Lawyers Journal

Local attorney finds successful niche in railroad law

Michael Flynn said that he knew he wanted to be a lawyer '€” specifically a trial attorney '€” since he was a young boy. "I used to argue with anyone," he said, "and I always felt like I could relate to lawyer characters on television."

He also has a soft spot for the little guy and a deep reverence for the American legal system. Flynn was raised in Westfield and played lacrosse at Westfield High School, where he said he "always felt like the underdog." He went on to explain that many schools in Western Massachusetts did not have lacrosse teams, so the Westfield High lacrosse team would have to play against prep schools and wealthier public schools. And Flynn's team lost '€” a lot.

"If only we got a fair shake and could play on our terms, we could have beaten them. The playing field was never level." Flynn believes that being an attorney gives him the opportunity for a level playing field. "In the courtroom, especially during trial, with a good attorney and a jury, it's level."

Beginning a law career in Boston

After spending a few years at West Point and obtaining his bachelor's degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Flynn earned his J.D. from Boston University Law School. He began his career in Boston at the now disbanded firm of Parker, Coulter, Daley & White. Here, he met Bob Farrell, who served as a mentor to Flynn and was the reason that Flynn would eventually wind up in the uncommon field of railroad law.

Flynn smiled as he remembered Farrell, whom he described as an "old fashioned Irish lawyer." A marine, a native of Charlestown and a former chair of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Farrell was a man whom everyone knew. Flynn claimed that Farrell couldn't walk into a restaurant in Boston without stopping at half the tables to say hello to someone.

Farrell was an important figure in Flynn's career not only because he taught him so much about being a good lawyer, but because he introduced him to railroad law. Farrell handled all of the railroad cases at Parker, Coulter, Daley & White, but died rather suddenly in August of 1995 in the middle of a large case, Nicholopoulos v. Consolidated Rail Corporation. At only 30 years old, Flynn took over the case and won a defendant's verdict: a major victory. It was a busy fall for Flynn because between Farrell's death in August and the Nicholopoulos trial in October, Flynn's firm also announced plans to disband.

Flynn thought about moving into his own practice, but still felt that he was too young and that he needed more experience. As an alternative, he began working with two other Parker, Coulter attorneys '€” John W. Brister and Leonard F. Zandrow '€” who were beginning their own small firm. At Brister & Zandrow LLP, Flynn continued to practice railroad law and learned more about being an effective trial attorney. Flynn spoke very highly of his former colleagues, asserting, "I owe my development as a lawyer to them."

Coming into his own

On April Fool's Day of 1998, Flynn left Brister & Zandrow to establish his own practice. Although Flynn was happy to start his own firm, his first days as an entrepreneur were not quite so romantic.

Upon his departure from Brister & Zandrow, Flynn said that he was "pretty sure" that his major railroad client was going to follow him when he began his own practice, but he was not completely positive. Just after he left Brister & Zandrow, Flynn's client contact needed to take an emergency leave of absence. He did not know the company's decision for about three weeks. However, keeping the company as a client was so important that the office space that Flynn had rented was contingent on whether or not the client stayed with him.

In the meantime, armed with a fax machine and a computer, Flynn set up a temporary office in his living room. His wife, Nancy, who was also almost nine months pregnant with their fourth child, had contracted shingles from his other three children, who simultaneously became sick with the chicken pox. Finally, just before his youngest son, Jack, was born, Flynn found out that his major client had decided to stick with him, and he was able to move out of his living room and into an office space in Boston to establish Flynn and Associates PC.

A steady focus on railroad law

At Flynn and Associates PC, Flynn has developed an interesting practice that has only continued to expand. He describes railroad work as the firm's "bread and butter." Most of the types of cases that he deals with involve FELA, the Federal Employers Liability Act.

FELA was passed by Congress in 1908 and was crafted to protect railroad workers for injuries they suffer on the job. However, unlike typical workers' compensation, railroad workers have to prove negligence on the part of the railroad in order to be compensated for their injuries. They also have the opportunity to recover losses for pain and the suffering, and the court uses a comparative negligence standard to determine a verdict. FELA law is complex, and Flynn's practice has gained substantial experience in this very specialized field of law.

To maximize his knowledge of railroad law, Flynn became actively involved in the National Association of Railroad Trial Counsel (NARTC). This organization, which he joined after the death of his mentor and colleague, Bob Farrell, has led him to "make connections with other attorneys and help [him] be a better railroad lawyer." Describing it as "an invaluable networking and career development vehicle," Flynn serves on NARTC's executive committee and has been the Eastern Region Vice President for two of the last three years.

Developing a diverse practice

Because of the nature of the railroad industry and the limited number of railroad lawyers in the country, Flynn's work takes him all over the United States. He frequently takes trips to Philadelphia and Albany but will also travel to more obscure areas like Iowa and Arkansas. "There are certain hotbeds of railroad work," Flynn explained. "West Virginia, for example, with all of its coal workers, has more lawyers involved in railroad law. Chicago has a lot of crossroads. Ohio has a relatively high number of crossing cases." Massachusetts, however, is not a "hotbed," so Flynn has to travel to where the railroad work takes him.

Although he said that traveling is a "challenge," his journeys have given him the opportunity to try cases and work with judges in many different areas of the country. He described the federal courts as "easier" and "more welcoming" because the judges are used to dealing with counsel from different states. State courts, Flynn said, are "extremely accommodating," and also noted that many of the judges are interested in learning about how the courts function in other states. However, Flynn pointed out that when dealing with state courts outside of Massachusetts, his firm relies heavily on local counsel for guidance.

Flynn's firm has expanded more than just geographically. As the number of his railroad clients has grown and his firm's expertise has deepened, Flynn & Associates has begun to attract non-railroad clients, such as insurance and risk management companies that work closely with the railroads. The firm also has built a considerable plaintiff's practice in personal injury and medical malpractice cases, and has achieved several multi-million dollar verdicts.

A growing firm and a growing family

With his firm tackling cases from a variety of clients throughout the eastern half of the United States, Flynn's firm has grown significantly. He is currently hiring about one new attorney per year, and there are now four other attorneys working at his practice. His expansion is particularly striking when compared to those few weeks in 1998 when his firm consisted solely of Flynn in his living room surrounded by his chicken-pocked children.

Despite his career success, his family remains his first priority. With his children aged 13, 12, 10 and 8, Flynn knows the importance of balancing his career with his family. He spoke about his wife, Nancy, with a tone of deep love and respect. When he discussed his decision to begin his own firm, he explained how he would not do it without Nancy's "full support." She stays home with their four children, something that was important to both of them. "Even when we weren't making as much money," Flynn said, "it was always worth the sacrifices to have one of us home with the kids."

With a rapidly growing practice and a loving family behind him, Flynn's career has nowhere to go but up. "You control your own destiny," he said. "Whether you fail or succeed, there is nobody to blame but yourself. It's intoxicating."

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association