become the chair of the litigation department.
I accepted that position because we believe the firm needed leadership that understood the business of the business. In other words, for us to operate as a business and not as a classic law firm.
That group accounted for approximately 48 percent of the revenues of (the) Chicago (office). I enjoyed the challenges of that position and the challenge of operating in effect and managing the litigation of the firm on a more profitable and efficient basis.
And I’ve really enjoyed the mentoring and the teaching of the younger lawyers.
LB: You, of course, are a teacher at John Marshall now, where you earned your J.D. The law school has a reputation of turning out gritty, grinding practitioners who look out for one another once they are in practice.
What were the benefits for you of attending Marshall at the time, and once your career began?
Gesas: I’m a huge fan of John Marshall. I was already out working at a bank that no longer is in Chicago called Continental Bank and Trust. I left Continental to go back to law school, and I selected John Marshall for two reasons.
One, I could go there on an expedited basis, because I’d already been out working.
And near and dear to my heart, Michael Gesas, my grandfather, was in the first graduating class of 1902.
So when I applied to Marshall, I was able to go through that program in approximately 2½ years, attending night classes and day classes.
LB: We talk a lot about the “work-life balance” in terms of women but not men. You teach at Marshall, you have a practice, you are the office’s managing partner, you are married with two rescue dogs and you are dedicated to placing other rescue dogs in homes. What steps do you take to stay organized?
Gesas: What I try to do is, every day, review what I need to do that day. And every weekend I review what I need to do that following week and the months to come, because we always have short-term and long-term goals, as you can imagine. The balance of all of that is important, because no one should ever take on a responsibility with half a heart.
Now the teaching at John Marshall is not every semester, which reduces some of that burden. … And I team-teach that with Barry Chatz, which helps alleviate the work required.
LB: Arnstein & Lehr has a tab on its website about its “Women’s Initiative.” Do you think the work-life balance question is something that should be placed more frequently and equitably upon men?
Gesas: I think the question of the balance should be applied to everybody. We have a flex-time program here which we have a good number of female partners on. …
Interesting enough, I don’t have nor have I been requested to have any male partners put on a flex-time schedule, although I think in the future from the studies I read, that may be the case.
We’re very proud of that whole program because it has allowed a good number of lawyers to continue to practice and focus the time they need on their family at the young, developing ages. I think it’s been very successful for us.
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By Jack SilversteinLaw Bulletin staff writer
Reprinted with permission from the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.