DRI: Protecting The Interests Of Corporate Counsel

Friday, September 21, 2012 - 10:53

The Editor interviews Mary Massaron Ross, Partner, Plunkett Cooney, President-Elect, DRI – The Voice of the Defense Bar.

Editor: You will soon be inducted as president of DRI – The Voice of the Defense Bar. Please tell our readers about your long-term involvement with DRI.

Ross: I have been a member of DRI for virtually my entire legal career. DRI is an invaluable source of legal education about the issues that are important to defense counsel. The seminars and publications have been important for me as an appellate lawyer, as I have been throughout my career, as an efficient way to keep up with cutting-edge legal issues.

In the early years of my career, DRI did not have an appellate advocacy committee. So, I worked with a number of other people in the early stages of forming DRI’s Appellate Advocacy Committee, first serving as its program chair and then as chair of the Committee. I also have served for many, many years on DRI’s Amicus Committee, which is a vitally important committee that enables DRI to serve as the voice of the defense bar in the courts on issues of great importance to our members.

Editor: Besides your role as Plunkett Cooney’s appellate practice group leader and a member of the firm’s board of directors, please mention some of your other honors and prestigious offices in connection with your appellate practice.

Ross: I have been very privileged in my career to work with the legal profession in a number of different ways. I am a member of the American Law Institute, the group that writes the Restatements of the Law. It is tremendously interesting, challenging and important work. I was named as a fellow of the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers some years ago.

In Michigan, I helped form the Michigan Appellate Bench Bar Conference Foundation. It’s a forum for Michigan appellate judges and lawyers who practice in Michigan’s appellate courts to talk about how to improve the civil appellate justice system in Michigan.

I was active in the American Bar Association, having chaired its standing committee on amicus curiae briefs for a number of years. I also worked with the ABA’s Appellate Judges Conference, serving as chair of its Council of Appellate Lawyers.

Editor: Tell us about your appellate practice. 

Ross: I’ve been privileged to appear and argue before the courts of last resort in three different states. I’ve briefed and argued over 100 appeals in the Sixth Circuit as well as handling appeals in several other federal circuits, including the Seventh and the Third. I have also worked on a number of amicus briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Editor: Is there a victory of which you are particularly proud?

Ross: I represented property owners in County of Wayne v. Hathcock, a case pending in the Michigan Supreme Court. The property owners challenged the notion that property could be taken and turned over to private developers to enhance economic development in a particular community. The property owners took the position that the public use doctrine served as a limit on government condemnation powers. We challenged Poletown v. City of Detroit, a case included in a number of authoritative real property texts. Although that case was very influential and much cited in courts around the country, we were successful in persuading the Michigan Supreme Court to overturn that case and to rule that the government’s condemnation powers did not reach as far as the government sought to extend them.

Editor: What do you hope to accomplish during your term as president?

Ross: I will work with DRI’s executive committee, board of directors, and its leadership to make sure that DRI is at the forefront of issues affecting its members. Historically, DRI has been known for providing world-class legal education, and I will certainly work to continue that emphasis. But I also hope to build on that longstanding tradition by examining how our educational offerings can better address the needs of the 21st century lawyer, which is the theme of DRI’s annual meeting this year and which will also be a focus of a global arbitration summit that DRI will hold next June in Prague.

DRI also has expertise that can be very influential and helpful to policymakers and to the public. We have recently created a Center for Law and Public Policy, the purpose of which is to enhance our ability to provide expertise on issues of public policy. I hope to move that initiative forward during my term as president.

In addition, I hope to continue to strengthen DRI’s Amicus Committee. In recent years, we have focused our resources on appeals of national significance involving issues of importance to our members, and this has meant increasingly filing briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Editor: To what extent has DRI been involved in seeking rules changes in the federal and state courts?

Ross: DRI was a founding member of LCJ. Our top officers participate in the leadership of LCJ. Many of our members are with law firms that are associate members of LCJ. We have worked with LCJ as well as with other groups on issues of core concern to our members.

