Law Firm Leaders
In a year that culminated with both a contentious U.S. Supreme Court nomination and a prolonged national conversation about election laws, the spotlight on legal ethics shone bright in 2020.
For Mike Downey, who’s spent the past six years building a firm devoted to legal ethics, law firm risk management and what he calls the “law of lawyering,” that broader public attention only reinforces a growth strategy first honed at the family dinner table three decades ago as a Saint Louis University High student.
“My dad was an accountant who started his own practice mid-career,” said Downey, who struck out on his own after serving as a partner at Armstrong Teasdale, Hinshaw & Culberson and Fox Galvin, and as an associate at Stinson, Mag & Fizzell. “From the outset as a lawyer, I was really focused on how I was going to develop my own business.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in 2020, Downey had planned to offer free virtual continuing legal education programs to help lawyers fulfill a new Missouri requirement that all lawyers complete a minimum of one CLE credit annually in anti-bias training.
Those plans only accelerated after the coronavirus outbreak, with the efforts a decided success: more than 1,400 participants registered for the first two sessions. To date, more than 3,000 lawyers have registered for Downey Law Group programs through its www.MissouriEthicsCLE.com website.
Downey’s path to his current role wasn’t quite linear. After graduating from Georgetown University with a classics degree, he spent several years teaching Latin at Ladue High, where he also coached boys and girls soccer and the school’s chess team. A 1998 graduate of Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, Downey later rejoined his alma mater as an adjunct professor, teaching law firm management and legal ethics.
The former high school teacher credits WashU law professor Dan Keating, then an associate dean, for pointing him towards his ethics specialization during a conversation about legal specialties with a teaching shortage. At the time, Downey was teaching a class on the U.S. legal system for international lawyers.
“He said to pick either legal ethics or the Uniform Commercial Code,” Downey said.
In 2014, Missouri Lawyers Media dubbed him the “go-to legal ethics counsel in Missouri.” His firm also helps its lawyer and law firm clients with marketing, operations and delivery of client services while employing such innovations as fixed fees with those clients.
His public platform extends well beyond Missouri. He’s a former chair of the American Bar Association’s Law Practice Division, which provides lawyers nationwide with resources to help improve how their firms operate. He remains an ethics columnist for the ABA’s Litigation magazine, as well as Law Practice magazine. He’s an oft-cited expert in the general press, having been quoted by The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio.
The former Latin teacher and high school coach calls his time in the classroom “hugely important” to his legal ethics practice.
“That’s where I learned most of my lessons, good and bad,” he said.