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Undefeated in college football this year, the University of Alabama Crimson Tide are the heavy favorites to repeat as National Collegiate Athletic Association champions in January. If they succeed, Dean Altobelli, whose official title is “analyst” on legendary head coach Nick Saban’s staff, will take home his fourth championship ring since arriving in Tuscaloosa in 2010.

Winning the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve and the national championship on Jan. 9 would be a career pinnacle for most on the team. But for the 51-year-old Altobelli, the championship rings represent almost the opposite.

A former equity partner at one of Michigan’s largest law firms, Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, Altobelli once had higher aspirations, not to mention a much larger paycheck. He said his former firm forced him out in a “deep, deep betrayal of trust” that left Altobelli mired in litigation and unable to regain his footing. Miller Canfield, for its part, claims it was Altobelli who abandoned its partnership in order to pursue a career coaching football.

To Altobelli, the diamond-studded rings are a reminder that he is still spending the bulk of his time, six years after the partnership dispute, in Alabama. He said the experience was meant to last six months but has instead turned into a “nightmare.”

They are a reminder that he’s making less than $50,000 a year; a far fall from a pro-rated $400,000 in profit allotment that the Yale Law School graduate and former congressional candidate took home in 2010, a year he was on pace to be one of Miller Canfield’s most productive partners.

They are a reminder of the 1,000 hours a year that Altobelli said he has devoted to a suit he filed in 2012 against leaders of his firm. The suit finally fizzled on Dec. 5, when the U.S. Supreme Court denied his request to review a Michigan Supreme Court ruling that overturned earlier victories he’d achieved in the trial and appellate courts.

Altobelli said an arbitration case, his last legal avenue for relief, will move forward beginning in January against Miller Canfield and members of the firm’s leadership whom he alleges stripped him of his equity stake. He is seeking damages—which he claims exceed $2.5 million in lost profits—for what he said are the lost years of his practice and ownership. He will also seek future damages for being out of the firm.

A new ring for Altobelli this January might be a reminder that he still hasn’t found a way to start over. He said he hasn’t planned for the future. He also hasn’t been able to think past the suit against his former partners.

“I live and die this case every day,” Altobelli said. “That burns a lot of energy. I feel like I’m not only fighting for myself, but I’m fighting for everything I’ve ever stood for, what I believe in, the rule of law, what’s right and wrong.”

‘I never had any real choice’

Altobelli grew up the youngest of five siblings in Escanaba, a town of fewer than 15,000 people in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His father, a U.S. Navy electrician who served in the Korean War, was an eighth-grade teacher. His mother was a homemaker who sometimes worked odd jobs at J.C. Penney and other stores.

He was a standout on the football field, where he played tailback and defensive back alongside his brother, Tony, and former Major League Baseball pitcher Kevin Tapani. (Tony, who holds a Ph.D. in finance from Michigan State University, is now an assistant treasurer at Google Inc.) Dean was named Most Valuable Player of his high school state championship team in 1981 and named the captain of the 1982 Detroit Free Press All-State Team. His performance earned him a full-ride scholarship to Michigan State University, where he played under Saban, then a defensive backs coach. Altobelli also briefly worked as a graduate assistant for Saban after graduation.

With a 3.96 GPA as a mechanical engineering undergraduate, Altobelli earned a spot as an Academic All-American. He said he would head to the library to study on Saturdays after games ended. He credits his parents for his work ethic.

“I felt I never had any real choice,” Altobelli said. “It’s how I grew up. You work as hard as you can in order to do the best you can. Nothing was going to come easy for me. I didn’t come from wealth.”

At a luncheon for a national leadership award Altobelli won in college, he met the quarterback-turned-politician Jack Kemp, who encouraged him to go into public service. So Altobelli left Michigan State and worked a year and a half for a Michigan congressman while studying for the LSAT. He did well enough to get into Yale Law, returning to Michigan in 1993 to work at Miller Canfield in Lansing, which he said was the best way to pay back his law school debt and remain close to the athletic program at his alma mater.

Just three years later, Altobelli ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. House seat from the Upper Peninsula. After the loss, then-Michigan Gov. John Engler appointed him to a spot on the board at Lake Superior University, where he served for nine years.

Today, Altobelli’s memory of that campaign is tainted by what came after. He remembers walking in a parade during the campaign and extending his hand to a bystander to introduce himself. The man instead kept his hands crossed and said to Altobelli, “You think you’re going to change things? Well, good luck. It’s never going to happen.”

The Disputes

Altobelli spent 17 years as a litigator at Miller Canfield, earning shareholder status in 2005.

