Driven by Conviction: Mike Papantonio
The eighth person to top the IN Power List is Mike Papantonio, a senior partner of Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor, P.A., one of the largest plaintiffs’ law firms in America. His law partner Fred Levin was named number one on the very first Power List in 2007.
“Pap” is one of the top trial lawyers in the country, having handled thousands of cases throughout the nation including Pharmaceutical Drug Litigation, Asbestos, Breast Implants, Factory Farming, Securities Fraud, the Florida Tobacco Litigation and other mass tort cases. He has received numerous multi-million dollar verdicts on behalf of victims of corporate malfeasance.
He is a much sought after speaker, an author of four motivational books for lawyers and an accomplished jazz musician. Papantonio is currently the host, along with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Sam Seder, of Ring of Fire, a nationally syndicated radio show, and appears regularly as a commentator on MSNBC’s The Ed Show with Ed Schultz.
The Independent News got Papantonio to take a break from his busy schedule to talk about his life and the essence of power.
“Power is found in conviction,” he said. “You will not find sustainable power in something that is a transient preference. When I think about everything that I have spent my time doing and drill right down to why, it’s out of conviction.”
Papantonio’s conviction is rooted in his childhood, much of which was spent living with several families as he negotiated through his teenage years. The youngest of four children, he lived on the streets outside of the state’s welfare system. He sold encyclopedias door-to-door in the hills of Mississippi and the slums of Houston, Texas to pay his way through college and law school.
“The reason I do this thing with the media, whether it’s MSNBC, Free Speech TV or RT Network, is because I came up kind of a victim,” he shared. “When you come up on the other side of the country club wall and you realize that there is no effort at all to help from that side, your reaction is to reject all that.”
Papantonio explained further, “I think I would be a pretty good golfer, but I can’t associate with that whole culture of the country club. I grew up so far on the other side that my conviction draws me to do what I do.”
On the air he talks about selfish, greed-driven politicians. A registered Independent, he ignores political labels going after Republicans and Democrats. He hasn’t hesitated to criticize President Barack Obama, whom he believes lacks conviction.
“President Obama has preferences. He wishes that maybe we could rein in Wall Street. He wishes that maybe we could do something about climate change. He wishes that we could have a safety net to protect all Americans,” he said. “But he has no conviction in any of it. Think of the legacy he would have left if he believed in those things rather than just having a preference for those things.”
Despite the adverse conditions of his childhood, Papantonio said it helped him developed a variety of talents. “I lived with seven families, from each I took away something positive. From one I learned to play the piano and be a musician, another how to be an artist, another their interest was writing and another how to fly airplanes.”
Life experience helped him connect to dots and taught him responsibility. “When you’re 13-years-old and you’ve got to find a place to live, you connect dots. I didn’t go through HRS, I felt a responsibility to be responsible and earn my keep with each family. The downside, it was like walking a tightrope without any net. I couldn’t fall.”
He added, “Most children grow up thinking if something goes wrong mom and dad are going to take care of it. Well I didn’t have that. There was nobody to call if I didn’t have lunch money or if I was out of tuition money. I had to figure it out.”
In 1998, Papantonio teamed up with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the Hudson Riverkeepers, and Water Keeper Alliance, to establish a Riverkeepers program in Northwest Florida, known as the Emerald Coastkeepers, Inc., which became an advocate for the waterways of Northwest Florida. He said that it was intolerance for injustice that drove him to do it.
“People don’t understand how ugly that situation was,” said Papantonio, pointing out the EPA Superfunds in the area, grand jury reports on water and air pollution and ECUA dumping 20 million gallons a day of wastewater into Pensacola Bay.
In 2001, he filed two lawsuits against Conoco Inc. and its predecessor Agrico Chemical Co. on the behalf of Pensacola residents whose property was potentially contaminated by a toxic plume that had spread from the old Agrico Chemical Co. fertilizer plant near Fairfield Drive to Bayou Texar.
“My partners weren’t wild about the Conoco case,” he said. “It was in our hometown and a huge undertaking. We were taking on one of the wealthiest corporations in the country at the time. We spent $8 million on that case. We couldn’t spend $8 million and lose, so naturally my partners had some real hesitations. But once they began to see my vision, they agreed to get behind it. “
He admitted, “The lawsuits could have gone bad real easy.”
Fortunately for Pensacola, it didn’t. ConocoPhillips agreed to a $70 million settlement in 2004.
“Any case we do could go bad, but you have to put blinders on to that and do the best analysis you can,” Papantonio said, whose firm had gotten some pushback from the community when he began to build its mass torts practice.
“My partners heard ‘you need to get rid of Mike, you need to rein him,’” he said. “The attacks we anticipated came—basically you better get control of your young lawyer there. Fred Levin said, ‘No, he is doing what he believes in.’”
Papantonio wished more local firms would take stands on issues. “You have law firms in this town, the reason they could never do these things is because they are always concerned about public opinion,” he said. “Because of that there are law firms that will never accomplish anything truly meaningful that they will be able to call a legacy.”
He is proud to be a trial lawyer. In 2008, Papantonio was selected by the Public Justice Foundation as a finalist for its Trial Lawyer of the Year Award. Three years later, he was awarded the Perry Nichols Award, the highest honor given by the Florida Justice Association that recognizes individuals who fight valiantly and with distinction for justice throughout their lives.
When the Association of Trial Lawyers of America dropped “trial lawyer” from its name and changed it to the Association for American Justice, Papantonio helped organize the National Trial Lawyers and launched its quarterly magazine, The Trial Lawyer.
“Every profession has the good and the bad, and we certainly have our share of the bad, but most people don’t ever take the time to realize that they are victims every day. If not for the efforts of trial lawyers, they’d continue to be victims,” he said.
“We have safer cars and safer pharmaceuticals because of trial lawyers,” Papantonio said. “We push back Wall Street when they try to steal from mom and pop’s pension programs.
Without trial lawyers, there would be nobody pushing back with a progressive approach to politics.”
In 2012, Papantonio served as the president of the National Trial Lawyers. He wanted to create a hall of fame to honor those trial lawyers who have been true champions and crusaders for American justice. In September, the Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame will open at Temple Law School in Philadelphia.
“We have all sorts of hall of fames,” he said. “There was nothing to remind Americans and young lawyers the role trial lawyers have played in the labor movement, women’s suffrage, civil rights movement and consumer protection. Politicians and the media weren’t the ones who made those things happen, it was trial lawyers fighting in the courtroom.”
He wanted the hall of fame to be where young lawyers could gain a sense of what they should or shouldn’t do as attorneys and give them a true image of what a real lawyer does.
“I tell every young lawyer that comes to this law firm if you can’t visualize yourself walking into a room of a thousand people all hooting at you, yelling at you and telling you to go home and still deliver what is correct in your mind, then you should not be a trial lawyer. You ought to be a banker; you ought to do something where there is no risk.”
He ended the interview, “You have to believe in something. When you’re driven like that, it creates an energy that is a power.”