Mike Lackey leads Mayer Brown’s global litigation and dispute resolution practice, but he didn’t set out to be a lawyer at all. His unusual career took him from MIT, through the Navy’s Top Gun school and to the brink of the astronaut program before a sharp turn into law. In January, he became one of the first men to join WILEF’s advisory board.
You’ve had an unorthodox career for a litigator. In fact, you had a pretty specific career goal.
My career path started when I was eight years old, when I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. I wanted to be the first person to walk on Mars. From that point forward, I plotted out a career that would get me there. Most astronauts seemed to have engineering degrees and a lot of them were from MIT, which is obviously a great engineering school, so that’s what I decided to major in and where I decided to go to college.
When I entered MIT, it was still a male-dominated environment. I was in the astronautical engineering program, and there were very few women in that major. One of them became a very dear friend of mine, Sarah Gavit. She is absolutely brilliant. She went on to lead an important NASA mission and ultimately was promoted to one of the highest positions in NASA held by a woman at the time. In my MIT study group, which had some pretty smart students who have done very well as engineers, I think we all knew that Sarah was the smartest one in the bunch.
So if you’re going to be an astronaut, there are a few more steps, right?
Yes. That was back in the day when astronauts came from the military and almost all of them had flown jets. The Navy had this amazing fighter plane, the F-14 Tomcat, and landing on carriers seemed cool and fun, so that’s the path I chose. Neil Armstong also flew fighters off carriers before he was picked to be an astronaut, which wasn’t lost on me. So I went from MIT, which was largely a male environment back then, to a carrier-based Navy fighter squadron, which was still all male in the 1980s.
It was a great time for an aspiring astronaut, because the shuttle program was just gearing up and, relatively speaking, there were lots of slots for astronauts. But In January 1986, the Challenger unexpectedly exploded, throwing the future of the shuttle program into doubt. Soon thereafter, I received the orders I had been working towards for so long – to attend the joint test pilot program, in which you earn your Masters in Astronautical Engineering before proceeding to Test Pilot School. The lore was that this was “the” pipeline to getting into the space program, and that something like one out of every two officers who were selected to participate in the program became astronauts.
But after the Challenger accident, the shuttle program and the astronaut pipeline were suspended. It was unclear when it would reopen. In May 1987, I was married, so that new part of my life required additional considerations. It was a very difficult decision, but with the program on indefinite hold, and the frequent deployments at sea that are critical to succeed in a naval career, my wife and I decided that it was time for me to try something different. I honestly didn’t have any clue what to do, so I decided I’d go to law school because it would give me three years to figure it out.
When you got into the legal profession, how would you describe the landscape when it came to issues of diversity and inclusion?
I graduated from law school in 1993, and I recall that my classes were pretty balanced at that time, which was a very different environment from MIT and the Navy. And when I started work as an associate, my focus was on learning what it’s like to be a lawyer in a big firm and how to be as good a lawyer as I could be. Everything was so new and a bit overwhelming to me. From my limited perspective as a very junior associate, I don’t recall there being a huge focus on gender issues or on making sure women were getting good opportunities at law firms. That is completely different now.
What kinds of things elevated those issues over time?
When I started at my firm, I worked a lot with our Supreme Court and appellate group. Around that time, there were a series of affirmative action cases before the court. I remember, in particular, a Michigan affirmative action case, Gratz v. Bollinger, in which my colleagues filed an amicus brief on behalf of GM. It effectively explained why it’s important for organizations to have input from employees with diverse backgrounds.
The arguments in the brief really rang true to me, especially when I reflected back on my experiences at MIT. We would work on problem sets together, and during that process you could see how having the views from people with different backgrounds and experiences really improved the ultimate solution to the problem. And since then, I have seen the same thing in my legal career.
How do you describe the current landscape? What’s changed and what are the remaining challenges?
It’s critically important to have a diverse workforce in every sense of the word. We perform better, we come up with better solutions, and we serve our clients better if we have diverse teams. Also, our clients expect it of us. They see the value of diversity in their own organizations.
As law firm leaders, we make sure our organizations remain focused on these issues, and we work hard to make sure our diverse lawyers have every chance to succeed. Over the years, I have seen firms become much more flexible with respect to work-life issues. They realize that it’s far better to establish a work environment in which you can retain your best talent long-term rather than imposing somewhat arbitrary and arcane rules that create unnecessary burdens that make it harder to continue in a legal career when “life happens.”
I like to tell young professionals to view their career as a 30-year journey and to take the long view. Smart organizations should do the same thing. Along that long journey, there are going to be bumps and detours where personal issues must necessarily take priority over work. If you have a very talented lawyer, you need to be able to address whatever issues arise by being creative and flexible in a way that works for that individual and, in the long run, that also will benefit the firm.