August 20, 2015

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Maury Poscover

If you were to name a consistent theme in Maury Poscover’s life and career, it would be giving back – to the legal profession and to the community. He has held numerous leadership positions with the American Bar Association, including the ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary. He’s been very involved with his alma mater, Washington University School of Law, and his firm, serving as chair of his law firm, Husch Blackwell, for 10 years. He also coached his sons’ Little League baseball teams for 10 years. And he has a booming nationwide practice, focused on commercial finance. “If at the end of 10 years, you’re a very good lawyer, making a very nice living and technically competent, you may be happy,” he said. “But if you commit in some way to giving something back to the profession and the community, you’re going to be happier, and long term, more successful.”

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You serve on your firm’s Diversity Committee and recently spoke about how law schools and firms can attract and maintain a more diverse population. What do you suggest?

I’ve been involved one way or another in diversity efforts for virtually my entire career, and it’s the same if not greater challenge today as it was 45 years ago. There is not a one-size-fits-all, but the most important thing is to create a welcoming, supportive culture and then communicating that culture, which is not easy to do. It has to be genuine. People see through pretty quickly when it’s a paper effort and not real. 

You are affiliated with your alma mater, Washington University School of Law, and you co-chaired the school’s scholarship initiative. Has this initiative been critical to diversifying the student body there?

The nature of law school education now is expensive enough that being able to complete your legal education at least with a manageable amount of debt if not no debt is critical to everyone going to law school. I think it’s exacerbated for minorities and certainly those from lower socioeconomic situations. When the economy was having its difficulties, Washington University in St. Louis Law School made the determination that unless the school wanted to be populated solely by those of wealth, with a smattering of those who were in abject poverty, without anyone near the middle, that there had to be a shift from an emphasis on bricks and mortar to scholarship. The university raised $150 million for scholarships. For the law school, I think we raised $10 to $12 million. 

I was blessed with being provided a full scholarship to go to law school. I wouldn’t have been able to go but for that. The same was true with me for undergraduate school. My wife and I some years back endowed a scholarship, and 95 percent of the recipients have been minorities. 

In 2014, you taught at your alma mater a new course, Advanced Legal Writing. What was most challenging in teaching this course, and what was most rewarding?

Back in the 1970s, I taught a legal writing course that was for first-year students. When asked again, I readily said “yes.” I’ve taught four straight semesters, and now I’m only going to be teaching a course in the spring. Four of us in our firm divided up the class, so that I did the business transaction/corporate documents, someone else did estate planning, someone else real estate, and the fourth, litigation. 

We ran the class as if you’re training a first-year associate. We gave assignments similar to what we would give to a first year associate. The greatest challenge was the grading process, because if I’m marking up a document for a first-year associate, you aspire to absolute perfection. As I told my students, if they get a 95 grade on a paper, that’s an A. If you make 5 percent mistakes on a paper for clients, you’re fired. 

You spearheaded the effort to transform national CLE to enhance quality and accessibility. What are you most proud of regarding this effort?

Back when I first got involved with what was then ALI-ABA CLE, there was a downturn in the economy, but there was an absolute need to invest in technology. We, at the time, committed resources to upgrade dramatically the technological capacity. 

The other aspect that we moved forward on was to insist upon diverse panels. There were far too many, and I fall into this category, older white men on the panels. As time progressed, we were able to add a considerable number of women and persons of color. Again, it’s not perfect, but there was a significant change. 

Let’s turn to your practice. How did you decide to focus on representing commercial financial institutions?

Like many aspects of my career, a great opportunity presented itself and if nothing else, I’m opportunistic, so I took it. I was very active in the Young Lawyers’ Division of the American Bar Association, and as part of that activity, four of us were selected to participate in a debate on a topic relating to consumer finance, an area about which I knew nothing, nor did any of the others, but it was just the way it was done. 

