Wayne Law alumnus 'speaks the language of business'

Michael Gibbs worked for 15 years in the business world before deciding what that arena really needed was a lawyer who understood it better.

He worked for a power company, as an entrepreneur and in other industries, including construction and pharmaceuticals, before deciding to go to law school. He already had a master of business administration degree from Emory University and a bachelor's degree in biology and economics from Ripon College.

"I went right into business after I got my M.B.A.," Gibbs said. "Along the way, I interfaced with a lot of attorneys, and, often, I didn't think they were speaking the language of business. They didn't appreciate the fact that business people could evaluate risk. I wanted to be a counsel for business."

He chose Wayne State University Law School to make that goal a reality and graduated in 1999.

"My wife was working in Detroit, and Wayne Law had a sterling reputation," Gibbs said. "It seemed like a lot of judges came from Wayne Law. Thanks go to my wife, Cindy, for encouraging me to quit my job and go to law school full time, while she paid the bills."

Today, he's general counsel and senior vice president for Whataburger, a Texas-based 787-unit (and counting) restaurant chain in 10 states. Hired in 2005, he was the family-owned company's first general counsel and now heads a legal department with more than a dozen members in San Antonio.

"I deal with corporate governance, intellectual property, franchising, contracts, real estate, labor and employment, and a lot of legislative affairs and regulatory compliance issues," Gibbs said. "A lot of folks work at a firm and they might be litigators or just IP people. Not me. I feel like I'm in law school every day."

His course work at Wayne Law went a long way to preparing him for his current job, he said. His first-year Contracts classwork and other business law classes laid a good foundation for the work of a corporate counsel.

"I also took a trademarks course, and that was very helpful," Gibbs said. "I took patent law, too. You would never think a hamburger company would be involved in patents, but our company has had experience with 'patent trolls' (businesses that buy patents on the open market and then litigate against companies that supposedly infringe on the intellectual property), and taking patents helped me speak that language. Real estate law was a good course, too, that has helped me out.

"One course I really enjoyed was Professor Jonathan Weinberg's Administrative Law. I deal with administrative matters frequently. The professors at Wayne Law took a personal interest in my study, and, when I graduated, I felt prepared for the professional world. I worked for the Free Legal Aid Clinic my first summer, and I wouldn't trade that for anything. I actually got to go to court before most of my other classmates, and it was valuable to see how court actually worked, how to file something, where to go, hearing other lawyers argue. And at the same time, you're helping people that really needed it."

He likes working for a family-owned company, and he likes being a valued part of its management team, Gibbs said.

"I've wanted to work for a privately held company since my entrepreneur days," he said. "It's very rewarding to be part of a team that concentrates on long-term strategies and goals instead of chasing quarterly results. That would be maddening."

Gibbs knows very well what it means to be a team member, too. He spent his first three days on the job at Whataburger flipping hamburgers and making fries. The experience gave him a hands-on look at the company's operations from the ground level and also gave him strong respect for its workers.

"In any management executive position, my attitude and deference to other employees matters as much as my legal counsel," Gibbs said. "You want to be setting an example that embodies the company culture, which at Whataburger is one of respect and collaboration."

Published: Thu, Nov 12, 2015