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A Numbers Whiz at Nossaman

11/09/2009 Daily Journal


By Jean-Luc Renault

A weathered American flag with 38 stars hangs on Nossaman managing partner Michael Heumann's office wall.

"It's from 1876," he said. "After Colorado became a state on Aug. 1, 1876 - a month after Custer died."

Heumann noted the red stripes were colored with a dye made from beetles, the same dye used in a Navajo blanket hanging on an adjacent wall.

"Ninety-eight percent of people who come in here don't even notice it," the devoted artifact collector said about the blanket, giving no indication whether that figure was a tossed-off estimate or an actual statistic derived from observation.

The latter wouldn't be surprising, considering Heumann is a numbers whiz.

He solved the nearly impossible equation of how to earn two undergraduate degrees from Princeton - in three years.

He also has a JD and an MBA.

Which is why colleagues said Heumann's the ideal manager for the mid-sized business litigation firm, headquartered in Los Angeles.

"He's the best person we have for that," said Nossaman partner Steve Wiman.

Heumann and others credit his strong managerial skills drawn from his education and his ability to manage by consensus as reasons for his success as managing partner.

"Michael is a great communicator and believes in transparency and sharing information at the firm," said Marcia Wasserman, Nossaman's chief operating officer. "He keeps an open door to everyone from equity partners to file clerks."

"The fact that he has an MBA and a JD is a tremendous help," she added.
Now in his third term, Heumann was first elected managing partner in early 2007 in Nossaman's annual election.

That year was Nossaman's most profitable ever. Regardless, Heumann said his first issue was assessing how the firm would handle a recession.

"That was a focus of mine for well over a year until we saw the first hints of a recession," he said.

Heumann had previously done legal work for the FDIC, giving him a peek at the country's finances. "We had a disaster in the making," said Heumann.

Sure enough, Nossaman's earnings in 2008 fell. "It hasn't surprised me a bit," he said.
What did surprise him was the downturn's scope.

"The depth of the recession is something I didn't expect," said Heumann, adding that it's changed how he manages the firm.

"It's shifted from literally taking for granted that every year was going to be better than the last," he said.

But Heumann's confident that Nossaman's weathering the storm.

"We've managed to navigate that because we have the same number of attorneys and lobbyists as we had a year and a half ago," he said.

Heumann credits his educational background for having helped him position the firm for the downturn. "My understanding of how to manage a budget and track all the formative details for a business with 280 employees flowed directly out of what I learned in business school," he said.

Being a mid-size firm has also helped. Heumann said it charges lower rates than "mega-firms," and also focuses on specific cases rather than spreading itself too thin.

"We don't try to be all things to all people," he said.

The oldest of five siblings, Heumann grew up in a conservative Pittsburgh suburb where he collected everything from bottle caps to stamps to raccoons and possums he kept as pets.

Heumann looked up to his engineer father, who designed conveyor systems for steel mills.

At Princeton in 1967, Heumann placed out of freshman courses and started working toward an electrical engineering degree.

He became "more liberal and freewheeling" amid the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests. Heumann wanted to affect positive change, and saw studying economics as a means of doing that.

Three years and two degrees later, Heumann headed to Stanford for an MBA, later rounding it out with a law degree from the University of California School of Law.

His first job out of law school in 1975 was as an attorney for the United Farm Workers of America.

Heumann moved from town to town with the workers he represented.

"I was a migrant attorney," said Heumann, who at times found himself negotiating contracts alongside labor hero Caesar Chavez.

He used translators when addressing groups of Spanish-speaking workers. But after a few years on the job, he sometimes took the lead.

"When the translators got it wrong, I'd correct them," he said.

The job was his biggest challenge as a lawyer, but he fondly remembers it.
"It was one of the greatest experiences of my life," he said.

Heumann left for the Santa Monica Rent Control Board in 1980.

Five years later, he joined Fine, Perzik & Friedman. In 1991, he started at Nossaman.

Heumann defended clients in disputes over business and real estate transactions. He often whittled down multi-million dollar claims into far smaller settlements, or had them dismissed outright.

In a case where a property's buyers sued Los Angeles County - the former occupant and Heumann's client - for destroying the inside of the building before vacating, Heumann so impressed the plaintiffs with a favorable settlement he secured, they hired him.

Attorney Tom Foley faced Heumann in a Los Angeles courtroom about five years ago. Foley represented a group of investors suing a woman who used an escrow account at Wells Fargo to run a $30 million Ponzi scheme. Heumann represented the bank.

"I thought he was a tough litigator," said Foley, of Foley Bezek & Komoroske in Santa Barbara. "He's a man of his word. When he said something would happen, it would happen. He was a worthy adversary."

Deft as he was in court, Heumann made sure when he became managing partner that it would be his only duty. He transferred all his clients to trusted partners.

These days, Heumann arrives at his office by 6:30 a.m. That gives him a good three hours to tackle projects before getting sidetracked with day-to-day matters. Join Heumann in that office and it's obvious his career's not his only passion.

In addition to the flag and blankets on his walls, Heumann boasts other artifacts, such as a large abalone spoon and a heavy cloth wrap from Alaska, called a chilkat blanket - his favorite.

That's nothing. A room in his house is packed floor-to-wall with other items gathered since he started collecting Native American art in 1980. Heumann said he cherishes "the thrill of getting to know an artifact extremely well."

"Every single piece is a window into the history of all the contact between people that went into that piece."

In 1989, that hobby got him involved with the Southwest Museum, which collected and preserved Native American art. Heumann sat on the board of trustees until low attendance and costly upkeep forced the museum to merge with the Autry National Center of the American West in 2003.

John Gray, the Autry's president, said the merger was a challenge, but that Heumann played a large role and united the museums with skillful grace.

"It was an extraordinary success at every level, and Michael has been a key steward of that process," said Gray.

Heumann is now a trustee at the Autry. Gray credits Heumann's professional skills for the value he brings to the museum.

"His legal knowledge and strategic sense are fundamental to what we do," said Gray.

Conversely, Heumann said that his experience in managing the museums helped make him a better managing partner.

"Those experiences are really good in terms of how people ought to be working together in management," said Heumann. "People can accomplish so much more if they're pulling in the same direction."

He said more attorneys should consider philanthropy.
"It's a really good thing for lawyers to be involved in non-profits," he said. "Giving back is one thing, but it also personally enriches your own life and gives you another dimension in experience."

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