When asked about what he does for a living, Michael Martin will sometimes mention that he once served in the ministry, pausing before adding words to this effect: “But then I turned to the dark side [ another pause] and became a lawyer.” The line, with Martin’s well-timed delivery, breaks the ice, usually generates a laugh, and nicely opens the door for an engaging, well-balanced, two-way conversation.
From growing up in Texas; attending and graduating from a conservative Christian university in the Lone Star State; helping people in Brazil for two years; earning a master’s in divinity from Princeton; returning to Brazil for five and a half years to work for a nonprofit organization; and then going to law school in California, Martin has a track record of embracing change. And, his diverse background serves him well as a partner at the small but highly regarded Ventura, CA-based Meyers, Widders, Gibson, Jones & Feingold.
In Martin’s civil litigation practice, he handles business disputes; commercial personal property and real property lease cases; defect actions and other issues in the construction industry; commercial receivables and collections; and judgment enforcement. He also represents the firm’s municipal clients in code enforcement activities. And while he stays very busy with his legal practice, he also keeps his hand in certain clerical matters. For example, in partnership with his wife Julia, Martin sometimes stands at the altar to perform and officiate weddings. Taking an open-minded approach to such matrimonial matters, he presided over his first secular marriage ceremony this past March.
But make no mistake about it: Martin is a lawyer through and through, one who relishes serving clients and generating optimal outcomes for them as well as performing pro bono work that enhances his Ventura community. Recently, Of Counsel talked with Martin about his education and early career experiences, his legal practice, what he enjoys and dislikes about the legal profession, and, most interestingly, the similarities between law and religion, among other topics. What follows is that edited interview.
Of Counsel: Mike, years ago you made a significant shift in your career? What prompted the change? Would you talk about that?
Michael Martin: Law was always something I’d been interested in, including when I was an undergrad at a Christian university. I had classmates who were all interested in going into the ministry and more specifically wanted to do it overseas. I had no interest in that. I was pre-med at the time. I thought, I must be the coldest, unfeeling person in the world because I have no desire to do this ministry thing. And, I don’t have a passion for international work.
But I went through a program at my university in Texas where they would place you with a missionary. I got all set up to go to Africa in what was medical missionary work. But that whole thing fell through because the wife of the missionary got malaria and they had to come home. I was going to do humanitarian work with a ministry mixed in with it. I thought that would be my way to have a nice two-year gap and help people medically.
Because I thought I was going to Africa, I hadn’t signed up for school so when the trip fell through I decided to take some time off. Then this organization at school said, “We have this church in Brazil that you could work with for two years instead.” Initially, I wasn’t interested in Brazil or working with a church but then, after giving it some thought, I said, “Why not. I’ll take the time and do it. It might be interesting after all.”
It turned out to be a great experience. I loved the Brazilian people. I fit in with them and got into the entire culture. I lived with Brazilians and found I had a knack for learning Portuguese. It was amazing and I got interested in the church aspect of the experience as well. Everything was perfect.
OC: And after two years you came back to continue your college education, right?
MM: Yes, when I came back for undergrad school, I started getting some friends together to go back to Brazil in the future and I had my eye on this city on the northeastern coast called Natal. I tried to rally some friends around the idea, but they couldn’t go right away. I had a buddy going to Princeton for seminary. I thought that sounded like an interesting choice so I filled out an application for Princeton and I got in with a full-ride scholarship to pursue a master’s in divinity. I was excited to be close to New York City and Washington—and outside of my more conservative, Christian environment in Texas.
On the first day I was there I met the woman who would become my wife, Julia. Soon, we made a five-year commitment to go to Brazil. We eventually went there, loved living there, had our two daughters there, and really enjoyed our lives. At the end of the five years, we ran into a fork in the road—either stay in Brazil or go back to the States. While we loved Brazil, our parents were getting older and we wanted our kids to know their grandparents. We made the decision to go back to the United States. But I wasn’t interested in working in ministry here. I did it all for Brazil, the cross-cultural experience. The interpersonal things were what interested me.
I always had law in the back of my mind and, when we came back, Julia’s parents agreed to house us and our two babies. So I got through law school and then I got a clerking position with the firm that I’m at now, while I was going to school at night. I worked very hard for four years. I took the bar, passed, and the firm hired me.
OC: Do you see any similarities between legal work and clerical work? Or are they just very different?
MM: I’ve always felt that ministry and law do indeed have similarities. In the legal arena, you’ve got a text and then you have a client who brings to you some unique facts. And, you have to figure out how to combine the two together to create an argument to get a result that’s favorable to your client. With ministry, it was kind of the same way. You have the Bible, which is your text, and then you have people who have needs or concerns or issues and you have to be able to guide their situation with the text. I see the two as similar practices.
OC: I think often attorneys don’t get credit for their desire to help people, or their ability to deliver that help. That seems to be an obvious similarity between the two professions, between ministers and lawyers. In each case, you’re trying to lift a burden off someone.
