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Front Page - Friday, July 10, 2020

What better way to hone a lawyer’s skills?


Keeping peace in loud immigrant clan prepares Dumitru



Before Michael Dumitru became a lawyer, he was a peacemaker.

The harmony he brokered did not bring nations together or settle disputes between warring factions, but rather helped his gregarious and sometimes opinionated family members understand each others views on politics, religion and other fodder for their debates.

“We’re a small family in terms of volume but very large in terms of personalities,” Dumitru says. “And when you get a group of people with big personalities and conflicting thoughts together, you’re going to have lively discussions.”

The only child of a Greek father and an Armenian mother who both emigrated from communist Romania to New York City in the late 1970s, Dumitru was often the lone introvert in a roomful of livewires, and fell naturally into the role of negotiator.

As Dumitru talked with his loved ones about what they said they believed and helped them to see both sides of the issues, he began to develop skills he says now serve him as an attorney.

In his role as a commercial litigator for Miller & Martin in Chattanooga, Dumitru represents an array of clients both large and small, including corporations, local businesses and individuals.

Over the course of his career, he’s represented health care providers in government investigations and litigated complex commercial cases, contract disputes, claims between members of closely held companies, lawsuits involving public utilities, adversary proceedings in bankruptcy and more.

“I don’t have a niche, I do whatever is interesting,” he says. “I don’t want to have only one area of practice because I would become bored. The redundancy would drive me insane.”

Although Dumitru’s role as peacekeeper during family gatherings wired him for work as a litigator, he came to the law slowly through a series of small steps, the first of which was his experience as a member of the debate team at Fordham University.

College took Dumitru from his home in Queens, New York, to Fordham in the Bronx, where he dodged as much math and science as he could and focused on the liberal arts.

Dumitru also joined Fordham’s debate team. The parliamentary style competitions, in which one side makes a proposition which the other side then opposes, helped Dumitru to sharpen the skills he nurtured during family debates.

As Dumitru and his team traveled to various colleges to compete in tournaments, he learned to think on his feet and became comfortable with public speaking, both of which lend themselves to the practice of law, he says.

“I don’t think I would be as effective as I am now if I had not had that experience – if I just had kept my head down and gone to my classes and hadn’t become comfortable with my strengths and limitations.”

Dumitru qualifies his experiences on Fordham’s debate team, which included trips to Singapore, South Africa and Canada to compete in world championship tournaments, as among the best in his 38 years of life. His days of competitive debating also nudged him closer to the law.

“I thought I might want to practice law if it was anything like debate,” he recalls.

After graduating from Fordham, Dumitru heeded the advice of people who suggested he spend some time considering whether or not he truly wanted to become an attorney and instead studied international relations at New York University.

While there, he met and began dating Chattanooga native Jessica Mines.

Dumitru followed Mines to the Lone Star state, where she earned a juris doctor at Texas Wesleyan School of Law (now Texas A&M University School of Law) in Fort Worth while he worked as a paralegal at a small litigation boutique in Dallas.

“I thought the best way for me to figure out if I wanted to practice law was to work at a firm,” he says.

Dumitru says he loved the experience, so he began taking classes at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law. He and Jessica later married and then returned to Tennessee when her father became sick. Dumitru completed his juris doctor at Vanderbilt University Law School.

Although Dumitru wanted to litigate, he accepted a position as a bankruptcy creditors’ rights attorney at Miller & Martin, where he had clerked during law school. Eventually, however, the firm allowed him to begin working with its litigators, and in time, he moved to the litigation department.

Throughout his years of practice, Dumitru says he’s endeavored to utilize his strengths as an attorney while ironing out the creases in his skills.

“When I dive into something, I really dive into it,” he muses. “And while I’m far from being a great oral advocate, I believe I’m good at oral advocacy.

“But I sometimes take on more than I can chew. I have a 5-year-old girl, a 7-year-old boy and a wife who runs a business, so I’m stretched thin already. Fortunately, I can’t recall a time when I didn’t complete a task or someone was disappointed with my work.”

Dumitru has also found that the practice of law differs from what he envisioned in law school.

“The practice of law is a slower moving vehicle than I thought it would be,” he notes. “But it has to be. Because of the practicality of the practice of law, it’s not, ‘Here’s the law and here’s the answer.’

“That can be difficult for clients, who often ask, ‘Why is this taking so long?’ My response is, ‘Because it has to. We want to make sure we protect your rights.’”

While the work lawyers do is difficult, Dimitri says, he’s also found that they sometimes make it more difficult than is necessary. Having said this, he hops onto what he admits is his soapbox to explain.

“The lack of civility is threatening to tear this profession apart. A lot of lawyers think being a zealous advocate and being a civil professional are mutually exclusive, but they’re not; there’s no reason why we can’t be kind to each other and still be strong stewards of the profession and good representatives of our clients.

“So the things I impart to everyone who’s younger is treat each other with respect and tell the truth because the judiciary and the lawyers under them are the last resort. If we can’t figure out a way to peaceably solve problems, where will people go?

“This is a real concern of mine. There have been times when I have wanted to take an aggressive position with someone but stepped away and thought about whether or not that would move the ball forward.”

In contrast to the picture he painted of his family members engaged in thunderous debate, Dumitru speaks calmly and deliberately, even when he’s discussing civility among lawyers and other topics about which he feels passionate.

He says living in the South, which is more laid back than New York City, enables him to be who he truly is, despite the environment in which he grew up.

“In Queens, we were on top of each other all the time. I tell people Yankees aren’t bad folks, there’s just no other way to be,” he explains. “I much prefer the Southern way of life to New York City.

“We go back once a year to see my family, and Jessica tells me the second the plane touches down in LaGuardia, I turn into a different person. I get tense, and by the time we come back, my accent has started to creep back in.”

In addition to representing clients at Miller & Martin, Dumitru is an active volunteer within his profession and community. His off-the-clock efforts include serving as a Tennessee bar examiner and working as a mentee on the Criminal Justice Act Panel.

The latter consists of private attorneys who represent criminal defendants when the public defender is unable to take a case.

“They established a mentorship program so younger attorneys like me who have an interest in serving can fill a void in the public sector,” Dumitru clarifies. “You work under the tutelage of a defense attorney in town and learn how the criminal justice system works.”

Dumitru also serves on the boards of St. Peter’s Episcopal School and Chambliss Children’s Center.

Dumitru spends the bulk of his free time with his family, which includes his wife, who’s now known as Jessica Dumitru, his son Noah, his daughter Lorelei and his parents, who now live in Hixson.

Parenthood is a role Dumitru relishes. “If I could do anything, I’d be a stay-at-home dad. I love it. It gives me an excuse to be a kid.

“Before COVID, the time we had together was less than we wanted it to be. But we’ve had the opportunity in the last few months to watch our kids grow in a way we never could before. That’s been a blessing during a time that’s been a curse for a lot of people.”

Dumitru’s wife is the owner of Art Creations in Chattanooga, which generally keeps the family close to home. That suits Dumitru, who harbors no love of traveling and prefers to support local businesses and restaurants.

Instead, Dumitru’s family comes to him every December and stays about 10 days. And, just like when he was young, they have those spirited conversations.

Dumitru says his wife is still adjusting to it. “Not only are we Eastern Europeans, we’re also New Yorkers, and we’ve invaded her quiet, docile lifestyle down here.”

At least it gives her a chance to see Dumitru assume the role that years ago started him down the path to the law. He enjoyed being the peacekeeper then, and he enjoys it even more now.