When law firms break up it can lead to a level acrimony seldom seen outside the divorce courts. And when the protagonists ARE litigators, as they are in the case of Geoffrey Fieger and Ven Johnson, then they can get bitter, ugly and vicious.
And so the tale of the breakup of the two super lawyers who won fame and fortune with their multi-million dollar verdicts, has reached the courts with a tale that befits a Grisham legal tale. Only better.
The Detroit Free Press reports on the saga:
It was June 2008 and Geoffrey Fieger and his long-time law partner and friend Ven Johnson were at Fieger’s sprawling compound on the island of Anguilla in the West Indies, sitting on a white sandy beach, overlooking the turquoise Caribbean.
Fieger had flown Johnson and Johnson’s young son there on his firm’s private Hawker jet just days after the two men were acquitted of 15 counts of campaign fraud following a grueling eight-week trial in Detroit, charges that could have put the men in prison for decades and destroyed their soaring law careers.
As Johnson recalls, Fieger, then 57, worn down from 16-hour days of trial and preparation, turned to him and said how much he appreciated that Johnson had stood by him. He promised Johnson, 10 years his junior, a greater role in the firm, and the wealth that would come with it.
“This will all be yours,” Johnson remembers Fieger saying as he waved his arm at the luxury before them. The trial had left him exhausted, Fieger said, and it was time for him to step back and spend more time with his family.
Three years later, the two were again locked in an epic battle, but this time against each other. It was a fight punctuated with angry words, multimillion-dollar lawsuits against each other, a law firm divided, and a friendship, however tenuous, shattered beyond repair.
The two former partners settled their lawsuits, though not necessarily their differences, in late September. The results are sealed, but court records from the dueling lawsuits and interviews offer an intimate glimpse of what went on behind the scenes of Michigan’s most famous — some would say most notorious — law firm.
Johnson, 53, agreed to sit down with the Detroit Free Press for an exclusive interview after the final paperwork was filed earlier this month.
“I loved him more than I liked him,” Johnson said in his corner office of the Buhl Building in downtown Detroit. His firm, Johnson Law, operates there with a staff of 35, including 13 attorneys. “I don’t think I have the vocabulary to express how I felt. I viewed him as my big brother.”
Fieger, who rose to fame in the 1990s as Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s attorney, did not return repeated phone calls and messages left at his office by the Free Press, asking for an interview.
‘A good guy’
From the beginning, they were an unlikely pair.
Johnson, the son of school teachers, is known for his pleasant demeanor and courtly manner, a man who has dined with a U.S. president but knows the names of the shoeshine man and the wait staff at his favorite local restaurants. He is a ferocious litigator, but one who seldom raises his voice.
“He is just a really good guy, and his word is good,” said attorney Steve Fishman, who would eventually represent Johnson in the federal criminal case. “His reputation out there is just that he’s a good person and that’s why he has so many friends.”
Fieger, the son of a Harvard-educated civil rights attorney and a teacher and union organizer, was raised in a boisterous home that valued sometimes loud opinions and verbal combat. He is gifted and charismatic before a jury. Outside the courtroom, he can be bombastic, insulting, blistering.
He once referred to judges who reversed him on the Michigan Court of Appeals as “jackasses” and made lewd suggestions about sodomy regarding the judges. A 1998 Democratic candidate for governor, he called then-Gov. John Engler “a fat ugly sonofabitch,” suggested Engler had engaged in barnyard miscegenation, and went so far as to make derogatory remarks about Engler’s young, triplet daughters.
His antics have prompted numerous complaints to the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission, which noted in one case that while such language is protected under free speech, “his childish, scorched earth tactics served no one well.”
But in many ways, Fieger and his former partner are alike.
Attorney Michael Dezsi, who left the Fieger firm in 2011, said both men are “very talented, but uncompromising.” And both could be difficult. “They’re similarly aggressive and uncompromising in their litigation styles, which has made both of them successful and top litigators.”
Dezsi said that while working with Fieger could be difficult, it was “an immeasurable experience, I can’t say enough about it. He is a ferocious litigator, and he had all the resources to take on anybody. He is absolutely fearless.”
Dezsi credits Fieger with helping hone his own skills to run his own Detroit law firm. “He helped me build my practice, my career and my reputation.”
Stephen Hnat worked for the Fieger firm until 2011 as a jury consultant. A social worker and psychotherapist, he watched interesting dynamics between Fieger and Johnson.
“Clearly Ven and Geoff were the superstars. There was a kind of competition between the two,” Hnat said. “Ven recognized Geoff as brilliant, and Geoff recognized Ven as brilliant. I think when Geoff saw someone operating at that level, he upped his aggressiveness.”
Fieger was already well on his way to stardom in 1995 when he recruited Johnson, a talented trial attorney making a name for himself at Kohl Secrest, a premier law firm in Farmington Hills.
Fieger had gained international attention representing Kevorkian, the infamous assisted suicide doctor, beginning in 1990 — acting as the pathologist’s attorney, spokesperson and, in many ways, his publicist. Fieger alerted local media each time Kevorkian assisted in a death, calling news conferences at his Southfield office and appearing on national TV and talk shows. With the publicity came plenty of new business, with Fieger presenting himself as the champion of the underdog.
He successfully sued talk show host Jenny Jones after one of her guests killed another, convincing jurors she had ambushed the guest in a surprise interview. Jurors awarded the dead man’s family $25 million, but that was eventually overturned by a higher court.
And he made international headlines when he took on the case of Nathaniel Abraham, arrested at age 11 on a murder count and charged as an adult. Abraham was convicted of second-degree murder, but sentenced as a juvenile and released in 2007. He was eventually arrested on drug charges and sent back to prison.
In those early years, the Fieger firm was an exciting place to be for a young attorney, Johnson recalled.