MM: Absolutely. We’re in the service industry. People bring an issue to you and they want a real solution. That’s true with respect to religion or law. If we can’t provide real answers to people and their situations, and give them a concrete solution, then we may be in the wrong profession.
OC: Your practice is quite diversified. What do you like doing the most as an attorney? What brings you intellectual stimulation or occupational satisfaction and why?
MM: I’m energized when I’m with a client, one on one, and providing an analysis of their issue. I enjoy listening to their concerns and working to provide solutions. Like a lot of attorneys, I don’t enjoy doing my billings. I like brainstorming about the arguments I then craft.
When I look at my practice, I get satisfaction out of working with clients over time. Now I have some who are one-shot clients. But I also have clients with whom I’ve cultivated long-term, very deep relationships. Those are the ones that particularly inspire me.
For example, I have one client in Los Angeles that is a large, heavy-duty construction equipment rental company. They rent equipment all over the western half of the United States. They have receivable issues, which sounds kind of boring but they get involved in large projects, like wind industry projects and other important construction jobs. Now if they’re not getting paid, I come in and help them.
But what I like about that client is that they’ve been my client for 20 years. They treat me like I’m a part of their company, like I’m sitting down the hall [at their offices]. I’m one of them. I’m expected to be at their Christmas party and we get together for lunch. We have a very friendly rapport over the phone. It’s not a buttoned-up relationship that attorneys and clients often have. It’s a co-worker type of relationship. I have several clients that are that way and they’re the ones I really enjoy because there’s a high level of trust. They trust me completely because our relationship is so deep.
OC: Mike, when you think about one of the most important matters or type of litigation that you’ve handled, what comes to mind? What stands out?
MM: I enjoy helping clients who work on public projects. For example, if there’s a highway project and my client hasn’t been paid, I like to help them. I feel very comfortable performing that work. It’s almost second nature to me. I could draft the lawsuit with my eyes closed. I know how sue the bond company. I know how to do a bonded stop notice, if I need to. I like working on these cases and my service reaps dividends because I get a fat check that I can give right to my client. I’ve had several of these cases.
OC: It seems like you enjoy being part of a team that’s generating low-carbon energy through wind farms and helping enhance the lives of people with your role in public roads projects. Does that give you satisfaction?
MM: Oh yes, it certainly does. And I like acting with precision to help my clients. A couple of weeks ago there was a huge residential project in Los Angeles out near Valencia. Our client supplies all the lines [and other materials] for the sewer in the project—all the plumbing. They had about a half million dollars worth of materials on the site that they hadn’t been paid for, and in a very short period of time, I was able to record the documents I needed to and apply the pressure that was necessary to get my client a check, for the full amount in 10 days. That certainly gives me satisfaction.
OC: Let’s change direction. What do you dislike about the legal profession? What do you wish you could change?
MM: This is probably a common answer but I’d say the bureaucracy. Right now, with the backload of cases because of COVID, it’s hard to get a case to trial. I wish there was a speedier way to bring things around. Many parties aren’t motivated to settle as quickly. It just seems our justice system has really slowed down. To bring things to conclusion, there needs to be pressure on everybody. It seems it takes forever these days. That’s something I’d like to see changed.
OC: I want to go back to your background. I don’t think I’ve interviewed an attorney who earned a master’s in divinity, from Princeton no less. To what extent do your theological studies inform your law practice?
MM: I think there’s a general respect for the law and how it came to be. That’s one thing I gained at seminary—a respect for scripture and how it was all compiled, the evolution and history of scripture, how it all came together. I have the same kind of respect for the legal precedents that we have in our system. The way it goes back to English common law. I appreciate the history of it and the rational progression to the law. Also, approaching the content of the law with respect is much like preparing a sermon to convey a message to people. That’s really stuck with me. You have to know how to articulate your position and to make it actionable. [In both law and ministry] it’s important to go back to the source and consider the context of a particular passage. Where did it come from? Who was the speaker? What were they trying to convey? And who were they trying to convey it to? We have to get back to the basics so we can truly understand the purpose behind it.
OC: Thank you, Mike. I wanted to ask you a question about Myers Widders. On the website the firm highlights the community in which you live and work. In what ways do you and the law firm fulfill that commitment to community service?
MM: We’re extremely committed to forming nonprofits and we do a lot of the work pro bono or with very special low rates. We’re involved in free legal aid and with the Ventura County Bar Association, One of my partners, Jacquelyn Ruffin, serves as its president. And, we all do so much community service, which is definitely a key component of our law firm culture. We do a lot of public entity work, serve school districts, work for several cities, and perform other legal service in the community. We’ve worked for the City of Ventura for decades. So we’re deeply embedded in the community. We do a lot of pro bono work and strongly encourage our associates to get out in the community, meet people, get involved, and volunteer.
—Steven T. Taylor
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