Mike Lynn: Encouraging the Freedom to Fail

Mike Lynn
2024 Feature Nominations

“I am clearly Bob and Dottie Lynn’s boy,” says Mike Lynn, Founding Partner of Lynn Tillotson Pinker Cox, LLP.

Bob Lynn was a Princeton engineer who headed Bell Helicopters’ research and development, ultimately becoming its vice president and chief engineer. He was a serial inventor helping to design the fastest helicopter in the world, the first one with wings, the first one with jet engines strapped on, and even one of the first to fly upside down.

Dottie Lynn, a coal miner’s daughter, was a civil activist who helped found the YMCA. She served on the Arlington City Council for 16 years and was mayor pro tem.

As one of Mike Lynn’s partners put it, “Because of the way he was raised, Mike doesn’t so much think outside the box as he doesn’t even see the box. He is just very creative. If you can figure out what Mike is doing before he does it to you, you are a very rare lawyer.” Paraphrasing Archimedes’ famous lever speech, Lynn says, “Give me enough time and money and we can design anything.” He says there was a lot of room given in the Lynn household to be creative, but also to fail.

“When we began Lynn Tillotson Pinker Cox I wanted to give our people the same freedom to fail. I want to see if they were driven enough to succeed,” Lynn says.

He credits that freedom-to-fail philosophy in helping the firm he founded become one of the most prestigious firms in Texas. Chambers and Partners has listed Lynn Tillotson within the top 10 commercial litigation firms in Texas for years. Lynn, one of the state’s best-known litigators, has tried to verdict more than 100 civil and criminal jury trials and handled more than 100 nonjury, arbitration and injunction matters.

A track record that successful, reflects considerable experience over time. “There are a lot of people who come out of law school and think they should be the person making the final argument in a large antitrust case, but they’re not prepared to do the work and sacrifice to earn that right. Clients are entitled to that work and sacrifice. You have to earn it. Here people are given the freedom to earn that right. They can be as successful as they wish to be here and there is nothing holding them back. On the other hand, we don’t have a safety net, so they can fail. I think that is why we are so successful.”

Taking his roles as attorney, business manager and mentor seriously, Lynn’s commitment to his philosophy is total. And if anyone questions his dedication to it, they need only realize that at 65 with two full knee replacements he just hiked alone 700 miles on the Appalachian Trail. Lynn says, “There were days when I was cold, wet and hungry but I volunteered for the job and I felt I couldn’t complain. That said, I also knew I would not give up.”

“Initially, I spend time letting young associates know that I really don’t trust them until they’ve lost three contested matters in a row and they have to go in on the fourth one and have enough grit to win. I’m not wishing for a loss; I’m expecting maturity. The more I ask of my partners and associates, the more they do. They’re useless to me and our clients until they learn to persevere. Our trial practice is not a game nor does everyone get a trophy for playing. It is one of the hardest jobs in the world,” he says.

Relentlessly Pursuing Client Victory

“I try to hire people who have learned to lose and bounce back. That usually means hiring former athletes or debaters who have learned to lose when young. When you come into my world you have to be confident, creative, but relentless. Those qualities and the fact that about 75 percent of the lawyers at Lynn Tillotson are former federal or state supreme court law clerks probably explains a lot of our success. I would never engage a firm that did not have this built into its DNA. Being tough in my book is not being mean. Being tough is directed internally at what you wish to accomplish and sacrificing for it not to the outside world as antagonistic behavior,” Lynn says.

Lynn Tillotson Pinker Cox was founded in 1993 with Lynn, two other attorneys, a 386 computer and printer, “and a secretary who could not spell.” The marketing plan was based on handling what Lynn calls large bet-the-company cases. The firm is now a litigation boutique with more than 30 attorneys.

“When I began this firm 22 years ago, I thought that cases ought not to be necessarily tried on an hourly basis. It just seemed more moral to charge more if I won and charge less if I lost. Since I was representing companies in commercial cases there was no clear demarcation between those who identified as plaintiffs and those who were defendants because there were almost always counterclaims. Our strategy meant additional risk, but also additional rewards. Through those wins, we have been able to make many of our partners millionaires. I guess we took the right cases at the right times,” Lynn says.

On the defense side the firm has won approximately a billion dollars. On the plaintiff side they have won in court or settled and brought actual money in something close to $900 million. In 2014, the firm won its largest verdict ever, a nearly $1 billion verdict with a judgment on that of $535 million – the largest verdict in Dallas-Ft. Worth history as far as they know. Lynn says, “It was reported that it was the third largest in the country that year.”

