Working as a Torts Lawyer: An Interview with Mike Gibek, ND 2005

Recently, I got the chance to talk to Mike Gibek, Assistant Borough Chief, Torts Division, New York City Department of Law about his career path from judicial clerk with a bankruptcy judge to working for the New York Mayor to joining the Law Department and becoming a supervisor. Mike attended Notre Dame as an undergrad, participates in the alumni mentorship program as an alumni mentor, and is eager to speak with any Notre Dame student interested in joining the Law Department.

KMB: What made you go to law school?

MG: In short, the circumstances of the time. When I was attending Notre Dame undergrad, I was looking to start my career in business, specifically IT.  But then the dot com bubble burst, derailing my initial plan. I was graduating soon, in 2005, and really had not prepared an alternative path other than IT.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.  My parents encouraged me, however, to pursue professional school while the economy recovered. Although attending law school was not planned out ahead of time, once I started looking into pursuing a law degree, I realized that regardless of whether I would be a practicing attorney or go into a more business-oriented career, law school could provide me with invaluable skills. More importantly, it could provide me with skills that I could transfer to other career paths and areas of my life. I thought it would be beneficial to be able to think like an attorney no matter where I end up.

KMB: How did you decide on Hofstra for law school?

MG: The advice I received,  probably at Notre Dame, was to go to law school in the city where you intend to practice. My family was in New York City so my plan was always to return. That was how I limited the scope of my law school applications. I applied to a swath of New York law schools, visited several, and Hofstra ended up being the best choice financially and otherwise.

KMB: What did you do your 1L summer?

MG: The summer after my first year, I worked for a family friend’s business. My mom was working in real estate at the time and connected me with a local Brooklyn attorney who she had worked and become friends with over time. His practice ran the gamut:  personal injury, estate law, real estate sales, contracts, and leases. Going into that summer, I had no idea what kind of law I wanted to practice so it was a good experience to see lots of different practice areas. I thought it would be best to start as general as possible.

KMB: Did that experience help narrow down what you wanted to do?

MG: After my 1L summer, I realized I didn’t want to do transactional or contract work. I much more enjoyed my trips to the Kings County Supreme Court, even if it was only to file documents with the Court.  I wanted to go to court, interact with clients, and not just review contracts and make edits. That seemed a lot more exciting to me – being able to defend and advocate for my clients’ interests.

KMB: What did you do your 2L summer?

MG:  I worked for a Long Island construction litigation boutique. I chose the litigation firm because I thought it would be the ideal place to get some hands-on litigation experience. The Long Island firm primarily focused on litigating disputes arising out of construction contracts. For example, when a municipality is looking to rebuild part of a highway, they may engage a private construction company that takes on the project. During the course of work, various issues may arise such as delays or change orders that need to be resolved through litigation. It was eye opening to experience the litigation lifestyle firsthand and the work it takes to keep clients happy. Although I handled my share of doc review and other less exciting aspects of litigation, I was able to work on substantive legal work as well, including drafting a key legal argument for an appellate brief. I left that internship  with a greater appreciation for the practicalities of civil litigation and the demands it places on young attorneys. More importantly, I realized how much I still had to learn about practicing law!

KMB: Did you do any other externships or clinics during law school?

MG: I participated in a mediation clinic for a semester and did an externship with a District Court Judge in the Eastern District of New York. Both of these experiences exposed me to the judicial side of litigation. It was exciting to be working with the judiciary, tasked with achieving an appropriate resolution rather than simply advocating on behalf of one side. I developed an appreciation for conflict resolution and the difficulties associated with balancing competing interested advanced by the respective sides to a dispute.

One of the best attributes of law school is the opportunity for hands-on learning through summer internships and clinics. In my experience, not only do the opportunities provide a student with a greater understanding of law and litigation, but you receive a more practical education than you gain from just the law school core classes.

KMB: Your first job out of law school was clerking for a United States bankruptcy judge in Alabama. How did you get that job?

MG: Despite undertaking a lot of practical skills course training during law school, I didn’t feel confident enough with my abilities as a litigator to begin representing clients after graduation. This is what initially prompted me to pursue a clerkship – an opportunity to continue to develop my litigation skills. I saw it as mentorship position where I would get the benefit of working on interesting cases, and handling complex legal issues, without reporting directly to clients. Unfortunately, timing worked against me during the application process. The economy had collapsed just as I was about to graduate which meant that I had to cast a very wide net to find a position. I applied for clerkships from Maine to Miami and spent much of my 3L fall semester on a plane. I limited my applications to federal courts since I knew I was going to return to New York to practice and reasoned that federal law experience would be more transferable.

Ultimately, it was a Notre Dame Mendoza alumnus connection that got me the job.  Although I knew nothing about bankruptcy, I was eager to learn and to clerk for a federal judge and was hired nonetheless. I spent the next two years clerking in Montgomery, Alabama.