“He’s probably one of the finest lawyers I’ve ever worked with,” said Michael Moses, a name partner at Chicago’s Siegel & Moses who represents liquor companies across the nation and worked with Altobelli on cases that brought the two to Europe together. “As an attorney and as a person, I miss him.”

Altobelli’s complaint against Miller Canfield, filed in Michigan state court, states he was among the top producing partners at the Detroit-based Am Law 200 firm. He averaged 2,000 billable hours over a seven-year stretch leading up to his partnership promotion, a workload he said was more than any non-equity partner at the firm during that period. In 2009, Altobelli’s last full year at Miller Canfield, he billed 2,203 hours and put in another 813.5 “quality hours” on firm activities such as business development. He never married or had children.

As his stature in the firm rose, Altobelli became more vocal, agitating for changes to Miller Canfield’s management.

Along with a group of young partners, he said he fought for an intranet that would share more transparent financial information regarding Miller Canfield and its partners. He also said he challenged the firm’s voting process for leadership positions. Altobelli said the firm allowed department heads to collect votes from their practice groups via proxy, which concentrated power and compensation decisions among the more senior attorneys.

Altobelli also said he scolded Miller Canfield’s leadership for not discussing with the partnership its plans in the late 2000s to permit same-sex marriage benefits for employees. The move was politically controversial at the time, he said, especially for a politically connected Republican like himself. Adding to the stress between Altobelli and the firm’s leaders were his annual contentions that he was underpaid.

“The good old boys didn’t like the fact that one of their young, productive attorneys in his early forties was basically challenging their way of life,” Altobelli said. “And the reason we were doing that was we were having people my age joining competitors because other firms were more profitable and they had more equitable allocation policies.”

Miller Canfield CEO Michael McGee, who assumed leadership in 2013, declined to directly address Altobelli’s critique of the firm’s operations, but noted in a statement to The American Lawyer that the firm has a “very collaborative and open culture in which principals regularly ask questions, express views and give input to firm leadership on any issue they choose.”

McGee also called Miller Canfield’s voting process among “the most democratic in the country,” disputing Altobelli’s characterization of it being a hierarchical structure that suppressed the concerns of junior partners.

“We use a ‘one person, one vote’ system, rather than the commonly used weighted voting system, so that young partners can be elected to the managing board, and they have been. Any claim to the contrary is silly,” McGee said in his statement.

True Intentions

Altobelli’s disagreements with management led to a number of tense moments, according to his complaint. During one argument in late 2008, he alleges that a firm leader repeatedly pointed at his chest and demanded that Altobelli “leave the firm.”

About two years later, Altobelli began making plans to take a leave of absence to spend what he said was intended to be a six-month stint as an analyst on Saban’s coaching staff at Alabama, serving in a role often filled by former players looking to get a foot in the door to a coaching career. Prior to last year’s NCAA championship game, Saban described the role of analysts as “to break down film or do quality-control type work,” according to a news report. NCAA rules state that analysts cannot coach student-athletes on the field.

In the dispute between Altobelli and Miller Canfield, this is among the largest unanswered questions: What were his true intentions when he left for Alabama a half-dozen years ago?

Former Miller Canfield CEO Michael Hartman said in an affidavit that Altobelli, in private conversations, characterized coaching as his “dream,” and that he could make more money as a college coach than as a Miller Canfield partner. In his complaint, Altobelli said Hartmann once told him college coaches make more money than law partners; Altobelli told Hartmann he “obviously did not understand the football business.” (While the best head coaches do make more than most top lawyers—Saban will take home roughly $7 million this year—the vast majority of coaches earn far less.)

In one email that Altobelli sent Hartmann during his contentious exit from the firm, Altobelli wrote: “Make no mistake, my past compensation and performance relative to my peers at the firm has been a significant factor in my decision to pursue an opportunity at Alabama. Frankly, I’m tired of going home every Christmas with a feeling of disrespect.”

But Altobelli said he never intended to start a new life as a football coach.

The move to Alabama was closer to a business decision, he said, made to benefit his longterm legal practice. Miller Canfield represented the NCAA in some legal matters, and also a number of universities, and Altobelli said his plan to work with Saban would bolster the firm’s college athletics practice. In one of his last acts as a partner, Altobelli sent in a business plan that contemplated a longterm practice representing college coaches and athletes that would arise from experience garnered in his position on the Alabama staff.

One way or the other, the decision was not merely about money. It was personal, too. Altobelli values his longterm relationship with Saban, whom he’d played under at Michigan State, and is one of the most revered coaches in college football history.