We have worked with LCJ to seek changes in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and in seeking reform through state court rules and legislation that would make e-discovery less burdensome. The FRCP and state rules have not kept pace with the explosion in the quantity of electronically stored data. We have also worked with LCJ on restoring the mandatory language in the summary judgment rules and on state rules governing the admissibility of expert testimony and a number of other issues.

Currently we have embarked on a class action project with LCJ to try to stem some of the problems with the current improper use of the class action mechanism by providing for immediate appeal of certification decisions by federal district courts. If their decision is in error, the legal effort that follows is essentially wasted time.

Editor: Has DRI addressed issues relating to the quality of the judiciary?

Ross: DRI’s judicial taskforce has written an outstanding paper entitled “Without Fear or Favor” addressing a number of issues related to judicial independence and the quality of the judiciary, which has been widely distributed. Given the recession and the consequent pressure on state budgets, DRI and other like-minded groups need to be ever vigilant in supporting the allocation of adequate funds for the civil justice system.

In some states around the country, there have been such severe cutbacks that the courts are literally closing their doors on certain days. We also know that in a system where there are inadequate resources to allow all cases to move forward in an orderly way, civil cases take a back seat to the criminal cases. It’s vitally important for civil litigants that the courts be adequately funded. That’s the message that we work to get out to the general public as well as to appropriate groups whenever we can.

Editor: What is DRI doing to strengthen the jury system?

Ross: Through our jury taskforce and our participation in the American Civil Jury Trial Roundtable, we continue to look for ways to make the jury trial deliver on the promise of being speedy, inexpensive and just.

Editor: Why is membership in DRI particularly attractive to corporate counsel?

Ross: As part of their membership, corporate counsel enjoy complimentary registration to all our seminars. In connection with our seminars and our annual meetings, we enable corporate counsel to set up meetings with outside counsel who represent them in litigation. Depending on the number of people who they invite who end up registering, we’re able to provide them with space and services that help defray the cost of their meetings with their lawyers.

Membership dues for corporate counsel are incredibly low in comparison with many professional organizations. There is a corporate membership as well as individual membership. Corporate counsel can join either as an individual for annual fee of $250 or they can get the benefit of a corporate membership. For an annual fee of $500, a corporation can join DRI. This enables four of their corporate counsel to participate as DRI members. Additional corporate counsel from that corporation can participate as members for $150.

Editor: Tell us about DRI’s Corporate Counsel Committee. 

Ross: Our Corporate Counsel Committee consists only of in-house counsel.  Because these meetings are restricted to corporate counsel, they can speak confidentially with each other. The Committee holds regular conference calls open only to corporate counsel to discuss important legal and practical issues of concern to them. And of course, the committee puts on programs at the DRI Annual Meeting.

Editor: One thing I observed while preparing myself to talk with you is that your website is very sophisticated.

Ross: The website is, as you say, very sophisticated in design. Using it, our members can, without additional charge, do searches of all of our publications, written materials distributed at our seminars, and our amicus briefs. This is a great resource.  

Editor: What is DRI doing to support diversity?

Ross: Diversity is a core value at DRI. We provide resources to our members’ law firms to help them with their diversity initiatives. Every year we hold a diversity seminar that offers CLE credits and covers important aspects of diversity. In addition, at that seminar there is a jobs fair at which those who are looking to hire and those who are diverse candidates seeking to be hired can set up interviews and get to know each other.  

Editor: Are there specific pro bono activities that you would like to mention?

Ross: DRI works with many different community service organizations. Community service projects are often highlighted at our seminars. For instance, our Women in the Law Committee at their most recent seminar asked attendees to bring unneeded business suits to be donated by DRI to women who are interviewing for jobs and don’t have the resources to buy a business suit. I was thrilled to see how successful it was. We are doing a service project along those lines again at the annual meeting.

I should also mention DRI’s financial support of the National Foundation for Judicial Excellence, an organization launched by DRI to inform judges about best judicial practices and now independent. In recent years at the gala, which takes place the closing night of our annual meeting, we have a silent auction to raise funds for the Foundation. Our members donate such things as tickets to sports events, art, jewelry and a week in a mountain cabin or at a beach home.

Please email the interviewee at mmassaron@plunkettcooney.com with questions about this interview.