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A veteran who thrives on legal battles

Michael Wolford:
A veteran who thrives on legal battles

Streamlined legal machines are in. Big-gun partners flanked by troops of associates are out.
In law as a business these days, those are the rules.
But in law as a blood sport–litigation–the only rules that count are the court’s.
Out of the trenches of government practice, up the ladder at a large law firm and now leading his own troop of associates, Michael Wolford knows the rules change with the game.
Michael R. Wolford & Associates, the firm he started, may be something of an anomaly here. But anachronistic it is not, the firm’s founder says.
Larger cities have spawned constellations of litigation boutiques, small firms that handle nothing but court fights. Rochester has only a few.
Despite the fact his cases have made headlines for 25 years, despite his white hair and wide-ranging contacts, Wolford is no star, he insists.
And his four associates, aged mid-20s to early 30s, are not bit players.
“My plan is not to remain Wolford & Associates for long,” the 54-year-old lawyer says. “This is a team of absolutely top-notch talent. I expect them all to move into ownership of the firm as partners.”
Maybe the team talk comes from his years at Nixon, Hargrave, Devans & Doyle LLP. Maybe it comes from his years as a Little League coach.
Whatever the source, Wolford is serious about selling his team’s services to clients–including corporations who will not pay to train associates.
One of the largest and most vehement of that class is Eastman Kodak Co. Yet Kodak throws a lot of work Wolford’s way.
Another source of business for Wolford’s baby barracuda of business litigation firms is other law firms.
“He is a very special attorney who has established the highest reputation in the legal community,” said Paul Nunes, litigation chief at Underberg & Kessler LLP.
“I would bet Mike gets as many referrals from lawyers as he does from other business clients.”
On that point, Nunes likely would win, Wolford says.
Mostly because a law firm that sends a client to Wolford for help in a court fight will get the client back.
All Wolford’s firm does is litigate. It does not cross-sell a new client into its estates and trusts division, its intellectual-property practice or its real estate department.
It has no estates and trusts, no intellectual property, no real estate division.
It has Wolford, four associates, one paralegal and three secretaries. And it has computer capability and cost consciousness that allow it to operate as efficiently as any firm in the field, Wolford says.
Recently, Wolford stopped charging clients for routine phone calls, faxes and copying. Law firms traditionally add those costs to client bills. But Wolford sees them as part of the firm’s own cost of doing business.
His collection of young lawyers, though, is not a cost-cutting measure, he says.
Their offices are almost as big as Wolford’s, their caseloads are sizable and their chances of sitting first chair in a real trial are pretty good.
His commitment to bringing the new generation along is nothing new, says a local lawyer who teamed frequently with Wolford when both were at Nixon, Hargrave.
“He was a partner and I was an associate, but he gave me my own witnesses to handle at trial,” says Michael Norris, now a partner at Hallenbeck, Lascell, Norris & Zorn. “You can learn a lot just by watching Mike, but he pushed me right into the thick of it.”
Wolford sees nothing chancy in staking his new firm’s future on young talent.
After all, he was in his mid-20s when he sat first chair for the U.S. attorney’s office here.
In fact, Wolford sat only chair.
As the sole assistant U.S. attorney here, the young Wolford carried the government’s banner in all civil and criminal cases.
And he did it before U.S. District Court Judge Harold Burke, believed by some attorneys to have been placed on the federal bench by Satan.
Wolford does not go that far.
But he does say Burke “could make my life a living hell” if Wolford showed up unprepared.
Wolford prepared day and night, seven days a week, for three years.
That intensity remains part of his life. During a recent week defending a client before the Securities and Exchange Commission, Wolford never glanced at a newspaper and turned the TV on only once.
“He is an awful golfer–clearly an indication of how much time he puts in on his cases,” Norris says. “I am suspicious of anyone who is too good on the golf course. How hard can they be working? That is not a problem with Mike.”
