Skip Miller Interviewed by Los Angeles Business Journal About His Life as a Litigator
By Alfred Lee, Los Angeles Business Journal – July 2, 2012
Aggressive attorney Louis R. ‘Skip’ Miller says forget trying to make a case for his sensitive side.
To tell old war stories, you have to have lived through a few firefights. Attorney Louis “Skip” Miller has had his share. In the ’90s, Miller developed a reputation for handling some of the city of L.A.’s toughest legal battles, including Rodney King’s civil lawsuit against the city and sexual harassment lawsuits against City Councilman Nate Holden. He has also taken on litigation for major financial institutions and entertainment clients such as Rod Stewart and Eagles guitarist Don Felder. Miller also has experienced conflict in his professional life. In 2006, he left law firm Christensen Miller, which he co-founded and helped grow to some 150 attorneys, after partner Terry Christensen was indicted of wiretapping charges stemming from the Anthony Pellicano scandal. An ugly dispute followed with Miller’s other former partners over the payout he was owed by the firm. In 2010, he ultimately won $4.6 million in arbitration. Today, he runs Miller Barondess, LLP, a 19-attorney firm co-founded by him and his two sons, Daniel and Jim, who followed their father into law. At his new Century City office, he spoke openly to the Business Journal about past mistakes, the fallout from the Pellicano scandal and whether or not the hard-nosed litigator has a sensitive side.
Question: You’ve been through all kinds of legal fights. Is there a certain kind of case you specialize in?
Answer: Tough cases. I don’t really care what the nature of the case is.
Ever been a case that’s too tough for you to take?
No. There’s no such thing.
You think you can win anything?
Well, no, you can’t win every case. But you can get a good result in every case.
What’s an example of that?
Back in the ’90s I did a lot of cases for the city of L.A. and the LAPD when the Rodney King beating occurred. The city burned and there were horrible riots and they retried the officers on civil rights claims in federal court and convicted two of them. Rodney King sued for damages for civil rights violations. Pretty good case.
So what happened?
It was an extremely hot potato politically. Certain members of city government wanted to pay the $25 million that he was demanding, and others quite frankly didn’t want to pay him anything. So they called me in. I said, “This is a really bad situation. You’re gonna lose. There’s no way of getting around it. But we don’t want him showing that horrible tape. Why don’t we just agree not to contest liability and let the jury compensate Mr. King for his damages?” That’s exactly what we did. And he recovered a little over $3 million. Which was exactly what the city was willing to pay. He wanted $25 million.
This was a good result for the city because?
It saved legal expenses because we didn’t have to relitigate the whole issue of liability that we for sure would have lost. And it kept the exposure at a reasonable amount that the city was willing to pay. And that was a case that I didn’t think was winnable and I couldn’t get it settled, so we resolved it that way.
Why do you like the tougher cases?
Constitutionally I enjoy it. I guess the best way I could put it is it keeps me young and it keeps me energized. It’s what I like to do with my time. It’s a lot of fun and it’s also lucrative. That’s a part of it, too.
What specifically do you enjoy about it?
I like the challenge. I like the fight. I like the strategizing to win the war. I like to figure out how to beat the other guy.
Is that part of your personality, too?
Definitely. Ever since I was a kid. I was a guard on the football team; I probably weighed 170. I’m not very big you know.
Did you grow up in a competitive household?
I was the oldest of four boys so I was always on top. We had the Miller Olympics as kids and I always got the gold medal. I’m not kidding. We used to play football and baseball in the back yard and I was always the one that got to bat first and I always scored the touchdowns.
You have a reputation as an aggressive attorney. Do you think that’s a fair characterization?
I would say I’m very aggressive. Yeah.
Do you think you’ve ever gone too far?
No. I never crossed the line ever. Sometimes you make a mistake or you rely on research that isn’t right; that’s happened to me. I’ve had experiences where things haven’t gone as I hoped, OK?
What’s an example of making a mistake?
Well, I don’t know if it was a mistake, but several years ago I was representing (Rod Stewart) in a very contentious lawsuit and I had a very good younger attorney on the case with me. And totally inadvertently, the younger attorney forgot to produce a key document. The judge was upset and sanctioned the law firm (Christensen Miller). I wasn’t involved in the production, but he was upset with me because I was in charge and it was quite painful.
