Mike Unger, the incoming president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, is entering office with a to-do list, and he’s already started checking things off. Noting that he’s always been impressed by people who get things done, Unger explains his philosophy of service this way: “I’m practically oriented. I just want to focus on stuff I can do something about.” For anyone who’s keeping track—and that’s not easy to do—the “stuff” Unger has done something about in his 60 years has ranged from riverfront preservation to co-founding a nonprofit that increases access to justice to saving a working class neighborhood from being overtaken by an ethanol plant.
And those are just the things he’s been doing in his spare time. The pro bono section of his curriculum vitae reads like a who’s who of public service organizations, while even a short list of his cases as a personal injury attorney brings to mind any number of fictional attorneys who combine the roles of public servant and champion of underdogs. Except that this attorney isn’t fictional and he isn’t finished yet.
To understand Unger’s career, it helps to go back to his childhood, which he describes as rooted in both the West Side of St. Paul—where his extended family lived for four generations—and in the working class neighborhood in Cottage Grove where he and his two sisters attended public school not far from the banks of the Mississippi River. The river plays a part in Unger’s story, always nearby in his work and life, including today. Growing up, it was a place of refuge and fun that he and his friends liked to canoe and explore, including a beautiful string of islands dotted with historic sites and Indian burial grounds.
When these islands were endangered by a proposed strip mining permit, Unger leveraged his involvement in an extra-curricular group to urge restrictions on the mining. By working with other students to document the island’s history and then testifying before the City Council, the teenager was able to convince the city to pass a resolution that limited the mining while requiring the mining company to cede land along the river for a nature preserve. It was a noteworthy victory on many accounts, not least of which was its impact on the young activist. “When you have a good success like that early in life,” Unger says, “it keeps you going. I learned that it really works to get involved and that I was drawn to the role of an advocate.”
This community engagement effort wasn’t even Unger’s first involvement in public life. Sparked by an exercise in his 8th-grade civics class to study the presidential candidates and “campaign” for one, his research led him to conclude that Minnesota’s favorite son, Hubert Humphrey, was the one with the best record for “getting things done.” He successfully persuaded his 8th grade classmates to select Humphrey over a younger and more charismatic early favorite in the classroom “plebiscite.” He learned to enjoy advocacy and didn’t confine it to the classroom. Just 13 when Humphrey ran for president and 15 when he ran to return to the U.S. Senate, the young Unger became a door-knocker and literature dropper for Humphrey’s campaign.
Then, at 16, Unger found another candidate to back in attorney Mike Sieben, who was running for the state House of Representatives. As a volunteer, and eventually Sieben’s campaign manager, he had the satisfaction of seeing his candidate win two elections before Unger himself had yet graduated from high school. And again, the appeal involved a to-do list. “One of the reasons I liked him as a candidate is that he had some very specific ideas about things he would do as a legislator that would make people’s lives better, and he actually delivered,” Unger explains. “That really appealed to me. It just strikes me that if you’re going to do this kind of thing, it’s got to be to make things better. I don’t enjoy the sport of politics just for its own sake.”
Anyone watching Mike Unger at this point in his life probably would have assumed a career in politics lay ahead. And indeed, he filled his schedule at the University of Minnesota with political science and speech courses and got himself elected dorm hall president as a freshman. Unger also accomplished something no one else had ever done: He became a University of Minnesota Regent while still a student, parlaying an appointment from Governor Wendell Anderson to the seat vacated by St. Paul Mayor George Latimer into a full, six-year elected term to the body that governs the University.
In addition to his drive and natural political acumen, Unger was gifted with a disarming personal demeanor. In photographs, he displays a broad smile; in person, it’s coupled with intense blue eyes and a posture that looks entirely relaxed even as he leans in to focus on those around him. The effect is of someone who is both fully present yet also slightly ahead of everyone else in the room. With these gifts and early successes, how did this young man not become a politician? You could ascribe it to his pragmatic nature (he really did want to get things done, and politics isn’t always the best vehicle for that) or you could obey the famous French adage to “cherchez la femme”—in this case, a fellow student named Jeanne.