KMB: What was your next job after completing your clerkship?

MG: After my clerkship I worked in the New York City Mayor’s office under the Bloomberg administration. Toward the end of my clerkship, I was looking to return to New York City.  I had made a specific term commitment to my clerkship which made finding my next position more difficult. I interviewed with several firms but had a tough time finding the right fit as most firms expected a new hire to start working within a month of the interview. In most cases, I had to fly back home to my clerkship after each interview which was a nonstarter for most of the firms. When I finished my clerkship and had nothing lined up, I went back to New York to start my job search on the ground.

I ended up reconnecting with the attorney I worked for my 1L summer. Unbeknownst to me, he was winding down his practice to pursue politics. He put me in contact with a colleague of his at the Mayor’s office, the General Counsel for Mayor Bloomberg, who offered me an opportunity to work on his team. At the mayor’s office, I got my first glimpse into city government and exposure to the legal aspects of municipal governance.

KMB: How did you end up at the New York City Law Department?

MG: As the Bloomberg administration was coming to an end, I realized that I wanted to continue working in government practice but in another area. My boss, a New York City Law Department alumnus, put me in contact with recruitment and I was able to land an interview as a lateral. I attribute the interview, and subsequent job offer I received, to my litigation experience working on both sides  of the bench.

KMB: What was it like working as an entry-level attorney in the Torts Division?

MG: The best way I can describe it is: litigation boot camp. You are quickly exposed to all areas of civil litigation, with expectations to handle a high volume of work. The work is endless but if you view it as an opportunity to learn and grow as a litigator, it becomes immensely valuable experience.

KMB: When people leave the Torts Division, where do they go?

MG: In my experience, attorneys right out of law school generally work for us for a few years, get litigation experience, and often transfer to a different division of the Law Department to get exposure to another area of law. They also leave and go to law firms. Law firms love hiring Tort Division attorneys because they bring with them vast amounts of practical experience taking depositions and making motions. In fact, we even have a program with a number of big law firms wherein they send their associates to our office to obtain deposition experience.

KMB: How did you get to be a Borough Chief in the Torts Division?

MG: I had no idea when I joined the New York City law Department that I would end up staying this long! While working for the Division, I got as much experience as I could and quickly realized that I did not want to do trials. I appreciate the valuable role our trial attorneys serve when a case cannot be resolved without a jury but I personally never developed a knack for the pageantry of trials.

As I knew that I did not want to pursue a career as a trial attorney, I was very interested in becoming a supervisor. I focused on becoming well-versed in the many areas of law that we practice and making myself available as a resource to others in the office. Immediately, before I became a supervisor, I participated in a specialized pilot program composed of a small group of attorneys that handled higher exposure cases. In that program, attorneys handled a smaller caseload but were responsible for working up cases that often became very discovery intensive. Personally, through my work on the high exposure cases, I was able to deepen my understanding of municipal tort law and became a source of information and advice for other attorneys in our office to consult. My hard work as an entry level pre-trial attorney paid off, as the office decided to promote me to supervisor. Now, as a supervisor, much of my job is to serve as a mentor to new attorneys and to promote the professional development of our entire staff.

KMB: What qualities do you look for in a good summer intern?

MG: I look for candidates that are highly organized and able to multi-task. While analytical and writing skills are important, they can be developed with time. However, when faced with our volume of work, falling behind or losing track of assignments is  crippling. Even if you make a mistake and bring it a supervisor’s attention it can be fixed. But if you become so overwhelmed that you don’t realize you made a mistake, that is a lot more damaging. These are skills that are not directly taught in law school but often serve to be the most valuable.

KMB: What advice do you have for law students?

MG: Get as much practical experience as you can. Do internships, clinics, and take practical skills courses. Get out of the classroom. Seek out courtroom opportunities and litigation experience such as drafting and arguing motions and taking depositions. If you already know what kind of law interests you, get experience in that area. Even if you don’t, getting practical experience will be invaluable as it is transferable to any area in which you may ultimately practice. We have attorneys with exclusively criminal backgrounds that come here and do well even without knowledge of the civil law because they have courtroom experience. I still carry a bank of bankruptcy knowledge from my clerkship which I never use anymore, but the practical tips, like always starting with the reply when reading briefs, serve me every day.

The Law Department has a robust paid summer program, which often leads to an entry-level job after graduation as well as an entry-level honors program and they interview at Notre Dame’s New York OCIP every year. If you’re interested in interviewing with the Department, talking to Mike is a great first step to learning more.

If you would like to get in touch with Mike, email me and I will send you his contact information. If you’re interested in working for the Law Department, the CDO is here to help you optimize your application. Get in touch!

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