I like simple people with simple problems.

Mike Whalen

BIRKENSTORY #10

Mike Whalen - Defense attorney & ‘people person’

A gray beard and long, thinning hair, stylishly paired with a suit, a tie, and Birkenstocks. Admittedly, Mike Whalen stands out with his appearance and he looks a bit more like a forest gnome than a lawyer. We paid a visit to the affable defense attorney and found out why he only wears Birkenstocks, even in the highest courts. And that he finds murders far more interesting than divorces ….

Jurors are just people

Mike Whalen has been working as a defense attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee, for 20 years. Many of his clients only know him because of his sandals. In court, he’s often greeted with “Hey, that’s the lawyer with the Jesus shoes.” His outfit also often perplexes the jury. He asks them if it bothers them that the defense attorney is “an old hippie.” “That helps loosen things up,” he explains with a laugh, adding “… Occasionally I get a weird glance from the judge, though.”

Mike grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. The simple way of life and the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated there, help make him the man he is today. As did the injustice suffered by African-Americans: “African-Americans always had the worst jobs here. And out of 250 students in my high school, only about a dozen of them were black,” Mike Whalen recalls.

From behind the bar to taking the bar

After school, Mike worked as a barkeeper, whitewater canoe rafter and professional rafting guide. In the eighties, he spent a few years in Nicaragua. While there, he learned Spanish, grew out his hair and his beard, and acquired his first pair of Birkenstocks. He was 34 by the time he started his law degree; his fellow students were in their early twenties. “I was the old hippie in the class,” Mike recalls.

Money or tomatoes

When he finally opened his law firm 20 years ago, he represented primarily Spanish-speaking clients. He frequently worked for the disadvantaged and still holds that same idealism. “I deal with people who cannot afford a lawyer, people who cannot afford to pay anything, but if they have a good story to tell, I’ll represent them.” he explains. Like the eight tomato pickers who had been arrested on theft charges. He was able to prove their innocence. Because he didn’t charge them money for his services, they left two crates of tomatoes on the roof of his car. “What can I say – sometimes you get paid, sometimes you get tomatoes. Once a client even made me a flower box – the best way to pay,” Whalen says with a laugh.

Simple Problems

Mike likes “…simple people with simple problems - like murder. I prefer cases where one person has killed the other. Then I know that someone acted rationally. With divorce cases, on the other hand, rationality always goes right out the window!” He’s only ever taken one divorce case for friends – and afterward, neither of them ever spoke to him again. “It was like it was my fault they got divorced,” he chuckles.

Compliments from the competition

There was an attorney in Knoxville, Mike tells us, who was always in the local media and put a lot of effort into his appearance. One day, that lawyer went up to Mike and complimented his unusual appearance: beard, long hair, sandals – clearly part of a well thought-out, brilliant presentation strategy. Mike’s terse reply: “Yeah, I’m so slick that I was doing this 20 years before I decided to go to law school. So, it was a long-term plan …”

Exceptions to every rule

Whether he’s out for a walk in the winter, riding his motorcycle or hiking, Mike Whalen has worn only Birkenstocks for more than 30 years. The only exception was once, in his very first trial before a federal court. He wanted to look “presentable,” even went out and bought himself a pair of dress shoes.

The trial started off well, everything was going according to plan: the federal judge, a surly, tough-as-nails guy, agreed to Mike’s petitions in all points. The case had practically been won. But then, suddenly, the judge announced that he was going to go with the plaintiff’s petition instead. Mike could always file an appeal. Mike Whalen was at a loss. In the recess, he immediately threw his fancy new shoes in the closet and slipped back into his Birkenstocks. “I figured, if I’m going to get my butt kicked, I might as well be comfortable at the same time,” he tells us with a smile.

And that’s a perspective Mike maintains to this day. His Birkenstocks have been with him at every trial since then: in state and federal court, in the highest court of appeals and even before the Supreme Court. “And no one ever says anything about the shoes”, Mike says happily.




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