In February 1980, at the ABA Midyear Meeting, I happened to sit next to Bill Burke, who then was the chair of the Uniform Commercial Code Committee of the Business Law Section of the ABA. We figured out that we had shared a client, and I was doing work related to commercial lending, but I can’t say I was in commercial finance. Bill said the Business Law Section was opening up the Committee and adding one young lawyer. They asked if I would want to be it. I said “yes.” 

At my first meeting, there were seven drafters of the Uniform Commercial Code present. I sat between Peter Coogan who was teaching the Uniform Commercial Code at Harvard, and Homer Kripke, who was another drafter of the Code. That exposed me to the highest level issues relating to commercial finance. I then migrated my practice in that direction. My practice just exploded, and it became a nationwide practice. 

I probably could have been happy doing a whole lot of different types of law, but the commercial finance area was intellectually challenging, and also had a feeling of a real positive impact. When you do commercial finance, you’re lending money to businesses, giving them an opportunity, whether it’s to expand their business or acquire another business, and it was a very positive feeling. There is no happier group than at the closing of an acquisition and the loan that goes with it. 

You served as chair of your law firm, Husch Blackwell, for 10 years. What were the highlights of this experience? 

The people. Interacting with bright, able, committed professionals. I don’t tell lawyer jokes because I happen to like lawyers. I think lawyers, for the most part, are an engaging, entertaining groups. Sure, there are exceptions, but for the most part they’re outgoing and they’re certainly stimulating. It was also rewarding to see young lawyers, who’d been mentored and encouraged, develop into first-class professionals. 

You’ve served as a mentor for many young attorneys. What advice would you give to a young lawyer who is starting out and wants to build his or her book of business?

There was a woman, Dovey J. Roundtree, who summarized what I believe, which is: “Be about something!” Get involved in something outside the practice. Why? If at the end of 10 years, you’re a very good lawyer, making a very nice living and technically competent, you may be happy. But if you commit in some way to giving something back to the profession and the community, you’re going to be happier and, long term, more successful. Find something you like and get involved with it. Choose something that gets you out there in the community. You want to build a practice? People have to know about you. 

If you had to pick one trait that helped you succeed in your career, what would it be?

I enjoy people. And I enjoy helping them. 

You served as chair of the Business Law Section. What are you most proud of achieving during your time as chair?

We worked really hard on inclusion, both in terms of racial diversity, ethnic diversity, gender diversity – and also geographic diversity, in-house lawyers and outside lawyers, academics, judges. That’s continued on as the hallmark of the section. I like to think I was a part of moving that along in that direction. 

The other aspect is mentoring. When I look at some of the present leaders of the section, I can point to a number of those people whom I met at some meeting and said, “Wouldn’t you like to get involved?” And 10 years later, they’re the chair of the section or running a major Committee or contributing by writing a book or whatever. That’s extremely rewarding. 

As chair of the Section, you helped develop standardization and guidelines for opinion issuing and third-party transactions known as the Silverado Accord. What were some of the challenges and highlights of these efforts?

I was in charge of programs for the Commercial Financial Services Committee when we did a CLE program in Toronto in 1988 on opinion letters. A former chair of the Section, Hank Wheeler, was in the audience, and after hearing the discourse and back-and-forth – there was the West Coast opinion and there was the East Coast opinion – he organized the Silverado meeting to see if we could come up with something in the way of standardization. 

Reconciling the differences was an incredible challenge since there were just different views, perhaps saying the same thing, but each of them thought their way was the only way. In the end, we simplified the process. The development of the guidelines has lasted. I can’t tell you the number of times I’m in transactions and someone on the other side will say, “You know, the guidelines suggest . . .” I must say I find that extremely rewarding, even when it works to my detriment. 

You mentioned in an interview that one of your most challenging and rewarding roles was when you served as a member of the ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary.

I always knew the Federal Judiciary Committee was a real commitment, but once I got involved, I experienced it. I kept track of my time over an 18-month period, and I had in excess of 1,500 hours, and that’s at the same time as running a practice. So that was a real challenge. On the other hand, of all the various things I’ve done, it has been one of the more rewarding experiences. 