“The reason I had the opportunity to come here and spend some time was the relationship I had with Nick Saban and that he respected me,” Altobelli said. “And it means a lot that, knowing your character, he trusts you to be around his program and his players.”

‘Take it’

Just as the motivation behind Altobelli’s move to Alabama is disputed, so too is the way in which he was officially removed from the firm. Perhaps the most important legal question that an arbiter will have to answer is whether Altobelli was illegally stripped of his equity stake, or if, as Miller Canfield contends, his actions amounted to voluntarily withdrawing from the firm.

Altobelli said he was wrongly stripped of his equity by the management of the firm because the partnership agreement demands that two-thirds of the partners vote in order to give or take away a colleague’s equity. Despite Altobelli’s demand for a vote, one never took place. Neither side disputes that.

Instead, Miller Canfield claims that Altobelli voluntarily withdrew from the firm by transitioning his clients to other lawyers; vacating his office; and pursuing the interests of another employer.

Altobelli’s argument won at the trial court level. In November 2012, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Paula Manderfield ruled that Miller Canfield’s operating agreement did not specify how a voluntary withdrawal from the firm would occur, something that Michigan case law demands in order for the argument to be effective. Furthermore, the managing directors of the firm did not have the authority to strip Altobelli’s equity with a vote, according to Manderfield’s ruling.

Manderfield, who has since retired from the bench and is now a partner at Fraser Trebilcock Davis & Dunlap in Lansing, granted summary disposition in Altobelli’s favor on his claims of shareholder oppression, conversion and tortious interference with a business relationship.

That ruling was partially upheld on appeal, with a Michigan appellate court agreeing that an arbitration provision in Miller Canfield’s partnership agreement was not enforceable in Altobelli’s suit against seven of his former colleagues. But the panel disagreed with Manderfield’s interpretation of the case law regarding voluntary withdrawals from limited liabilitiy companies. The appeals court directed the circuit court to make a fact-based ruling on whether Altobelli voluntarily withdrew from Miller Canfield.

The Michigan Supreme Court viewed the case much differently. It held that the arbitration provision was enforceable, ruling that the managing directors who terminated Altobelli’s equity stake were acting in their capacity as agents of the LLC. And so the case is now set for arbitration.

“Mr. Altobelli chose to leave the firm in 2010 to become a fulltime football coach or analyst at the University of Alabama, and he is still coaching football today,” Miller Canfield’s McGee said in a statement to The American Lawyer. “He never requested to return to Michigan and resume his law practice. This career path is inconsistent with continuing as a lawyer at Miller Canfield.”

Six years later, Altobelli still sees things differently. The “betrayal of trust” he said is hard to stomach occurred when he claims Hartmann initially supported his plans to take a leave of absence and guaranteed him a spot in the partnership upon his return. In a tense two-week period in early July 2010, according to emails made public in the litigation, Altobelli demanded a vote of his partners after Hartmann told him the managing directors had voted against his request for a temporary leave.

In an affidavit in response to Altobelli’s complaint, Hartmann said he never promised Altobelli that he could return to the firm and that, in any event, he didn’t have the power to strike such a deal. That’s because the Miller Canfield partnership agreement states that taking income from another source is not allowed unless “it is approved in writing by the CEO with approval of the managing directors.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Altobelli once again sees things differently.

“I’m 45-years-old and I’m going to walk away from something it took me 20 years to build? To go to Yale Law School, to get that degree, to put in the work to build that firm, and in the spur of the moment I am just going to say, ‘Take it?’” Altobelli asked aloud. “That’s the story they’re spinning, and it’s really absurd when you think about it.”

He points to court records from a separate dispute that Miller Canfield had with a departing partner to bolster his argument that he was treated differently than the firm’s partnership agreement demands.

The records are from a case involving Thomas Norton, who was asked to leave after Miller Canfield’s work on Chrysler’s bankruptcy ended. The loss of that work, Hartmann testified in court documents, caused the firm to dismiss 12 lawyers, including Norton. After Norton refused to leave following a dispute over severance, Hartmann committed to a partnership vote to strip him of his equity. Norton, who in late 2009 started his own firm in the Detroit suburb of Troy, Michigan, settled his case before a vote. He did not return a phone call seeking comment.

“Tom has not been in the office for the last two months and he remains in pay status,” Hartmann wrote in a memo to other firm leaders in August 2009. “Because Tom is a salaried principal, he can be removed only by a vote of principals. The Managing Directors have reluctantly concluded that we have no choice but to seek the involuntary withdrawal of Tom Norton from the firm.”

