Martha Deller Special to the Business Press
Michael McConnell’s legal career has taken him from being one of the youngest bankruptcy judges in the nation to founding an organization to improve his profession to – in a few days – standing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court receiving an award from his peers. With no legal role models in his family, the Nolan Catholic High School debater decided that the law “sounded like an interesting profession” after reading books about how lawyers protected rights and helped people.
More than a decade later, with college, military service and law school behind him, McConnell found himself on the leading edge of a burgeoning bankruptcy law practice that led to a 1983 appointment as a federal bankruptcy judge. At age 36, he was one of the youngest bankruptcy judges at a tumultuous time after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the federal bankruptcy code unconstitutional. Three years later, as Congress wrestled with a proposal that could have abolished bankruptcy courts, McConnell left the bench to return to a bankruptcy practice enhanced by his judicial experience.
“It gives you a very unique perspective having sat on both sides of the bench,” he said. “You understand the thought processes of the judge trying to weigh arguments of both sides and the advocate trying to do the best for his client.” Dee Kelly Jr., managing partner of Kelly Hart & Hallman LLP where McConnell chairs the Business Reorganization and Bankruptcy Practice group, said there is little doubt that McConnell has excelled in those areas the past 25 years. “Bankruptcy is a unique practice,” Kelly said. “Mike instinctively knows where a case needs to go and what the best outcome is. He is familiar with the bankruptcy bar and courts. That’s part of his success.” But McConnell, 67, has become best known for his leadership in American Inns of the Court, an outgrowth of a British organization devoted to professionalism, ethics and civility in the judiciary and the bar. The American organization, founded in the late 1970s by former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, was relatively new when McConnell was inspired to charter a local chapter.
Unhappy with trial tactics that reflect poorly on the profession, McConnell said, attorneys liked the idea of an organization dedicated to mentoring young lawyers in principles of professionalism. “Our whole emphasis is catching junior members coming in and teaching them about being zealous but civil,” he said. With the support of the late federal Judge Eldon Mahon – for whom McConnell clerked after law school – McConnell and other area attorneys chartered the Eldon Mahan Inn of Court in 1993. He served as president in 1997. Retired federal magistrate Charles Bleil said some members of the Inn – which include judges; law students and lawyers in categories ranging from inexperienced to veteran – become less active after serving leadership terms.
McConnell, however, continued to support the Mahon Inn, even as he moved on to represent a 6-state southern region on the American Inns foundation in 1999 and to found the John Ford Bankruptcy Inn in Dallas in 2000, Bleil said. When Bleil was incoming Inn president in 2003, he asked McConnell to attend an executive committee meeting to help him address the need for bylaws to manage the rotation of Inn members. McConnell did so, sitting quietly until Bleil laid out his proposal. “He was like Superman taking off his business suit,” he said. “He probably spoke less than 30 seconds but that took care of it. I think they respected his input more than anyone they would have on earth except Judge Mahon.” McConnell’s take-charge approach at all levels of the American Inns organization – from local to international – was cited in 19 letters nominating him for the American Inns of Court 2013 A. Sherman Christensen Award, named for the Utah law professor who helped found the American organization. He will receive that award Oct. 19 at the annual American Inns of Court Celebration of Excellence hosted by U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas at the Supreme Court. In his two-page nomination, the Mahon Inn’s current president, 96th District Judge R.H. Wallace, cited a long list of McConnell’s service to the American Inns that qualified him for the award.
In addition to founding the two local Inns, Wallace noted that McConnell assisted in the formation of Inns in Houston and other cities; chaired 2011 and 2013 national symposiums that drew hundreds of judge and attorneys; and represented the American Inns at international events in Dublin, Ireland, and London, England. “Mike has been active and dedicated to the local Inn for over 20 years and has served in virtually every leadership position and received every recognition and honor that could be bestowed upon him. He is without equal in that regard,” Wallace said. And McConnell continues to strive to improve his profession, helping create a virtual Court Technology University to educate bar members about ethical issues raised by social media and computer technology. “There have been situations where jurors were checking Facebook pages of witnesses and criminal defendants,” McConnell said. “There is a whole generation of ethical issues raised by social media. We want to be on the cutting edge of that.”