Law Firms

Ex-Partner Claims 'Culture of Fear and Intimidation' at Miller Canfield


Updated: Miller Canfield is appealing a Michigan judge’s ruling that arbitration is not required in a legal dispute between the firm and a former equity partner who alleged he was ousted due to self-interest of his one-time colleagues.

Dean Altobelli, a former Michigan State University football player, claims he was forced out when he requested a temporary leave of absence in 2010 to work at the University of Alabama with his former coach, the Detroit Free Press reports.

Altobelli claims the Alabama move was “a temporary career enhancing opportunity … that could help the firm expand its legal practice.” But the law firm did not cooperate, he contends. The Free Press article quotes from his complaint.

“This case is about … abuse of power by leaders of the largest law firm in Michigan,” Altobelli alleged in the suit. “It is a classic case of squeezing out one of the most dedicated and productive owners of a law firm for self-interested reasons.”

According to Altobelli’s complaint, managers at Miller Canfield promote a “culture of fear and intimidation.” He says he has been treated unfairly ever since he objected when the firm granted same-sex health benefits to employees without consulting all the principals.

The law firm, on the other hand, says Altobelli left voluntarily, realizing he could not accept a coaching job and still remain a senior principal, according to the Free Press account. The firm is appealing a judge’s ruling allowing Altobelli to bypass arbitration. Judge Paula Manderfield of Ingham County reasoned that arbitration is required to resolve disputes between partners and the firm, not the partners themselves.

Miller Canfield says that reasoning would allow partners to avoid arbitration by suing the firm’s principals, rather than the firm itself. The firm also says Manderfield should not have ruled before it filed an answer to the complaint.

The firm released this statement to the ABA Journal from CEO Michael Hartmann: “Miller Canfield’s management style is in fact highly consensus driven, collaborative and inclusive. Dean Altobelli was not asked to leave Miller Canfield. He voluntarily left to take a position on the University of Alabama football staff in the summer of 2010, where he is still currently working. The firm continues to wish Mr. Altobelli well in his football coaching career but strongly believes that being a full time football coach or analyst at the University of Alabama and continuing as a lawyer at Miller Canfield are incompatible career paths.”

Updated at 10:50 a.m. to include statement from Miller Canfield CEO Michael Hartmann.

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