One question that lingers with regard to Altobelli is why he didn’t just call off his plans to decamp to Alabama at the first sign of trouble. There was time to do it. Altobelli said he first suspected something was amiss two weeks before a phone call with Hartmann on July 21, 2010, when he said the former firm leader refused to put in writing that he would reinstate Altobelli to the partnership after he returned from Tuscaloosa.

“I was not going to break my word to Nick Saban,” said Altobelli, when asked why he didn’t get cold feet about heading to Alabama. “I’m not going to do that to somebody.”

The Impact

Kay Hoppe, a veteran Chicago-based legal recruiter, said she has seen several cases where partners were pushed out of their firms following discussions over a mutual leave of absence. She said most partners don’t talk about it publicly because it can be a barrier to finding a job at a new firm. Her advice: Get the agreement in writing.

“It is emotionally devastating to feel like your own partners have turned on you,” Hoppe said. “And we are in a game of survival. Those on the inside will do what they need to do, and at that point, you’re an outsider.”

It’s hard to overstate the impact the case has had on Altobelli. He said the last conversation he had with his father before he died in December 2011 was about the dispute with Miller Canfield. His father asked if there was any chance at reconciling with the firm. “I hope,” Altobelli replied.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re out there swimming in the ocean and a shark is on your tail and everyone’s on the beach clapping. But it’s you. It’s your life that’s at stake. It’s everything you’ve worked for that’s at stake,” Altobelli said.

He has continued his fight against the firm in unorthodox ways.

Since the Michigan Supreme Court ruled last summer that the individuals Altobelli sued could not be held personally liable for acting as agents of their firm, Altobelli has publicly attacked the state’s top court and questioned its integrity.

First he accused the court of playing favorites, complaining in a statement that “politics prevailed over the rule of law” in the dispute. Then he dug into campaign finance records that showed Miller Canfield’s political action committee donated $750 to the re-election campaigns of two Michigan Supreme Court justices before the court issued its opinion in his case. Miller Canfield’s PAC went on to donate $4,250 within weeks of the court denying Altobelli’s request for a rehearing.

The firm said its contributions to the justices were consistent with its past practice of donating to judicial and other political candidates. The donations were a small portion of the money judges raised, with Justice David Viviano’s election committee raising more than $544,000 during the election cycle, while Justice Joan Larsen raised more than $575,000, according to Michigan state records. (Larsen is reportedly on President-elect Donald Trump’s shortlist to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.)

It wasn’t the first time Altobelli suspected his former firm had used its clout against him. When his suit was first filed in Michigan state court, a Detroit Free Press story detailed how it had been placed on a nonpublic docket, which Altobelli’s lawyer at the time suggested was the result of Miller Canfield’s influence and desire to keep the proceedings out of the press. Altobelli’s entire case file was sealed for months until his lawyers successfully argued for it to be made public. The judge in the case said it was never ordered to be sealed in the first place, and Miller Canfield denied that it had anything to do with the so-called secret docket.

Altobelli called his former firm’s Michigan Supreme Court donations “an outrageous violation of the judicial code of ethics that requires judges to avoid all impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.”

John Nevin, a spokesman for Michigan’s top court, said the committees that handle fundraising for justices do not disclose to them who makes contributions. He noted there are also no limits on contributions by lawyers or law firms.

“Contributions have never been grounds for disqualification, and if they were, you can just imagine the gamesmanship that would ensue if lawyers could knock out judges by contributing to them,” Nevin said.

The campaign committees for the two justices who received the donations, Big Law alums Viviano and Larsen, did not return emailed requests for comment.

‘Grunt work’

Altobelli, unlike some other former Am Law 200 partners, said he has no plans to become a football coach. His position at Alabama is comparable to a graduate assistant or an intern, he said. He helps analyze film and data but has to sign a waiver saying he will not coach players.

“It’s not a significant role,” added Altobelli. “I do some background work that some would classify as grunt work.”

Still, he said he’s grateful that Saban, one of the game’s greatest coaches, has trusted him enough to find a place with the team.

But Altobelli’s search for legal work has so far been unsuccessful. He has interviewed with other large firms in Michigan. In 2011, a job offer from one was imminent, but the firm ultimately backed off, concerned about his dispute with Miller Canfield and what clients, if any, would follow him. As a result, Altobelli remains in Michigan’s legal market limbo. And he’s reluctant to start a new practice in a new place.

One thing is for sure—Altobelli doesn’t intend to give up the fight until he’s exhausted all legal options.

“I can’t just walk away. I’m not one who has, I guess, a mentality of giving up,” he said. “Because I feel so wronged. This is a life-defining event for me.”

