Michigan Law alumni and Bankruptcy Law: A winning combination

By Kristy Demas
Michigan Law

“I felt like I had come home,” said Landon S. Raiford of his bankruptcy rotation during his 2L internship at Jenner & Block. Until that Chicago summer, bankruptcy law wasn’t an interest. Today, he appreciates how well the Michigan Law prepared him for the field. “Bankruptcy cases require teamwork and because the bulk of us are Michigan Law grads, we know how to do that. I think that’s why we’ve been so successful.”

John D. VanDeventer had a similar experience. “I sort of just fell into the bankruptcy group. I don’t know if anyone really chooses it, but when I cycled through various areas at Jenner during my 2L summer, I clicked with the bankruptcy folks.”

A surprising number of Michigan Law alumni at Jenner & Block handle bankruptcy law — which combines corporate and litigation law. The group has won several prominent cases, including Wellness International Network Limited’s appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court. The team also has successfully represented the retirees of American Airlines in their bankruptcy case and assisted in what has been described as a “landmark” financial settlement for the former students of the now-defunct ITT Technical Institute. The group currently is engaged in a number of other high-profile cases.

What is it about Michigan Law grads that makes them so successful in this practice area? Raiford believes the collaborative aspect of the work contributes to their success. VanDeventer agrees, adding that Michigan Law’s numerous experiential learning opportunities also provided invaluable training.

“My involvement with the Pediatric Advocacy and the Unemployment Insurance clinics was one of the best things ever to prepare me for practice,” VanDeventer said.

Melissa Root shares her co-workers’ passion for bankruptcy work. She also is passionate about hiring Michigan Law grads. As co-chair of Jenner’s hiring committee — she helped recruit Raiford, VanDeventer, and Angela Allen — she is not at all shy about why she hires fellow Law School alumni.

“I know from experience they can get the job done because Michigan teaches them critical reasoning skills that are helpful in crafting multi-pronged solutions that work for all parties — a must in bankruptcy cases,” Root said.

Not surprisingly, Jenner & Block hires large numbers of Michigan Law students every year, including 10 associates in the 2019 summer class.

“Part of what Michigan Law does so well is to encourage not just a team approach to problems but an all-encompassing approach,” Raiford said. “The resulting brainstorming makes it much easier for us to reach a positive resolution for clients—usually in a more expedited fashion, because we have the training to look at issues from multiple angles.”

As Emeritus Professor J.J. White’s research assistant, Allen was surprised when he said “the happiest lawyers are bankruptcy lawyers.” His enthusiasm didn’t make sense to Allen, who thought bankruptcy law would be depressing. Now, she loves it.

“It gave me the chance to combine all of my law school interests, from prosecution to fraud investigation to real estate and tax law. It’s never boring because it’s never the same day twice.”

Allen cut her investigative teeth working with Anton R. Valukas, who is now a senior partner at Jenner & Block and the court-appointed examiner in the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy.

“He was essentially performing an autopsy of Lehman, and I got to help. It was intense and the case took well over a year to wrap up—but what an experience. Again, I think my Michigan Law degree came into play due to the variety in my coursework.”

Bob Gordon, a New York-based member of Jenner’s bankruptcy group, shares his colleagues’ gratitude to Michigan Law for the skill set he acquired.

“Those qualities come to the fore when we are all working together on important cases in bankruptcy—cases that affect innocent people,” he said.

As one of the lead attorneys—on a team that includes Raiford and Root—representing the official Committee of Retired Employees in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, he hopes to protect the pensions of thousands of its municipal employees.

In addition to practicing law, Randy Mehrberg has held an array of corporate positions — he also leads the firm’s energy practice — giving him both the shareholder’s and employee’s perspective into bankruptcy proceedings.

“When bankruptcies affect workers’ pensions, it can be devastatingz,” said Mehrberg. “These people worked hard as loyal employees for 25 or 30 years, with the expectation that when they retired, they would have an income to support themselves for the rest of their lives. It’s what they deserve and what we want to try to preserve—to the fullest extent possible.”

A Wolverine through and through, Mehrberg’s family has a long history of U-M ties —including two uncles who graduated from the law school, one in 1916 and another in 1921. His brother is a member of the Law Class of 1983. He is not surprised by the success of his fellow alumni in the group.

“I understand the strength of that Michigan connection,” he said. “I feel it in my own family. Our attorneys really have each other’s back.”