Michael Stengel visited Memphis from his home in Buffalo, N.Y., for the first time at just the right time.
“I came down here in May to visit and see what the place was like, and it was just gorgeous and, unbeknownst to me, Memphis in May was going on,” he said.
It was 1983 and he was beginning law school at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, having recently graduated from the University of Rochester. Thirty years later, and he’s a practicing attorney with his own firm – and still at home in the South.
“I tell people I came down to Memphis for law school and a local girl kept me,” he said of his wife, Beth.
The Stengel Law Firm is largely one of criminal defense, an area he wasn’t even considering as a law student.
“I was not planning on going into criminal law until I got a job doing criminal defense work and just fell in love with it,” Stengel said.
That job, which began with a clerkship just before law school graduation, was with Clifton & Shankman, which later became Clifton & Stengel. In 1994, he went out on his own to begin Stengel Law Firm.
The business of criminal defense is one that requires a lot of time in court and a lot of time getting ready to be in court, and Stengel’s experience with both act as a cautionary tale to new and would-be attorneys.
“You have to love it,” he said. “You’ve got to be prepared for the unexpected, and you’ve got to learn to live with the sleepless nights before certain hearings.”
It’s an exciting career fraught with all of the drama and curveballs that one might expect. But be aware, he warned, there is the dull side as well, and the cautionary tale can grow even more harrowing.
“Find your passion and
figure out a way to earn
a living at it.”
“There is, many times, something going on; it’s always different because lord only knows what’s going to happen with the next phone call, but today I am so far on page 502 of an 1,198-page PDF document reviewing stuff for a case,” Stengel said. “Is there anything exciting about that? Absolutely not.”
The cases, though, are all of interest to him. Over the years he has handled court-appointed work in federal court, including potential capital cases, plus white-collar crime, tax evasion, fraud cases and property theft. Because of the myriad situations that may lead a person into criminal court, Stengel has had to become somewhat of an expert in many different areas.
“You have to learn a lot more than just surface about an issue,” he said. “It makes this month different from last month and likely different from next month, which is just part of the challenge, just the evolving change, which I enjoy.”
Stengel has argued cases in a number of courts such as U.S. Tax Court, U.S. Claims Court, and the 6th, 8th and 11th Circuit Courts of Appeals. He has filed cases with the U.S. Supreme Court but has yet to argue there. He was selected as one of the top 100 lawyers in Tennessee by Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine, 2011-2012; and as a Mid-South Super Lawyer for 2008-2012.
When not in court or losing sleep over a particular case, Stengel enjoys attending University of Memphis sporting events, cooking and traveling with his wife. Contrary to many professionals in high-stress jobs, he said that when he vacations he has the ability to completely shut himself off from the office.
“I’m just not important enough in the scheme of the world that they can’t live without me.”
Regular decompression may be another piece of advice he would give to young lawyers just beginning their careers. With three decades’ experience filing motions and objections, he is a wealth of such knowledge for law school graduates about to enter what is, today, a difficult and highly competitive market.
The simplest, though, may be the one he followed years ago when he traveled from Buffalo to Memphis: “Find your passion and figure out a way to earn a living at it.”