The lawyer made an honest mistake. She was up front about it. But I’m the one that was in charge of the case and I took the responsibility. And I personally paid the sanctions, too.
In the late ’90s, there was controversy over you contacting a juror.
Oh, yeah. That was another mistake, OK? I was in the middle of a trial and the jury went off to deliberate, and after a couple of weeks you could literally hear screaming from inside the jury room. So I went back to the office and I asked one of the people on the case with me to look up the rule: Can you contact a juror who’s been excused and find out what’s going on? And he said yes. So I called the juror.
Then what happened?
He told me there was a war going on in the jury room. (Laughs). So the following Monday I went to the judge with a declaration from this guy explaining there was a war going on, please look into it and deal with it. And the judge picked up the law book and said, “Mr. Miller, you may not know this but the rule’s been changed. You’re not supposed to contact an excused juror until after the verdict comes in.” I said, “Oh, I didn’t know that.”
What were the consequences?
The judge reported me to the State Bar. I went to the State Bar and said I made a mistake. I received a reproval. The verdict came in against us. But then the case went up on appeal, and the Court of Appeal reversed the verdict based on jury misconduct and said the judge should have dealt with it, and threw the whole thing out. As it turned out I was right. That was an aggressive thing to do, to contact a juror.
How did you start the old firm, Christensen Miller?
I met Terry (Christensen) in 1973 when I went to work at Wyman Bautzer. I worked with him closely for the next 33 years. He was my close friend, a very smart lawyer, a very good guy as far as I was concerned. We left in 1988 and started Christensen Miller and we did great. We started with 13 attorneys. When I left in 2006 it probably had 130 attorneys, something like that.
What was your relationship with Terry like?
Terry Christensen was my best friend. He was about seven or eight years older than me. I thought he walked on water. He and I talked about everything. We had lunch together a couple of times a week. Our families were friends.
He was convicted of wiretapping charges, for hiring Anthony Pellicano to record phone conversations for one of his clients, Kirk Kerkorian. When did you find out he was in trouble?
I’ll never forget this. I came to work one day in January of 2006. Everything was fine; everybody’s doing great. Christensen Miller’s cruising along. And there was a message for me from the U.S. attorney when I came back from lunch. I had a client at the time who was involved in the Pellicano thing – he was only a witness, he was never charged.
So what happened?
So I get a call from the U.S. attorney who says, “Skip, you’ve got a problem.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Well, you have a conflict of interest now because we’re gonna indict your partner Terry Christensen.” I thought it was a joke. I thought it was just a dumb joke, you know? He told me it wasn’t.
What was your reaction?
I was floored. I think my legs gave out. I sat down in my chair. I could barely breathe, I lost my breath. I couldn’t believe it. I was completely shocked, I had no idea any of this was going on.
Did you believe he was innocent?
I tried to call him; I couldn’t find him. As it turned out I did have a conflict because I did have a client who was otherwise involved, so I couldn’t really discuss it with him.
You never discussed it with him?
I never discussed it with him.
I run into him every once in a while and talk to him. But I mean, I feel bad for him. He’s been sentenced to three years in federal prison. That’s a pretty bad thing to be facing. (Christensen is out on bail pending appeal.)
Did it change your opinion of him?
Yeah, the whole thing changed my opinion of him and others at the firm. But I don’t really want to get into it. I really don’t. Yeah, it changed my life. I tried to deal with it for a couple of months and then I decided to leave.
I just couldn’t deal with it anymore. I wanted to get away from him and some of the other people there. And I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have a job (lined up). I was almost 60 years old. I just wanted to get out of there.
You won a $4.6 million arbitration judgment against your old firm. What was the dispute about?
I wanted to be paid my capital in the firm. I wanted to be paid what I was owed for the four months of the (last) year I was there and I wanted my retirement. And I won everything.
Did your leaving the firm or the dispute have anything to do with being sanctioned?
No, the sanctioning was back in 2004. No. They wouldn’t pay me a dime. I think they thought they’d win and I thought I would win and I won. I think it’s as simple as that.
When did you get the idea to start Miller Barondess?
I didn’t really want to be working for somebody else. So my wife suggested that we start a firm, me and Dan and Jim.
So it was your wife’s idea?