Undefeated in college football this year, the University of Alabama Crimson Tide are the heavy favorites to repeat as National Collegiate Athletic Association champions in January. If they succeed, Dean Altobelli, whose official title is “analyst” on legendary head coach Nick Saban’s staff, will take home his fourth championship ring since arriving in Tuscaloosa in 2010.

Winning the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve and the national championship on Jan. 9 would be a career pinnacle for most on the team. But for the 51-year-old Altobelli, the championship rings represent almost the opposite.

A former equity partner at one of Michigan’s largest law firms, Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone , Altobelli once had higher aspirations, not to mention a much larger paycheck. He said his former firm forced him out in a “deep, deep betrayal of trust” that left Altobelli mired in litigation and unable to regain his footing. Miller Canfield , for its part, claims it was Altobelli who abandoned its partnership in order to pursue a career coaching football.

To Altobelli, the diamond-studded rings are a reminder that he is still spending the bulk of his time, six years after the partnership dispute, in Alabama. He said the experience was meant to last six months but has instead turned into a “nightmare.”

They are a reminder that he’s making less than $50,000 a year; a far fall from a pro-rated $400,000 in profit allotment that the Yale Law School graduate and former congressional candidate took home in 2010, a year he was on pace to be one of Miller Canfield ’s most productive partners.

They are a reminder of the 1,000 hours a year that Altobelli said he has devoted to a suit he filed in 2012 against leaders of his firm. The suit finally fizzled on Dec. 5, when the U.S. Supreme Court denied his request to review a Michigan Supreme Court ruling that overturned earlier victories he’d achieved in the trial and appellate courts.

Altobelli said an arbitration case, his last legal avenue for relief, will move forward beginning in January against Miller Canfield and members of the firm’s leadership whom he alleges stripped him of his equity stake. He is seeking damages—which he claims exceed $2.5 million in lost profits—for what he said are the lost years of his practice and ownership. He will also seek future damages for being out of the firm.

A new ring for Altobelli this January might be a reminder that he still hasn’t found a way to start over. He said he hasn’t planned for the future. He also hasn’t been able to think past the suit against his former partners.

“I live and die this case every day,” Altobelli said. “That burns a lot of energy. I feel like I’m not only fighting for myself, but I’m fighting for everything I’ve ever stood for, what I believe in, the rule of law, what’s right and wrong.”

‘I never had any real choice’

Altobelli grew up the youngest of five siblings in Escanaba, a town of fewer than 15,000 people in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His father, a U.S. Navy electrician who served in the Korean War, was an eighth-grade teacher. His mother was a homemaker who sometimes worked odd jobs at J.C. Penney and other stores.

He was a standout on the football field, where he played tailback and defensive back alongside his brother, Tony, and former Major League Baseball pitcher Kevin Tapani. (Tony, who holds a Ph.D. in finance from Michigan State University, is now an assistant treasurer at Google Inc. ) Dean was named Most Valuable Player of his high school state championship team in 1981 and named the captain of the 1982 Detroit Free Press All-State Team. His performance earned him a full-ride scholarship to Michigan State University, where he played under Saban, then a defensive backs coach. Altobelli also briefly worked as a graduate assistant for Saban after graduation.

With a 3.96 GPA as a mechanical engineering undergraduate, Altobelli earned a spot as an Academic All-American. He said he would head to the library to study on Saturdays after games ended. He credits his parents for his work ethic.

“I felt I never had any real choice,” Altobelli said. “It’s how I grew up. You work as hard as you can in order to do the best you can. Nothing was going to come easy for me. I didn’t come from wealth.”

At a luncheon for a national leadership award Altobelli won in college, he met the quarterback-turned-politician Jack Kemp, who encouraged him to go into public service. So Altobelli left Michigan State and worked a year and a half for a Michigan congressman while studying for the LSAT. He did well enough to get into Yale Law, returning to Michigan in 1993 to work at Miller Canfield in Lansing, which he said was the best way to pay back his law school debt and remain close to the athletic program at his alma mater.

Just three years later, Altobelli ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. House seat from the Upper Peninsula. After the loss, then-Michigan Gov. John Engler appointed him to a spot on the board at Lake Superior University, where he served for nine years.

Today, Altobelli’s memory of that campaign is tainted by what came after. He remembers walking in a parade during the campaign and extending his hand to a bystander to introduce himself. The man instead kept his hands crossed and said to Altobelli, “You think you’re going to change things? Well, good luck. It’s never going to happen.”

The Disputes

Altobelli spent 17 years as a litigator at Miller Canfield , earning shareholder status in 2005.