In describing their budding relationship, Jeanne Unger notes their common interests in politics and student government and then declares with a laugh, “It was me pursuing him. Seriously, the man did not have a chance. I could sense his commitment and that he was very principled and I found those very attractive qualities. And he has a great sense of humor; he’s very clever.” Shared political interests notwithstanding, though, Jeanne wasn’t keen on politics as a career plan when the two married after the first year of law school. While she says she would gladly help Mike run for office today, “I was not eager to have him in politics when we were younger. We didn’t outright discuss it, but you make certain choices. I just thought it would be a really hard life. And then we had kids we were trying to raise while we were both trying to have a profession.”
For Mike’s part, politics became less alluring as he gained more experience. “As I learned more about how politics really worked, I became less enamored,” he says. “I saw law as a more principled process for decision-making and advocacy. It’s as close as things get to resolving issues based on what’s right and fair.”
As the Ungers began their life together, Jeanne’s concerns about balancing work and family proved prescient, even without politics in the equation. Although she is now a partner at the Bassford Remele firm in Minneapolis, where her insurance law practice allows her to keep relatively sane hours, her first jobs out of law school were litigation-driven associate roles, as were Mike’s. The pressure of having two litigation attorneys trying to parent two toddlers eventually led to Jeanne’s decision to parent full-time for a few years before returning to her practice. It took some negotiating, but she was able to convince her firm at the time that part-time partner status made sense; that made it possible for both Ungers to continue balancing law careers with parenting even as their daughters ran the usual gauntlet of soccer and scouting and other extra-curricular activities. Perhaps one of the more remarkable parenting feats of this period was the Ungers’ ability to join the children for a home-cooked meal every evening, engineered mostly by Jeanne but augmented by Mike’s chili and Sloppy Joe recipes.
Around the same time Mike undertook a new discipline to create balance of a different sort. For the past 25 years he has taken an annual spiritual retreat at a center in Lake Elmo run by the Jesuits. He calls it a “time for reflection on my goals and life” that affords him perspective on his many pursuits. “It helps to keep me centered and to stay on track with my priorities of living,” he says, “so that they are not overtaken by the pressure and demands of daily life.”
With the exception of two years after law school spent clerking for United States District Judge Diana Murphy, Unger’s entire legal career has been spent as a litigator, representing plaintiffs in cases ranging from antitrust to civil rights, but mostly tied up with personal injury and wrongful death. Initially he worked for established law firms, ranging in size from just a handful of attorneys to as many as 120. In 2005 he decided to strike out on his own as a solo practitioner, opening an office in downtown Minneapolis where he has limited his practice focus to personal injury ever since.
During his 30-year professional journey, Unger has garnered a significant number of awards (see sidebar) while gaining a reputation for killer oral arguments and public speeches that can move people to tears. John Daly (of the Law Offices of John Edmund Daly in New Brighton, MN) calls him “a lawyer’s lawyer” for his ability to partner with colleagues to find the best strategies on a case. Having worked at a firm with Unger for nearly 10 years, Daly was so impressed by his abilities that he retained Unger when he needed help with an employment issue of his own. “It’s really hard for a lawyer to be his own lawyer,” Daly explains. “So when I needed legal help, I called upon Mike, and I found him to be just remarkable in his strategies, what to do and what not to do. I needed that.”
In addition to experiencing Unger’s skills firsthand as a colleague and representative, Daly has also been impressed with his extensive pro bono career. “Mike is brilliant and he’s a very accomplished lawyer,” Daly says. “But he is also one of the best public servants in the private sector. He has done so much for the University of Minnesota, for the state bar, for pro bono clients… But he’s a private sector person. He’s done an immense amount of public service without ever working in the
Pro Bono Work
Ask Unger what his favorite pro bono activities have been and he’ll demur. But some do stand out for their impact, on him as well as the people or issues at hand. For instance, there’s the urban ethanol plant he was able to pressure the City of St. Paul into closing in order to protect the working class neighborhood it was negatively affecting.