“We’re creative. We prepare the cases as if they’re going to trial the minute a client walks in the door. We try to get through the case as efficiently and effectively as we can. We are relentless and we show grit and determination. As in a basketball game, the other team will inevitably score at some point, but one doesn’t determine the winner or loser until the buzzer sounds. And we like to say we will be there until the very end. I cannot think of a better service to our clients,” he says.

He credits his success in two other areas for his achievements in the legal community. “The only two things I’ve ever done successfully in life are manage a family and I was captain of every soccer team I was on when I was younger. I try to think of the firm as a cross between the two. In soccer, one doesn’t call plays so much as to try to get everyone to see the field the same way. That’s what I try to do. Most good players, if they see the field the same way, will end up coming to the right conclusion. Your trust in your lawyers and staff which in the heat of battle is all you really have over the other side who may be equally talented. Our team is generally better than their team because we trust one another.”

Nonfiction Storytelling

Lynn says, “In most cases we are trying to translate those legal technicalities into something that is almost biblical. There is a good and an evil in this world and we try to find the mountain top where we represent the good. Almost all of our cases are Eighth Commandment cases: Thou shalt not steal. The asset changes but the commandment doesn’t. We try to do that from the outset. It’s almost as if one was writing a movie that looks dry on the surface, but is really about people and their dreams, struggles and conflicts.”

Lynn quotes the saying that seeing is believing, but says that it’s not that way in developing an effective story in a litigation. “You must believe to see. You have to see the story and then the emails, other documents, and testimony begin making sense. You have to believe in a storyline and then you see how that leads back to proof. Of course, you have to modify the story as the facts develop, but the first thing is to develop a thesis or theory as you review the facts.”

In preparing a case, Lynn often finds himself visualizing the scenes of the case throughout the day and night. “I never really turn it off when preparing a case. It is quite literally a 24 hour a day job,” he says. He finds himself visualizing the meetings, when the documents were drafted, and imagines what was going on in the minds of the witnesses and how he or she felt and what he or she was doing at the time.

“It may take me some time to get there, but once I get there that gives me an almost euphoric feeling. It’s so exciting to me. I like to see if I am able to convey the pictures I imagine, to the judge or the people who are sitting in the jury. I find the competition of ideas at trial compelling. I am certain that’s why I keep going back for more. And in the end I get to help people, too. This is the best job in the world,” he says.

Christmas at the Workplace

Lynn says, “One of my great pleasures of being a partner here is the opportunity to work with younger lawyers.” He compares the experience to the surprise and delight of opening a Christmas present. His freedom-to-fail philosophy includes providing the necessary support and encouragement for professional and personal growth.

Once you get the right type of ambitious, bright, creative young person to figure out you’re not going to punish them for losing – as is often done in larger firms – and to understand that they will learn and grow in the ambiguity of what we do, they actually bring so much more energy and freshness to the storyline we’re pursuing. That is what we’re trying to accomplish here.”

A Positive Outlook for a Challenging Future

Lynn sees numerous challenges to the legal profession within the next decade, but notes that challenge and change also provide opportunity.

He predicts more challenges to the jury system. “I don’t know if that will mean a reduction of the number of trials, but I know you will see more arbitrations. Yet, arbitrations will become more and more like trials as we move forward. Eventually, business and the appellate courts will figure out that arbitration needs supervision and development to evolve into a better system. That’s always going to be a challenge, but one we can deal with. The Texas Supreme Court is already signaling that they will hear appeals from arbitration. Now we need to get the federal courts to go along with that view,” Lynn says.

Lynn sees something of a secular shift to a barrister/solicitor system like the legal system in England. “In the larger firms you have solicitors doing the corporate work. But the litigation is essentially being done now by boutiques – at least the high end work. The larger firms seem to be abandoning the arena because they can’t replace their senior litigators as they retire. That leaves firms such as ours a wealth of business to deal with. I feel positive about the future of our firm.”

He also notes the perennial issue of how to take young litigators out of school and train them so they can try cases, a process that he believes requires about 10 years of experience.

Juries are also changing as the makeup of the juries change. Lynn says the style of litigation is changing in response to the more diverse jury we now see. “We used to see male dominated juries. Now you’re seeing juries becoming more diverse in terms of color, nationality, gender and so on. What I see happening is that those who are successful at trial are people who I characterize as good high school teachers. They tend to come to the trial with the intent of empowering the jury to make the correct decision instead of telling the jury what to do.” That is a huge shift from when I began practice 40 years ago,” he says.

“On a more personal note, I feel I get to help people grow as lawyers and I get to represent companies and individuals who are in dire straits and need someone with judgment, wisdom, a competitive streak, and my particular talents to win. I get a great deal of satisfaction from what I do. What a job,” he says.

Dan Baldwin

Dan Baldwin is a writer for Attorney at Law Magazine. He has been contributing to the magazine since 2012.

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