Rising to the top: New Miller Canfield CEO charts higher legal course


 By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News
When Mike McGee was a boy in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the space program captivated the attention of the nation.  
“Naturally, I wanted to be an astronaut,” he says. “Walking on the Moon or on Mars sounded like the ideal career path.”
Instead he reached for the stars in the legal profession—and in April was named chief executive officer of Miller Canfield, overseeing 17 offices in five countries.
Previously a senior member of the firm’s Public Finance Group, with primary responsibility for general obligation and revenue bond issues amounting to more than $3.5 billion, McGee has served on the management board and as hiring chair. An expert in public entity law, public/private partnerships and intergovernmental cooperation, he has nearly three decades of public policy experience and a broad legal background; and has acted as bond counsel to governmental issuers of all types in financing public infrastructure work. 
McGee, who joined Miller Canfield in 1985, is enjoying his new role at the helm. 
“I’ve learned an enormous amount from my colleagues at the firm and owe them a debt of thanks,” he says. “The firm seems always to be involved in the next big project, or crucial public policy issue, major transaction, or major, high-stakes litigation—it’s challenging and energizing and a lot of fun.”
A native of Wyandotte, McGee grew up in Grand Rapids and later Livonia, where he attended Bentley High School; and earned his undergrad, graduate and law degrees from the University of Michigan. 
“I suppose all that qualifies me as a ‘Pure Michigan’ product,” he says with a smile.
As an undergrad at U-M, he started out studying political science.  
“With due respect to my poli-sci colleagues, as a ‘quant’—quantitative analysis—guy I found economics very intriguing. The idea that you could describe the behavior of an entire economy in mathematical terms, and further to use mathematics to inform policy choices and affect future outcomes, was one I found exciting.”  
He also enjoyed studying under U-M economics professor Gardner Ackley—“A great economist in the Keynesian tradition and a great man. So I added an econ major to my poli-sci major and now I read things like ‘Freakonomics’—what can I say, I’m a wonk.”
With undergrad training in economics and political science under his belt, and graduate work in public policy studies, law seemed the logical evolution on that path, he says.
“Especially as the astronaut thing had faded by the late ‘70s, and I couldn’t hit the curve ball.”  
Public finance law has no shortage of interesting professional opportunities, he notes. 
“It’s is a wonderful practice, combining so many elements. It offers intellectual challenge, because public finance is informed by three separate bodies of law—a state law, federal tax law, and federal securities law—which need to be addressed and balanced.”  
It yields tangible outcomes—an airport, or bridge, or library, or some other public facility is built once the bond issue is completed, he notes—and is a major tool in trying to make things better, whether by creation of a regional convention authority such as the new Cobo Hall, regional transit authority, hospital, school, or of a clean environment.  
“It also is at the interface of policy and politics, which for someone with a political science background is always interesting.”
Working to create the Wayne County Airport Authority while simultaneously pursuing an airport bond financing, all within a year of the September 11 terrorist attacks, was very challenging and satisfying when successfully completed, he says.  
“Similarly, helping to steer the $1 billion financing for the McNamara Terminal at Metro Airport was a professional thrill. Being part of successfully spinning off Cobo Hall into a regional authority, which now is an example of how regional cooperation really can work, was very gratifying.”
Helping to draft the “Next Michigan” (aerotropolis) legislative package now being used around the state as an economic generator, also was satisfying, he says.  
“More recently, working on the emergency manager law and helping to apply it to turn around our distressed communities, including Detroit, has been very challenging,” McGee says.
According to McGee, all local governments and school districts in Michigan are facing some degree of financial stress, to a greater or lesser extent—in part reflecting the choices the state has made over the past 40 years about how to finance local governments and schools and the relative value placed on them. 
“Extreme thrift is the new normal,” he says. “Local governments and schools must explore new means of leveraging their resources, which will mean more cooperating and probably some consolidating. Ultimately it means increasing productivity and having fewer people in the public sector work force.”
Miller Canfield is currently representing the City of Detroit in bankruptcy, and McGee has worked closely with the administration. 
“I’ve found Mayor Bing to be an honorable, motivated, ethical leader of the city,” he says. “His agenda always has been to fix the city, and he’s worked countless hours with that single goal always in mind—how can the city be made better for all?  He was committed throughout 2012 to making the consent agreement work as an alternative to an emergency manager or bankruptcy. Regrettably, his commitment to making the agreement work was not shared by enough other stakeholders to allow it to succeed.”
A guest lecturer on public law and finance topics at the U-M, Michigan Municipal League and National Association of Bond Lawyers, McGee is a past board member of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) and serves on the board of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.
“A perfect board for a wonk,” he says. “Both are ‘good government’ institutions, and exist to bring dispassionate analysis and reasoned thought to the public policy debate. They both do so very well and are fairly regarded as honest brokers of information. We have too few of such down-the-middle policy organizations, and it’s a privilege to be associated with each. They do great work.”
McGee and his wife, Mary Fisher, celebrated their silver wedding anniversary last year, and make their home in Novi. Their son, 19, is a freshman in college, and their 16-year-old daughter is a junior in high school.
McGee’s hobbies include astronomy and cosmology, baseball, politics, golf, historical fiction, and Michigan football. He also is a great admirer of the “Mighty Mac” Mackinac Bridge, which he calls “an engineering and financial marvel, and a work of art.” In 2007, the Bridge’s 50th anniversary, he wrote an article, “The Lawyer and the Bridge: How a Public Corporation Lawyer Saved the Mackinac Bridge,” for the State Bar of Michigan’s Public Corporation Law Quarterly. The lawyer in question was an attorney from Miller Canfield, John Nunneley. 
“The article detailed the high-stakes efforts to stop the Bridge financing at the 11th hour,” McGee says. “It’s a dramatic if little-known footnote to Michigan history.”