In lieu of payment for that multi-year battle, he received a blue hardhat signed by neighborhood residents, including this inscription, which delights him: “Mike, with good nature you helped slay the beast.” More important than the memento, however, was the confirmation of his mission as an attorney. “Helping a less-empowered neighborhood made me appreciate that one of the benefits of practicing law is that you’re able to advocate for others,” he says. “It gives you the keys to the power structure, so to speak, that allow you to effect change. It’s only when you see that change happen that you truly realize that lawyers can be a tremendous force for good.”
Another of Unger’s pro bono accomplishments holds great promise for lasting impact. Working closely with Thomas Fraser and Larry Buxbaum, he initiated a process while heading the Hennepin County Bar Association in 2006 that grew into an independently operating nonprofit. That organization, Call for Justice, now trains United Way 2-1-1 to make up to 40,000 referrals a year, mostly for low-income individuals who need help navigating a labyrinth of legal assistance programs. Call for Justice also offers a host of YouTube trainings on common legal issues that generate 30,000 views per year. Fraser is now a Hennepin County Judge (Fourth District) and Buxbaum is now retired from the
executive director position at the Hennepin County Bar Association. Both men credit Unger with playing a central role in organizing each stage of the process, including the initial fundraising effort, which netted $500,000 from law firms, bar associations and foundations.
Now in its fourth year of operation, Call for Justice has received the American Bar Association’s Louis M. Brown Award for Legal Access, a distinction that Call for Justice Executive Director Ellie Krug credits to the founders’ vision and hard work. “Mike has an element of fearlessness, and Tom does too,” she says. “That’s essential for a small nonprofit that is trying to establish itself.” Buxbaum, who saw Unger’s fundraising and organizing efforts up close, says, “It’s wonderful that something so desperately needed came to fruition because one person recognized the need and wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Already in Motion
Given this track record, one might wonder what Unger has on his agenda as head of the state bar association. Don’t look for any grand pronouncements on new initiatives: Unger says his tenure will be more about conversation and listening, to ensure the MSBA enjoys a smooth continuation of initiatives already in motion. Nonetheless, he does have that aforementioned to-do list. One item he’s already checked off was the MSBA Council’s adoption of a proposal to create a committee on court rules and court policy that will assess court administration from the perspective of lawyers and their clients. The point is to ensure that reforms aimed at making courts more efficient don’t inadvertently undermine litigants’ access to a fair justice system.
Unger also plans to advance access to justice by evaluating the work of MSBA task forces that are examining new ideas, such as creating new categories of practitioners to handle matters that may not require an attorney’s time. Recognizing that such conversations could be controversial, Unger is preparing to guide the bar association in examining the issues from as many perspectives as possible before arriving at recommendations. And, like previous MSBA presidents, Unger intends to carry forward the conversation about diversity in the practice of law, with the goal of identifying what the bar can do proactively to make more people feel welcome in the profession.
It’s the kind of agenda that could be transformational, depending on the direction these conversations take. Come what may, Unger will oversee the process with the combination of keen intellect, respectful facilitation and disarming charm for which he’s become known. And, according to Frank Forsberg, a senior vice-president at the Greater Twin Cities United Way—where Unger played key roles on the board and committees for more than a decade—he’ll make a lasting contribution. “One of the great attributes about Mike Unger is his civic engagement,” Forsberg says. “I always think it’s good for our community to hold up those champions and their contribution, because it improves the quality of life here. It’s a big deal. The quality of life here is amazing, and people like Mike contribute to that greatly. He really deserves to be celebrated.”
Mike the Mentor
To Mike Unger, mentoring the next generation of attorneys is serious business. When he started as president of the Hennepin County Bar Association (HCBA) in 2006, he told The Hennepin Lawyer that seasoned attorneys need to “help bring lawyers along and show them how to be better lawyers and better people in the community.”
