They’ve Got Next: The 40 Under 40 - Michael Gervais of Susman Godfrey

July 14, 2021, 8:46 AM

Please describe two of your most substantial, recent wins in practice.
Along with my colleagues and our co-counsel from Civil Rights Corps and Texas Fair Defense Project, I represented a class of indigent misdemeanor arrestees and secured a landmark preliminary injunction from a Houston federal judge that struck down Harris County, Texas’s unconstitutional money bail system. Following the decision, the parties entered into a consent decree that benefits thousands of misdemeanor arrestees each year.

I was personally appointed by a federal judge to serve on the Steering Committee representing plaintiffs in the multidistrict litigation class actions against TikTok and its parent company. In February 2021, the leadership group asked Judge Lee to approve a $92 million litigation-wide settlement. The deal, if approved, would mark one of the highest privacy-related settlements in the country.

What is the most important lesson you learned as a first-year attorney and how does it inform your practice today?
Be proactive and take ownership of your cases. As a first-year lawyer, I once called a partner to ask, “Should I do X or should Y?” He responded “Yes” and then hung up the phone. It taught me that it was important for me to have the confidence to make strategic decisions. It can be intimidating to come into a case with more experienced lawyers. However, there is no better way to learn than to dive in and take ownership. This includes raising your hand to take on new challenges. This approach led me to present my client’s positions to regulators in my first year of practice. Being proactive also requires thinking ahead to anticipate what is needed for a successful outcome. By taking this approach early on I not only contributed to a successful outcome for the case, but I developed my own skillset. It was a win-win. In my practice today, I am now in a position where I can help younger lawyers develop their own skillsets. I try to mentor the younger lawyers on my teams, so they are empowered and prepared to take on new challenges, whether it is their first deposition or their first argument.

How do you define success in your practice? Client satisfaction is paramount. At Susman Godfrey, we are invested in the outcome that benefits the clients the most, whether it means going to, or settling before, trial. By aligning our goals, client trust naturally follows and makes it more likely that they will seek our help again or recommend us to others. There have been times when success has meant going to trial and there have been times when success has meant settling a case. It really depends on what is the best outcome for the client. I define success as performing at a high level where I am the best possible advocate for my client regardless of the path of the litigation.

What are you most proud of as a lawyer?
I was fortunate to represent a class of indigent misdemeanor arrestees pro bono in the landmark O’Donnell et al. v. Harris County et. case, a constitutional challenge to the money bail system in Harris County, Texas. Along with our co-counsel we secured a sweeping preliminary injunction order from the Chief Judge of the Southern District of Texas who struck down the Harris County money bail system. The decision focused national attention on the widespread practice of jailing people simply because they could not afford money bail when arrested for minor offenses. It was a hard-fought litigation over several years with many defendants and stakeholders. Despite the challenges, we managed to reach a favorable settlement agreement that led to a consent decree entered by the Court that remains in place today and serves as a model for other jurisdictions to follow. In the first year in which the injunctive relief was in effect, more than twelve thousand people were released from jail. I am proud to have been involved from the pre-Complaint investigation to the Consent Decree and that my work on the case helped facilitate meaningful systemic changes in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country.

Who is your greatest mentor in the law and what have they taught you?
Justice Stephen Breyer, whom I clerked for from 2014-2015, has been one of my greatest mentors and taught me lessons I continue to draw on. Justice Breyer has an unparalleled work ethic. He is a voracious consumer of information who showed me the value of digging into hard work and never resting on your laurels. This enables him to make decisions with conviction and confidence. With each case I try, I dive deeply into the facts to truly understand the subject matter so I can guide my clients to the best possible outcome. Justice Breyer showed a great appreciation for his law clerks – he balanced the demanding job with generous praise and constructive feedback. I recall the importance of gratitude when I work with younger lawyers. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from Justice Breyer is to enjoy your work – you will always do better if are having fun.

Just for fun, tell us your two favorite songs on your summer music playlist.
“California Love” by 2Pac ft. Dr. Dre. - Because I recently returned home to California.

“Remember Me (Lullaby)” from the Coco soundtrack - My son Roman was born in March 2021 and this song helps him fall asleep, so it has become a staple in my playlist.

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