“He’s probably one of the finest lawyers I’ve ever worked with,” said Michael Moses, a name partner at Chicago’s Siegel & Moses who represents liquor companies across the nation and worked with Altobelli on cases that brought the two to Europe together. “As an attorney and as a person, I miss him.”

Altobelli’s complaint against Miller Canfield , filed in Michigan state court, states he was among the top producing partners at the Detroit-based Am Law 200 firm. He averaged 2,000 billable hours over a seven-year stretch leading up to his partnership promotion, a workload he said was more than any non-equity partner at the firm during that period. In 2009, Altobelli’s last full year at Miller Canfield , he billed 2,203 hours and put in another 813.5 “quality hours” on firm activities such as business development. He never married or had children.

As his stature in the firm rose, Altobelli became more vocal, agitating for changes to Miller Canfield ’s management.

Along with a group of young partners, he said he fought for an intranet that would share more transparent financial information regarding Miller Canfield and its partners. He also said he challenged the firm’s voting process for leadership positions. Altobelli said the firm allowed department heads to collect votes from their practice groups via proxy, which concentrated power and compensation decisions among the more senior attorneys.

Altobelli also said he scolded Miller Canfield ’s leadership for not discussing with the partnership its plans in the late 2000s to permit same-sex marriage benefits for employees. The move was politically controversial at the time, he said, especially for a politically connected Republican like himself. Adding to the stress between Altobelli and the firm’s leaders were his annual contentions that he was underpaid.

“The good old boys didn’t like the fact that one of their young, productive attorneys in his early forties was basically challenging their way of life,” Altobelli said. “And the reason we were doing that was we were having people my age joining competitors because other firms were more profitable and they had more equitable allocation policies.”

Miller Canfield CEO Michael McGee, who assumed leadership in 2013, declined to directly address Altobelli’s critique of the firm’s operations, but noted in a statement to The American Lawyer that the firm has a “very collaborative and open culture in which principals regularly ask questions, express views and give input to firm leadership on any issue they choose.”

McGee also called Miller Canfield ’s voting process among “the most democratic in the country,” disputing Altobelli’s characterization of it being a hierarchical structure that suppressed the concerns of junior partners.

“We use a ‘one person, one vote’ system, rather than the commonly used weighted voting system, so that young partners can be elected to the managing board, and they have been. Any claim to the contrary is silly,” McGee said in his statement.

True Intentions

Altobelli’s disagreements with management led to a number of tense moments, according to his complaint. During one argument in late 2008, he alleges that a firm leader repeatedly pointed at his chest and demanded that Altobelli “leave the firm.”

About two years later, Altobelli began making plans to take a leave of absence to spend what he said was intended to be a six-month stint as an analyst on Saban’s coaching staff at Alabama, serving in a role often filled by former players looking to get a foot in the door to a coaching career. Prior to last year’s NCAA championship game, Saban described the role of analysts as “to break down film or do quality-control type work,” according to a news report. NCAA rules state that analysts cannot coach student-athletes on the field.

In the dispute between Altobelli and Miller Canfield , this is among the largest unanswered questions: What were his true intentions when he left for Alabama a half-dozen years ago?

Former Miller Canfield CEO Michael Hartman said in an affidavit that Altobelli, in private conversations, characterized coaching as his “dream,” and that he could make more money as a college coach than as a Miller Canfield partner. In his complaint, Altobelli said Hartmann once told him college coaches make more money than law partners; Altobelli told Hartmann he “obviously did not understand the football business.” (While the best head coaches do make more than most top lawyers—Saban will take home roughly $7 million this year—the vast majority of coaches earn far less.)

In one email that Altobelli sent Hartmann during his contentious exit from the firm, Altobelli wrote: “Make no mistake, my past compensation and performance relative to my peers at the firm has been a significant factor in my decision to pursue an opportunity at Alabama. Frankly, I’m tired of going home every Christmas with a feeling of disrespect.”

But Altobelli said he never intended to start a new life as a football coach.

The move to Alabama was closer to a business decision, he said, made to benefit his longterm legal practice. Miller Canfield represented the NCAA in some legal matters, and also a number of universities, and Altobelli said his plan to work with Saban would bolster the firm’s college athletics practice. In one of his last acts as a partner, Altobelli sent in a business plan that contemplated a longterm practice representing college coaches and athletes that would arise from experience garnered in his position on the Alabama staff.

One way or the other, the decision was not merely about money. It was personal, too. Altobelli values his longterm relationship with Saban, whom he’d played under at Michigan State, and is one of the most revered coaches in college football history.

