Coffee Break: Michael G. Cortina, partner at SmithAmundsen LLC
Q: Describe your company.
A: SmithAmundsen is a business law firm with a Midwestern footprint and a national reach. We are headquartered in Chicago, and have offices in St. Charles, Woodstock, Rockford, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Indianapolis. We are also the Illinois law firm for USLAW Network Inc., an invitation-only network of nearly 100 independent law firms around the U.S. USLAW is also affiliated with international law firms and organizations that allows its affiliated firms to be able to immediately help clients with legal issues from Chicago to Buenos Aires to Paris to Shanghai.
Q: Do you plan to hire any additional staff or make any significant capital investments in your company in the next year?
A: SmithAmundsen does not believe in growth for the sake of growth. The firm grows by expanding into new geographical areas, or hiring new staff and attorneys, when the need arises. If the firm has enough work to justify hiring someone, we will hire them. In the 9 years that I have been with SmithAmundsen, our total number of attorney has increased from 130 to 190.
Q: What will your company's main challenges be in the next year?
A: The presidential election will likely result in a dramatic change in many different areas of the law. Regulations, in everything from the environment to banking, are subject to complete transformations, and our job will be to know about, understand and be able to advise our clients on these constantly-changing rules. Keeping up with all of the changes is going to present a major challenge.
Q: What's the hottest trend in your industry?
A: The law is constantly in flux, so there are always new trends. In Illinois, medical marijuana is something that is gaining popularity. Legally, it is a fascinating topic because licensed medical marijuana is legal under Illinois state law, but marijuana is still illegal and a controlled substance under federal law. New questions about how to deal with this business arise daily. Can these businesses use a bank, or does federal oversight prevent banks from having them as customers? If Illinois law authorizes marijuana dispensaries, can these same businesses be subject to prosecution under federal law? This is an interesting area of the law that is subject to change depending on the goals of the current state or federal administrations.
Q: If you had one tip to give to a rookie CEO, what would it be?
A: In the Army, there is a saying: Rank Has Its Privileges -- or RHIP. I think that is nonsense. Rank, and all that accompanies it, is its own privilege. The saying should be: RHIR -- or Rank Has Its Responsibilities. A CEO needs to always remember that being CEO does not mean that she has earned privileges, it means that she has responsibilities to everyone with whom she works.
Q: Do you have a business mantra?
A: Find innovative solutions to intractable problems. Most any lawyer can try a case, or close a deal, but it takes creativity, thoughtfulness and experience to divine solutions for seemingly impossible problems. All difficult situations can be cured, but such cures are not always the ones that readily come to mind.
Q: From a business outlook, whom do you look up to?
A: I admire lawyers that leave the relative comfort and security of a law firm or public interest job to open their own office. Having left a firm to open my own office, I know the anxiety that accompanies such ventures and I have enormous respect for those attorneys who take that leap.
Q: What is one interesting fact about your company that most people may not know?
A: We have attorneys in the firm that speak English, Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Russian, Hindi, Gujarati, Turkish or Yiddish. In addition to those languages, we have some staff members that speak Czech, Greek or Tatar. Businesses are becoming increasingly multinational, so business law firms need to be able to assist their clients in a variety of different ways and languages.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: I have several hobbies and other interests that occupy a great deal of my time, but I can hardly call such events "free time." I am a husband, father, pilot, veteran, author, athlete and musician. My latest obsession has been to train for distance running events even though I am one of the slowest runners I know. In 2016, I trained for and completed the Rockford Marathon, and in the process I raised $1,500 for Lawyers' Assistance Program, a 501(c)(3) organization that helps law students, lawyers and judges get assistance with substance abuse, addiction and mental health problems.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: There are so many concerns in the world at any given time that if we allow ourselves to lose sleep over them we would collapse from exhaustion. No matter what happens, the world keeps rotating and time marches on; why lose sleep over anything?
Q: If you were not doing this job, what do you think you would be doing?
A: I have always enjoyed writing, so I would probably be a struggling author. I say "struggling author" because I have been unable to get a novel that I wrote accepted for publication, and have come to the realization that just because I like what I have written does not mean that anyone will want to publish it.
Q: What was your first paying job?
A: When I was a teenager, I worked as an "order expediter" at a local fast food restaurant. I very quickly learned that I did not enjoy working in the fast food industry.
Q: If you could put your company name on a sports venue, which one would you choose?
A: Probably Toyota Park, where the Chicago Fire plays. I am a fan of "The Beautiful Game," and even hold a soccer coach 'E' Certificate from having coached both of my daughters when they were younger.
Q: What is one funny thing that has happened to you in your career?
A: In 2007, I represented a Chicago-area business in a case against a New Orleans company, and the case was pending in federal court in New Orleans, LA. On Jan. 21, 2007, the Chicago Bears defeated the New Orleans Saints for the NFC Championship and the right to play in the Super Bowl; the next day, on January 22, 2007, I appeared in a New Orleans court, before a New Orleans judge, representing a Chicago business against a New Orleans company, and had to argue a motion for summary judgment. When the judge took the bench, he said "Now that all the weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth is over with, I want all of you all to be nice to these Illinois people down here, and tell them we'll wait until next year." I quickly informed the judge that "although I did come down from Chicago, I grew up in Baton Rouge and was rooting for the Saints." The judge eventually granted my motion. I still have a copy of the transcript from that hearing in my office.
Q: Two people to follow on Twitter and why.
A: People who overcome seemingly insurmountable odds are people to follow. Examples of such people are Stephen Hawking, the English Theoretical Physicist who has never let ALS stop him from understanding and explaining the cosmos; and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a woman of immense intellect that did not let Diabetes, learning English as a second language, or growing-up poor prevent her from reaching the pinnacle of the legal profession -- sitting on the United States Supreme Court.
150 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 3300, Chicago, IL 60601
Local offices: St. Charles, Woodstock, Rockford, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Indianapolis
Number of employees: 305
Family information: Married (Rebecca), 2 daughters (Samantha and Jordan)
Hometown: Baton Rouge, LA
Town of residence: Crystal Lake, IL