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Max Miller:  The Immerser

Posted Nov 3, 2009 3:30 PM CST
By Stephanie Francis Ward

Max Miller

Some people say Max F. Miller is a great networker. He doesn’t like that word.“I use the word immersion,” says Miller, a former in-house lawyer, brand team member and logistics group manager with H.J. Heinz Co. Last year he was tapped to lead the newly formed Innovation Practice Institute at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

“Networking is meeting for meeting’s sake—immersion is an education process,” says Miller, 40. “When you immerse yourself, you can’t just meet lawyers. You have to meet the constituents the lawyers serve.”

For young lawyers that may mean a more traditional job like clerking, or perhaps something different for those with law school training, Miller says, like working for a discovery firm.

“If you want to do litigation, you need to understand the whole system,” he says, using football to illustrate the point. “With the running pattern in football you don’t run through the crowd; you look for open space. The goal of the institute is to equip students with this mindset.”

Classes at the institute, funded by the Innovation Economy Program of the Heinz Endowments, started this fall. Two courses are offered—commercializing new technologies and understanding the legal services marketplace—but Miller hopes to add a few new courses each term, focusing on things like crisis management and strategic joint ventures. Down the road, he’d like the school to add subjects such as real-life contract drafting to the commercial transactions course, including client interaction.

“Plenty of schools are focused on experiential learning, but we’re looking at making it more project-based—like in business school, where you interact, meet and identify,” he says.

Miller is a Pitt Law graduate, and the school’s dean, Mary A. Crossley, got to know him through alumni events. The stimulus for the institute, she says, was both a changing national economy and a changing Pittsburgh.

When people think of the city, steel often enters their minds, but the industry took a big hit in the 1980s. Today, education and health care provide Pittsburgh’s primary employment sources, with locations like Carnegie Mellon University and Allegheny Technologies.

“There’s a rich array of resources in Pittsburgh in terms of being an innovation hub,” Crossley says. “This is an opportunity for students to sink their teeth into it.” And Miller, say those who know him, is the perfect person to bridge the city’s old and new ways of doing business.

“You need legal people who are not only versed in the law but also next-generation technology, who understand a fast cycle,” says Donald Bonk, director of strategic business initiatives at Carnegie Mellon.

Max Miller talks about the changing Pittsburgh economy, and how Pitt Law’s Innovation Practice Institute trains law students to meet the city’s needs.

Most of Miller’s teaching involves what he calls “innovation culture.” Besides his work with Heinz, Miller draws on his experience as managing director of Raise Your Spirits, an experimental marketing group founded in 2005 that works with luxury liquor brands. A bourbon fan, Miller was curious about the industry and developed a business plan while working on his MBA at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Initially, Raise Your Spirits offered tastings, mostly for private events. As he now teaches students, Miller immersed himself, talking not only with the spirits makers and customers but with distributors as well. Through that he discovered a need—many small brands offered excellent products, but they also had small marketing budgets and weren’t getting market penetration. Now business-to-business marketing is part of tastings: Smaller brands help train bartenders and waitstaff about the brands, initiate menu branding and develop shelf merchandising for products. Marketing costs are split between the distributors and the small brands.

Dr. Earlie Francis III, a physician and plaintiffs personal injury lawyer, met Miller 16 years ago. “He has a unique way of looking at almost anything we talk about,” says Francis, who practices with Philadelphia’s Kline & Specter. “If I have a question that needs a different take or I can’t figure out what to do, he’s the first person I think of.”

Francis, who graduated from law school last year, remembers talking to Miller about issues with medical residencies and emergency room procedures. Tiny bits of their discussions, Francis says, figured in with Innovation Practice Institute policies.

“He’s always willing to listen, learning lessons and taking them back,” Francis says. “In the coming years, we’re all going to have to do the kinds of things that Max is great at. I think it’s perfect for him to be teaching law students.”

Also, read Max Miller’s essay for 24 Hours of Legal Rebels on teaching students to become “whole lawyers.”

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