“The reason I had the opportunity to come here and spend some time was the relationship I had with Nick Saban and that he respected me,” Altobelli said. “And it means a lot that, knowing your character, he trusts you to be around his program and his players.”

‘Take it’

Just as the motivation behind Altobelli’s move to Alabama is disputed, so too is the way in which he was officially removed from the firm. Perhaps the most important legal question that an arbiter will have to answer is whether Altobelli was illegally stripped of his equity stake, or if, as Miller Canfield contends, his actions amounted to voluntarily withdrawing from the firm.

Altobelli said he was wrongly stripped of his equity by the management of the firm because the partnership agreement demands that two-thirds of the partners vote in order to give or take away a colleague’s equity. Despite Altobelli’s demand for a vote, one never took place. Neither side disputes that.

Instead, Miller Canfield claims that Altobelli voluntarily withdrew from the firm by transitioning his clients to other lawyers; vacating his office; and pursuing the interests of another employer.

Altobelli’s argument won at the trial court level. In November 2012, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Paula Manderfield ruled that Miller Canfield ’s operating agreement did not specify how a voluntary withdrawal from the firm would occur, something that Michigan case law demands in order for the argument to be effective. Furthermore, the managing directors of the firm did not have the authority to strip Altobelli’s equity with a vote, according to Manderfield’s ruling.

Manderfield, who has since retired from the bench and is now a partner at Fraser Trebilcock Davis & Dunlap in Lansing, granted summary disposition in Altobelli’s favor on his claims of shareholder oppression, conversion and tortious interference with a business relationship.

That ruling was partially upheld on appeal, with a Michigan appellate court agreeing that an arbitration provision in Miller Canfield ’s partnership agreement was not enforceable in Altobelli’s suit against seven of his former colleagues. But the panel disagreed with Manderfield’s interpretation of the case law regarding voluntary withdrawals from limited liabilitiy companies. The appeals court directed the circuit court to make a fact-based ruling on whether Altobelli voluntarily withdrew from Miller Canfield .

The Michigan Supreme Court viewed the case much differently. It held that the arbitration provision was enforceable, ruling that the managing directors who terminated Altobelli’s equity stake were acting in their capacity as agents of the LLC. And so the case is now set for arbitration.

“Mr. Altobelli chose to leave the firm in 2010 to become a fulltime football coach or analyst at the University of Alabama, and he is still coaching football today,” Miller Canfield ’s McGee said in a statement to The American Lawyer. “He never requested to return to Michigan and resume his law practice. This career path is inconsistent with continuing as a lawyer at Miller Canfield .”

Six years later, Altobelli still sees things differently. The “betrayal of trust” he said is hard to stomach occurred when he claims Hartmann initially supported his plans to take a leave of absence and guaranteed him a spot in the partnership upon his return. In a tense two-week period in early July 2010, according to emails made public in the litigation, Altobelli demanded a vote of his partners after Hartmann told him the managing directors had voted against his request for a temporary leave.

In an affidavit in response to Altobelli’s complaint, Hartmann said he never promised Altobelli that he could return to the firm and that, in any event, he didn’t have the power to strike such a deal. That’s because the Miller Canfield partnership agreement states that taking income from another source is not allowed unless “it is approved in writing by the CEO with approval of the managing directors.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Altobelli once again sees things differently.

“I’m 45-years-old and I’m going to walk away from something it took me 20 years to build? To go to Yale Law School , to get that degree, to put in the work to build that firm, and in the spur of the moment I am just going to say, ‘Take it?’” Altobelli asked aloud. “That’s the story they’re spinning, and it’s really absurd when you think about it.”

He points to court records from a separate dispute that Miller Canfield had with a departing partner to bolster his argument that he was treated differently than the firm’s partnership agreement demands.

The records are from a case involving Thomas Norton, who was asked to leave after Miller Canfield ’s work on Chrysler’s bankruptcy ended. The loss of that work, Hartmann testified in court documents, caused the firm to dismiss 12 lawyers, including Norton. After Norton refused to leave following a dispute over severance, Hartmann committed to a partnership vote to strip him of his equity. Norton, who in late 2009 started his own firm in the Detroit suburb of Troy, Michigan, settled his case before a vote. He did not return a phone call seeking comment.

“Tom has not been in the office for the last two months and he remains in pay status,” Hartmann wrote in a memo to other firm leaders in August 2009. “Because Tom is a salaried principal, he can be removed only by a vote of principals. The Managing Directors have reluctantly concluded that we have no choice but to seek the involuntary withdrawal of Tom Norton from the firm.”

