Bankruptcy, Biglaw, Cars, Musical Chairs, Partner Issues

Can a Biglaw Partner Fix the Big Old Mess… of Detroit?

Michigan Central Station

Last year I got ticketed while visiting the great city of Detroit. I was trying to take some photographs — like the one at right (click to enlarge) — and I unwittingly trespassed upon government property. I got a ticket for “loitering on railroad property.” It wasn’t cheap, at $200, but I was fine with paying it, figuring that Detroit needs all the help it can get. (Also, I liked the fact that the ticket listed my race as “White.”)

Detroit needs all the help it can get — and now it’s getting some. Governor Rick Snyder just picked a leading bankruptcy lawyer to oversee the city’s operations, pursuant to Michigan’s controversial Emergency Manager Law. (The people of Michigan voted to repeal an earlier emergency management statute, and the legislature then passed a new one.)

So who’s the Biglaw partner tasked with Mission: Impossible, and which firm does he or she hail from?

Downtown Detroit (photo by me; click to enlarge).

You’re a dying Rust Belt entity in desperate need of legal help. Who you gonna call?

If you said Jones Day, pat yourself on the back. From the New York Times:

A veteran lawyer who once worked on Chrysler’s bankruptcy has been handed what may prove to be his toughest case yet: to bring Detroit back from the edge of financial collapse.

Michigan officials on Thursday appointed the lawyer, Kevyn Orr, a partner in the Jones Day law firm, as an emergency manager to oversee operations in Detroit, one of the largest cities to ever receive such intervention.

“This is the Olympics of restructuring,” Mr. Orr said during a news conference in Detroit as he stood near Gov. Rick Snyder, who chose him, and Mayor Dave Bing, who, like all city officials in such situations, will be forced to cede significant powers to Mr. Orr under the state’s plan to save the city.

That must have been a fun news conference. I can imagine Orr jumping around backstage in a hoodie listening to the 8 Mile soundtrack before the announcement.

One can see why Kevyn Orr was tapped for this challenging assignment (which one turnaround expert compared to a “a double root canal”). Orr’s firm, Jones Day, has one of the best brand names in Biglaw. And as you can see from his bio, Orr has cleaned up some of the biggest legal messes of our time, including but not limited to the Chrysler bankruptcy. As one Above the Law source told us:

Kevyn is credited as the mastermind behind the enormous Chrysler restructuring, which is used as a prime example of how Jones Day operates as “One Firm Worldwide”: the restructuring involved coordinated effort between numerous practice groups in multiple offices based upon the best interest of the client rather than the “turf” of the involved partners.

Kevyn has been described as the heart and soul of Jones Day: “if you cut him, he bleeds Jones Day.”

Detroit was recently named America’s most miserable city, in part due to a violent crime rate that’s the highest in the country, but let’s hope that Kevyn Orr doesn’t have to shed blood in his new role. Moving to Detroit is sacrifice enough. [FN1]

Why is Kevyn Orr leaving a lucrative partnership at a leading law firm — note that he’s resigning completely, not taking a leave of absence — to relocate to the land of Hardcore Pawn? It’s surely not the $275,000 salary, a fraction of his Jones Day pay.

Orr wants to participate in history. And his Michigan roots run deep, as noted in the Detroit News:

“If we can do this, I will have participated in one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of this country,” said Orr, 54, a father of two who lives in Maryland. “That is something I can tell my grandkids about someday.”

He was introduced to the media Thursday by Gov. Rick Snyder and immediately sought to establish his Michigan bona fides. Orr earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Michigan, vacationed on the Leelanau Peninsula and Mackinac Island, learned to ski at Mt. Brighton and said he’s “trying to get my hands on one of those Vipers,” a Dodge sports car that sells for about $100,000.

Kevyn Orr

Orr is smart and savvy when it comes to interpersonal relationships and how he’s perceived by others — check out this Bloomberg Law video, in which he and other career experts offer interview tips — so we expect that he’ll leave the Viper at home when he drives into the Motor City. Supporting the U.S. auto industry is great and all, but flaunting one’s wealth is not. The less privileged won’t give you credit for driving a couple of Cadillacs.

We wish Kevyn Orr the best of luck with his new assignment, and we leave him with these wise words: “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow / This opportunity comes once in a lifetime.”

[FN1] Just kidding. I had a wonderful time in Detroit last year, my loitering ticket notwithstanding, and I thought to myself that it would be interesting to live in the city for a period. I can see why so many young people from around the country are flocking to Detroit, attracted by cheap rents, a growing creative community, and a sense of renewal and possibility.

UPDATE (3:15 PM): Flip to the next page for a prominent legal blogger’s personal reflections on Kevyn Orr.

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