The Committee evaluates nominees on three criteria: judicial competence, integrity, and temperament. That’s it. Nothing about their politics or positions they take. In the course of evaluating a person, if I was the lead person, I would talk to somewhere between 25 and 50 lawyers and just as many judges about the person. There was an incredible willingness to help by both judges and lawyers. They would give me home numbers and say call me at ten o’clock at night if they were in trial. They, too, were eager to be certain that the quality of the judges was outstanding, because it is so essential to the administration of justice. 

I met some remarkable human beings and spent time with them, and some of them I still communicate with today. Some of them are now sitting federal judges, and they’re just some remarkably competent people. 

You also served on the ABA’s Commission on the Future of Legal Services. What are the challenges for the legal profession going forward?

The biggest challenge is making members of our profession aware of the implications of the changing times. As much as anything, there are the implications of technology. The change is just happening at a pace not anticipated in terms of the implications of technology on the practice. There are a vast number of people who have legal needs that are not being presently served by lawyers, and there are also lawyers out there, some of them are looking for work. 

We need to connect the two at a price that is affordable to the user, and at the same time, permits the lawyer to make a sufficient living to pay off all those student loans. 

You’re one of the ABA Business Law Section delegates to the ABA House of Delegates. What has been the most rewarding aspect of your work as a delegate?

The House is composed of over 550 lawyers from all walks of the profession. When there has been an issue that involved the Business Law Section, the Section has done what we do so well, which is carefully craft a resolution aimed at an issue that is very important to the business practice of law. When we have presented that resolution and had the opportunity to explain to this group of lawyers who are smart but may or may not have any idea what the issue is, we’ve been successful over the last 15 years. Every resolution we’ve presented has passed. So that’s been extremely rewarding. 

You’ve received many awards and much recognition. Is there one award or honor that stands out for you that’s more meaningful than the others? 

There are three. I coached Little League baseball for 10 plus years, and one of those years served as commissioner of baseball for the community in which we lived. The baseball league gave me an award for my commitment and contributions to that program. I still have that plaque hanging in our sunroom.

The second one is the World of Difference, which is an effort of the Anti-Defamation League and other groups to approach diversity in the St. Louis area. I, along with a minister, organized a celebration of diversity. It was a day that brought together faith leaders of 26 different faith groups in a celebratory event in St. Louis, and for that I received the Community Service Award. 

The last of which is the Homer Kripke Award that I just received last month from the American College of Commercial Finance Lawyers for lifetime achievement. I mentioned to you that Homer sat next to me at my very first meeting of the UCC Committee. Homer and others who have received this award were heroes of mine. So being considered anywhere near the same ranks was truly an honor. 

How do you make time for your practice, your community work, your family?

For about 30 years I didn’t sleep much. And I’m really not kidding. When I was in college, it was early on in the studies of rapid eye movement. I was on scholarship, and they offered me a job in which I would get paid to sleep. They attached these electrodes, and they determined that physiologically, I needed four to four and a half hours of sleep, and another half hour of dream time, despite my mother telling me I needed eight hours of sleep. After that, I said I’m going to live on five hours of sleep a night, and I did for 30 years. 

What’s the value to you of your involvement at the ABA?

I can say without any doubt that it’s been valuable in the development of my career, but I think more than anything else is the number of friends from throughout the country that I’ve made, and these are cherished friendships. 

I heard you’re a baseball fan. Did you play baseball?

I played through high school. I then continued a bit after college, and I was playing softball until four years ago. The last 12 years were playing for my oldest son’s team. I was 67 when I hung it up, and the only reason I hung it up was the other team. When they were in their forties or thirties, I was fine. When half the members were in their twenties and I was 67, I decided OK, enough’s enough. 

When I came home and told my wife she really was concerned for several days, and almost thought I should see a doctor, because she said I was showing signs of maturity, and that wasn’t very healthy. 

Thank you so much!