As if to prove the point, Mike and Jeanne Unger have personally presided over the launch of two new lawyers, daughters Katie Unger Davis and Emily Unger. Katie, the elder, practices in the Complex Commercial Department at the Philadelphia office of Dechert LLP, while Emily is an associate at Fredrikson Byron in Minneapolis. And although both daughters aver that their lawyer parents did not push them into the practice of law, they acknowledge there might have been some vocational engineering during dinner table conversations through the years.
“Sometimes I think I was tricked into it,” Emily laughs. “They never pressured us into law, but they made it look easy and enjoyable, believe it or not. For my dad, I think it was a calling instead of just a job. He did not discuss the mundane frustrations of practice. It was always on the broader plane of justice and integrity and duty—always principled. He kept that perspective and made me see it through his eyes, that it’s more meaningful than just a job. That was very inspirational.”
John Dornik, now a partner and head of the personal injury practice at Siegel Brill PA in Minneapolis, also uses the word inspirational as he recalls his days being mentored by Unger, who hired him out of law school into Hvass, Weisman & King. Calling Unger one of three attorneys who have deeply influenced him, Dornik says, “I don’t think I give Mike enough credit day to day for shaping me as a lawyer.” Much of the coaching he received from Unger came by way of demonstration: In addition to inspiring in him a positive attitude toward bar service (Dornik himself was HCBA president in 2003), he says Unger modeled fundamental principles of being an attorney, including:
- Do the job right; don’t take shortcuts.
- Take your job and your duty to your clients very seriously.
- Don’t worry about how much you make—just do your job and that part will work itself out.
- Don’t observe set hours; work until the job is done.
- Find where the ethical line is and stay far away from it. Don’t walk the line.
- Everything in life takes a back seat when you’re in trial; work 15 or 20 hours a day if needed.
Keeping a balance in life was another lesson Dornik says he learned from his boss, even while Unger was busy “dumping a lot of work” on the new associate. As the two developed a friendship, Dornik found himself unwittingly designated as one of Unger’s running partners. “I wasn’t really a runner,” Dornik says, “but he was relentless. Just relentless. He’d say, ‘You really ought to try this.’ Then he’d be like, ‘If we go do 10 miles we can have lunch and maybe a glass of wine.’ So it was carrot and stick and I’d be like, ‘Okay, if I can do that, I’ll go.’” The training led to marathons, which, Dornik says, “we weren’t in danger of winning” but which did reveal Unger’s competitive side. “I remember being a little surprised because he didn’t come off that way,” Dornik says. “But yes, he’s very competitive.”
Even so, Dornik says, Unger never lets his competitive spirit or any other personal motivation come between him and his collegial relationships or his pursuit of justice for his clients. Just the opposite, Emily Unger says: Unlike the many “high-strung attorneys” she has met, her father models a more laid-back demeanor, always ready with a smile or a joke. In fact, she recalls one of his colleagues saying to her years ago, “When I shake hands with your dad, I just feel my blood pressure drop.”
Dornik sums up the mentoring he received from Unger by saying he believes his former boss sees being a lawyer as both a duty and a mission. “One thing I learned from Mike is that as attorneys, we have an obligation,” Dornik says. “We’re fortunate: We generally make a decent living, we’re well-educated, and we have advantages because of our access and knowledge. We have to use our tools and our skills to reach out to others who don’t have the same access. That’s what it means to be a lawyer.”
Hanging Out with Mike
Looking for something fun to do or someone fun to do it with? Mike Unger might be your man. Despite the serious demeanor required of a successful trial attorney and public servant, Unger is described by friends and colleagues as someone who can always have fun. In a work session, this bent might be evident only in the small witticisms or self-deprecating humor he readily shares. But take him out of the boardroom and you’re likely to see a different side.