As usual with everything in my life and in our family, my wife was instrumental. Sherry was absolutely instrumental in talking the boys into it. She helped me with the computers and the furniture and the phones and everything. As did Betsy, Jim’s wife. Without my family I couldn’t have done it.
Is your wife a big part of your decision-making?
I always run my opening statements by her. I always bounce ideas off her. She’s very smart, but she’s your typical, down-to-earth, pragmatic juror.
I noticed one of your decorations is a guitar signed by the Eagles’ Don Henley. Didn’t you represent Don Felder is his lawsuit against the Eagles?
It’s a gift from Don Felder, signed by the Eagles. It’s not from Don Henley – he was on the other side of the lawsuit. (Felder was) suing the Eagles and their manager Irving Azoff, for damages for ousting him from the band.
Why would they want to do that? Didn’t he co-write “Hotel California”?
They were saying he wasn’t contributing to the band, but he was contributing hugely. I made those graphs over there, and the intent was to show the jury graphically how the Eagles sales skyrocketed after Felder joined. That case was settled and the terms are confidential.
How’s it been going?
It seems to be going strong. This law firm is really cool. Jimmy is in charge of business development. I have cases with Danny and all these other guys. They’re really into it and they’re really starting to spread their wings as lawyers as I was a long time ago. And I’m right in the thick of it. I feel young and I feel like I’m probably in better shape than they are. You think I’m kidding?
How is that possible?
I’m a very avid exerciser. I do hard cardio every day. I go to the gym with a trainer and lift weights. It’s a stressful business. You’re on your feet when you’re in trial and it’s a lot of adrenaline. I find that it really pays off to stay in good shape. My main other thing is spending time with my family. We have two granddaughters now.
So, exercise, work and family?
And cars. I love my cars. I have a GT3 Porsche. I love it. It’s my regular car. Then I have a 360 Spider Ferrari and I’m thinking about getting another Ferrari.
What do you like about cars?
I like the power, the speed and I close my eyes and pretend like I’m Michael Schumacher. I enjoy commuting to and from work if you believe that.
So you’re this tough attorney who stays in shape and drives fast cars. Is there a sensitive side at all?
You’re not like a secret ballet fan or something?
No, I’m not that big into the arts.
I’ve had some recent personal experiences, which I don’t really want to go into. But when you get to be older you think about what is important. And for me the sensitive side of me, what’s important to me, is that you do the right thing by people.
What do you mean by that?
I had a client who used to be on top of the world. He was a major corporate client and had a huge company and so forth. He’s had a lot of problems and reversals in his life. He doesn’t really have much money left. He’s still my client and my friend and I still help him and solve his problems with him.
That’s what you mean by doing right by people?
You’ve got to be loyal and up front and do the right thing. And you’ve also got to do something that may not be in your financial interests sometimes. I left a job where I was making very substantial money. I felt like it was the honorable, right thing to do. And that’s kind of how I run my whole life. So if there’s a sensitive side that’s it. I would not say I’m sensitive, warm and fuzzy; it’s not my personality.
What else do you do when you get home?
Play with the dogs. Relax. We go out to Laker games, UCLA games. I watch Military Channel. Big World War II buff.
Yeah. Love Military. Love it. “Greatest Tank Battles,” “Great Planes.” My wife complains about it, but I think it’s really interesting.
What do you like about it?
It’s very interesting to me to see how these different civilizations, different countries would develop. I think the thing that differentiates us and maybe the Brits is we have the rule of law. You don’t get jury trials in most cases in Europe. You get ’em here. You don’t get them in Japan. China’s a nightmare as far as the legal system is concerned. There’s a lot of dishonesty in this country but you have a place to go to get justice. You can go to court. So to me that’s very fulfilling and when you look at the rest of the world, you look at history, we’re different.
Louis R. ‘Skip’ Miller
COMPANY: Miller Barondess LLP
BORN: Chicago; 1947.
EDUCATION: B.S., business administration, University of Denver; J.D., UCLA.
CAREER TURNING POINTS: Taking trial advocacy course in law school with professor Paul Boland. Trying cases with attorney Frank Rothman at Wyman Bautzer.
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: Paul Boland, Frank Rothman.
PERSONAL: Lives in Pacific Palisades with his wife, Sherry.
ACTIVITIES: Exotic cars, traveling, military history.