Attorney at Law Magazine Palm Beach Publisher Rhenne Leon sat down with Michael E. Dutko Jr to discuss his mentors and lessons he learned in law school that helped his career today.
AALM: When did you first know you wanted to become an attorney? What drew you to this career?
Dutko: I grew up in an “attorney” household – my dad’s an attorney, and my mom’s a retired court reporter. In fact, a better way to say it would be that I grew up around the courthouse. To this day, I still see judges, clerks and deputies that I’ve known since I was a kid. I learned quickly that being an attorney can be a noble and essential profession, and, maybe more importantly, I learned that it was something I wanted to do. From there, I focused my studies on law and debate, applied to and enrolled in law school, clerked at a governmental relations and commercial litigations firm in Tallahassee during law school, and worked hard to learn as much as I could.
AALM: Do you have any mentors or professors that encouraged you along the way? What is the best lesson they taught you?
Dutko: I’d have to say that my career has been most influenced by my dad, Michael Dutko Sr., and my boss, Bill Scherer – really, in very similar ways. They both have done it all in South Florida – big cases, high-profile clients, major trials. Even with all of that, the cases that get them the most excited are not always about the bottom line. Challenging the disenfranchisement of an entire population of voters in Broward County. Fighting for homeless rights. Lofty goals that are less about generating revenue than about making sure people’s rights are protected. They have both taught me to stay grounded through success.
AALM: What was the greatest lesson you learned in law school? How do you apply that to your career today?
Dutko: Do well, and do good. That’s not poor grammar. Do well, and do good, which are not mutually exclusive goals. I learned many important lessons in law school, but that really sums up what my experience has taught me is the most important aspect of our profession. Work hard and do well, and never forget that as attorneys we have a tremendous capacity to do good for our communities. It can be easy to get caught up in the glitz of big numbers and big verdicts. While that sort of success at high levels is obviously attractive for any attorney, at the same time remember to stay humble and try to do right by others who also need our representation.
AALM: What experiences have taught you the most?
Dutko: While at the State Attorney’s Office in Palm Beach County, I was assigned to the public corruption task force, leading a team of investigators from various police agencies throughout the county, and prosecuting cases of complex crimes committed by public employees, police officers and elected officials. None of those cases was simple, and most required a commitment to detail and a level of patience that I had, to that point, never experienced. That time, working with a terrific team of people and overseeing important cases of public trust, really became a driving force in the way that I approach every day of my practice. Not every case or issue or argument is going to be easy, and sometimes you might not come out on the winning side. But our clients need constant, prepared, zealous advocates.
AALM: What first drew you to your firm? Tell us about your role there.
Dutko: Conrad & Scherer has been a major name in Broward legal circles for decades, and rightfully so. There’s no question why, when a high-profile issue erupts, one of the first calls is often to Bill Scherer – he’s the best. That reputation, and the corresponding ability to become involved in significant and diverse cases, is what initially drew me here. I’m a partner in both the commercial litigation as well as government relations/land use sections. I try to draw on my trial experience as a former prosecutor and my governmental experience as a former assistant city attorney to offier a unique perspective that isn’t always available in this industry. I’ve found that the ability to offier a frame of reference that draws on an understanding of several different practice areas can be a tremendous asset to clients.
AALM: How would you describe the culture of the firm?
Dutko: Conrad & Scherer has been a perfect fit for me. The firm is large enough to have the resources to support major cases, while at the same time small enough to allow attorneys to offier personal care to their clients. My colleagues draw on a wealth of diverse backgrounds, and that’s something that I really appreciate. Everyone is more than happy to jump in and help out or to offier their own unique take on particular issues. That camaraderie is something that doesn’t exist at every firm. I know that I’m biased, but if I had a problem, Conrad & Scherer would be my first call.
AALM: What do you most hope to accomplish in the future? Where do you see yourself in five years? In 10?
Dutko: Land use law affords attorneys the opportunity to play a key role in shaping the future of their communities, and that’s what I’d like to continue to strive for. I love South Florida – I was board and raised here. In five and 10 years, I see myself continuing to represent clients that are looking to responsibly develop our communities in ways that ensure the continued success of our area while protecting or enhancing the very aspects that make South Florida unique and special. We know that everything is constantly changing, so it’s important to make sure we foster the right kind of change.