One question that lingers with regard to Altobelli is why he didn’t just call off his plans to decamp to Alabama at the first sign of trouble. There was time to do it. Altobelli said he first suspected something was amiss two weeks before a phone call with Hartmann on July 21, 2010, when he said the former firm leader refused to put in writing that he would reinstate Altobelli to the partnership after he returned from Tuscaloosa.

“I was not going to break my word to Nick Saban,” said Altobelli, when asked why he didn’t get cold feet about heading to Alabama. “I’m not going to do that to somebody.”

The Impact

Kay Hoppe, a veteran Chicago-based legal recruiter, said she has seen several cases where partners were pushed out of their firms following discussions over a mutual leave of absence. She said most partners don’t talk about it publicly because it can be a barrier to finding a job at a new firm. Her advice: Get the agreement in writing.

“It is emotionally devastating to feel like your own partners have turned on you,” Hoppe said. “And we are in a game of survival. Those on the inside will do what they need to do, and at that point, you’re an outsider.”

It’s hard to overstate the impact the case has had on Altobelli. He said the last conversation he had with his father before he died in December 2011 was about the dispute with Miller Canfield . His father asked if there was any chance at reconciling with the firm. “I hope,” Altobelli replied.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re out there swimming in the ocean and a shark is on your tail and everyone’s on the beach clapping. But it’s you. It’s your life that’s at stake. It’s everything you’ve worked for that’s at stake,” Altobelli said.

He has continued his fight against the firm in unorthodox ways.

Since the Michigan Supreme Court ruled last summer that the individuals Altobelli sued could not be held personally liable for acting as agents of their firm, Altobelli has publicly attacked the state’s top court and questioned its integrity.

First he accused the court of playing favorites, complaining in a statement that “politics prevailed over the rule of law” in the dispute. Then he dug into campaign finance records that showed Miller Canfield ’s political action committee donated $750 to the re-election campaigns of two Michigan Supreme Court justices before the court issued its opinion in his case. Miller Canfield ’s PAC went on to donate $4,250 within weeks of the court denying Altobelli’s request for a rehearing.

The firm said its contributions to the justices were consistent with its past practice of donating to judicial and other political candidates. The donations were a small portion of the money judges raised, with Justice David Viviano’s election committee raising more than $544,000 during the election cycle, while Justice Joan Larsen raised more than $575,000, according to Michigan state records. (Larsen is reportedly on President-elect Donald Trump’s shortlist to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.)

It wasn’t the first time Altobelli suspected his former firm had used its clout against him. When his suit was first filed in Michigan state court, a Detroit Free Press story detailed how it had been placed on a nonpublic docket, which Altobelli’s lawyer at the time suggested was the result of Miller Canfield ’s influence and desire to keep the proceedings out of the press. Altobelli’s entire case file was sealed for months until his lawyers successfully argued for it to be made public. The judge in the case said it was never ordered to be sealed in the first place, and Miller Canfield denied that it had anything to do with the so-called secret docket.

Altobelli called his former firm’s Michigan Supreme Court donations “an outrageous violation of the judicial code of ethics that requires judges to avoid all impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.”

John Nevin, a spokesman for Michigan’s top court, said the committees that handle fundraising for justices do not disclose to them who makes contributions. He noted there are also no limits on contributions by lawyers or law firms.

“Contributions have never been grounds for disqualification, and if they were, you can just imagine the gamesmanship that would ensue if lawyers could knock out judges by contributing to them,” Nevin said.

The campaign committees for the two justices who received the donations, Big Law alums Viviano and Larsen, did not return emailed requests for comment.

‘Grunt work’

Altobelli, unlike some other former Am Law 200 partners, said he has no plans to become a football coach. His position at Alabama is comparable to a graduate assistant or an intern, he said. He helps analyze film and data but has to sign a waiver saying he will not coach players.

“It’s not a significant role,” added Altobelli. “I do some background work that some would classify as grunt work.”

Still, he said he’s grateful that Saban, one of the game’s greatest coaches, has trusted him enough to find a place with the team.

But Altobelli’s search for legal work has so far been unsuccessful. He has interviewed with other large firms in Michigan. In 2011, a job offer from one was imminent, but the firm ultimately backed off, concerned about his dispute with Miller Canfield and what clients, if any, would follow him. As a result, Altobelli remains in Michigan’s legal market limbo. And he’s reluctant to start a new practice in a new place.

One thing is for sure—Altobelli doesn’t intend to give up the fight until he’s exhausted all legal options.

“I can’t just walk away. I’m not one who has, I guess, a mentality of giving up,” he said. “Because I feel so wronged. This is a life-defining event for me.”