At the height of the Vietnam War protests 25 years ago, Rochester’s lone assistant U.S. attorney prosecuted the first in a series of headline cases.
Only a few months on the job, Wolford was handed the Flower City 8, anti-war activists on trial for trashing Selective Service offices here.
Sympathetic jurors covered their eyes when the verdict was read. Three wept openly. But they voted guilty.
Wolford’s associates now have more experience than he had then.
He admits to a bias toward hiring out of government service boot camp. One associate came from the National Labor Relations Board, another from the Department of Justice’s tax department.
“Government agencies have very little choice but to throw people right into the heat of battle,” Wolford explains.
Tricks of trial work can be taught. A taste for trying cases cannot.
A Rochester native, Wolford received a bachelor’s degree from John Carroll University in Cleveland in 1963, an MBA from SUNY at Buffalo in 1965 and a law degree in 1968 from Buffalo Law School.
By the time Wolford finished courtroom survival training under Burke and signed on with Nixon, Hargrave, wife Beatrice and he had three children.
Wolford had no fellow lawyers in the family then. He does now.
Elizabeth, 29, is a graduate of University of Notre Dame School of Law and one of his associates. Son James, 25, is at Albany Law School and headed to a district attorney’s office “somewhere” to start off his career.
And John, 26, is a captain in the U.S. Air Force, flying jumbo troop transport planes on missions to Bosnia and other places.
“He’s having a great time,” Wolford says.
Fun in the heat of battle is characteristic of Wolford’s courtroom style, say those who have worked with him.
“You always knew when Mike was around because of that infectious laughter,” says David Schraver of Nixon, Hargrave.
“People liked being on his trial teams because he made it so much fun.”
Judith Toyer left Nixon, Hargrave with Wolford in 1993 and helped found his new firm. She has since started a solo practice.
“Trial work has tremendous stresses, but Mike has a tremendous sense of humor,” Toyer says. “The more pressure we were under, the more fun he made it.”
Juries “most especially” find Wolford easy to like, Schraver observes.
But not everybody chuckles when Wolford goes to work.
On offense or defense, he plays rough.
In one recent case, he went on the record asking whether another attorney had directed a client down a questionable path. That attorney went on the record with counter-accusations that Wolford’s tactics were “intimidating.”
In another case, Wolford’s corporate client paid his firm to watchdog depositions of ex-employees. His opponent tackled the move as proof the company knew it had done wrong.
In both those cases, Wolford’s foes drummed heavily on the David vs. Goliath theme.
Wolford does a mean David himself, even if his client roster includes Kodak, Bausch & Lomb Inc., Wegmans Food Markets Inc., Cadbury Beverages Inc., Ciba-Geigy Corp. and other Goliaths.
“He likes being the underdog, especially when he’s going against a government agency,” Norris remarks.
There was the Hong Kong businessman who tried to get a local bank to redeem $20 million in demand notes “that turned out to be counterfeit,” as Wolford put it.
Not guilty, the jury said.
Then there was the Rochester cosmetology teacher who shot and killed a superior at the Board of Education on the day New York’s Court of Appeal refused to hear his challenge to his dismissal.
Claims of insanity failed at the teacher’s first murder trial. But Wolford took the argument to a judge the second time around. Not guilty, the judge said.
“That was a very satisfying case to win because the client kept trying to fire me throughout the trial,” Wolford recalls.
Commercial litigation these days is not just a series of contract disputes, some of which are pricey enough to fund court fights, Wolford says.
Keeping businesspeople out of jail is a focus of his practice, as it was when he headed Nixon, Hargrave’s White-Collar Criminal Defense Group.
More than once, he went to the mat against New York’s attorney general over environmental suits. Whether the client was Kodak or a local florist, Wolford fought the same good fight.
“When corporate existence is threatened, it is high-stakes litigation, no matter how small the business is,” Wolford insists. “Just as it does no matter who the individual is, when individual liberty is threatened.”


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