Here are a few of the ways that people who know him say Unger amuses himself and others: frequenting jazz clubs whenever possible; dining at Meritage in St. Paul or Restaurant Alma in Minneapolis; hiking the North Shore with wife Jeanne Unger; taking scenic bike trips in places like Utah; setting sail on Lake Superior every summer; heading out to the movies twice a month, especially if there’s a new Bond film playing; catching Gopher football games by pointing his high-rise office telescope at the TCF Stadium Jumbotron while “working” on game days; and getting riled by the shallow “cross examination” of political figures on television news programs.
And while Unger’s not renowned for his culinary expertise, daughters Katie and Emily report that he knows his way around the family chili recipe and can assemble a passable Caprese salad. For her part, granddaughter Madeleine undoubtedly appreciates his faithfulness in preparing her 6 a.m. bottle whenever he’s in Philadelphia. But Unger’s real claim to gastronomical distinction just might be his banana boat recipe, honed on Girl Scout camping trips he chaperoned when his daughters were younger. If you want to try the treat Katie proclaims “ridiculously delicious,” here’s what you need to do:
Banana Boat Recipe
Career at a Glance
- JD cum laude University of Minnesota Law School, 1981
- BES summa cum laude University of Minnesota – emphasis in political science and speech communications, 1977
- US Supreme Court
- 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals
- US District Court: District of Minnesota, Western District of Wisconsin
- State of Minnesota; State of Wisconsin; State of North Dakota
- Unger Law Office, 2005-present
- University of Minnesota Law School, Adjunct Faculty, 2011-present
- Rider Bennett, LLP, 1998-2005
- Mackenzie & Hallberg, PA, 1996-1998
- Hvass, Weisman & King Chartered, 1983-1996
- Law Clerk for US District Judge Diana Murphy, District of Minnesota, 1981-1983
Earlier employment and lessons learned
- Dairy Queen: It’s not that easy to make the little curl on cones.
- Bowling Alley: Serving beer is better than cleaning ashtrays.
- Oil Refinery : Tanker loaders earn their hazard pay.
- University of Minnesota Resident Advisor: Mediating keggers can get old.
- Jax Restaurant: Always tip your server.
- Northern States Power Community Affairs: Cubicle jobs are harder than they look.
Other professional involvement
- Certified Civil Trial Specialist, 1995-present
- Minnesota Supreme Court Advisory Committee on the Rules of Civil Procedure, 1998-2008
- Qualified Neutral, Rule 114 of the Minnesota General Rules of Practice, 1996-2006
- Minnesota State Bar Association, numerous committees and offices
- Minnesota Association for Justice, numerous roles including Board of Governors
- Hennepin County Bar Association, numerous roles including President (2006-2007)
- Call for Justice LLC, Charter Board Member
- Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board, various roles including Vice Chair
- US Magistrate Judge Merit Selection Panel, Member (1985, 1991); Chair (1994)
- President, Minnesota Justice Foundation (1987-1989)
- United Way of Minneapolis, numerous roles including Board of Directors
- Greater Twin Cities United Way, numerous roles including Board of Directors
- University of Minnesota Alumni Association, numerous roles including President (1992-1993)
- University of Minnesota Board of Regents, appointed and elected member, 1976-1983
- President’s Award, MSBA – 2013
- President’s Award, HCBF – 2012
- Attorney of the Year, Minnesota Lawyer – 2003, 2006, 2011
- Professional Excellence Award, MSBA – 2009
- Outstanding Service to the Profession, Minnesota Lawyer
- Circle of Excellence, Minnesota Lawyer
- Wife, Jeanne Unger; daughters Katie Unger Davis and Emily Unger; granddaughter Madeleine (b. 2015).
- Interests include mainstream jazz, movies, sailing, hiking, fitness.
Amy Lindgren is founder and president of Prototype Career Service, offering career counseling and job search strategies for individuals in transition. An accomplished writer, she writes a weekly employment column which appears in newspapers nationally and has profiled a number of incoming MSBA presidents for Bench & Bar.