By Amanda Robert
Mike Cramer sits in the corner office of a recently renovated law firm in the newest building on Wacker Drive, but that's not what makes him special.
It's the bright red, orange and purple paints mixed with whimsical drawings of lawyers, courtrooms and buildings that explode from the three canvases hanging above his desk — that's what really helps define him.
A multi talented lawyer with an over abundance of creativity, Cramer described how he infuses imagination into his paintings.
"This whole technique started, because I would do these doodles," Cramer said. "I'd be on the phone, or in a meeting, or in court, and I would draw something on my notepad, and I'd go, 'I kind of like that.'
"Most doodles just get tossed," he said. "They go in the recycling bin with everything else. While people don't look at doodles, they tend to look at big, colorful paintings."
Cramer, a shareholder at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, has always brought an equal amount of passion to the law and to his art. He practices in wage-and-hour litigation, which centers mostly on class and collective actions, and employment litigation. He also advises and counsels clients on anti-harassment and discrimination policies, day-to-day employment decisions and other issues that involve employer-employee relationships.
"With litigation, I like the competitive nature of it, and with employment litigation, I like that there are interesting fact patterns involving real disputes between actual human beings," he said. "In sort of a similar way with the advice work, it's problem solving involving relationships between people."
As Cramer represented clients ranging from small nonprofits to Fortune 500 companies, he continued his passion for art by drawing editorial cartoons for the Chicago Tribune and creating multimedia paintings like the ones adorning his office walls. He has exhibited his artwork in several Chicago galleries and, in one instance, his paintings showed alongside a documentary-style film.
He continued his foray into filmmaking with "Dear Mr. Fidrych," a movie about Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, the Detroit Tigers pitcher who became the 1976 American League Rookie of the Year. He wrote, directed, co-produced and acted in the award-winning film.
Many of his clients and colleagues watch for his cartoons and attend his art shows. Several of them also brighten the walls of their offices and homes with his creations.
Peggy Daley, an e-discovery and investigations professional, met Cramer at the University of Michigan.
Back then, she decorated her apartment with his cartoons of Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan. She recently decorated her daughter's bedroom with one of his paintings.
"He's the same guy that he was 25 years ago," Daley said. "When you're 25, everyone has a lot of interests, and after 25 years go by, everyone has a lot of responsibilities.
"A lot of us lose those outside interests because we can't find the time," she said. "He is doing more of that work and doing it better than he did 20 years ago."
Doug Graham, general counsel of Oil-Dri, worked with Cramer at The Res Gestae , the newspaper at the University of Michigan Law School. He recalled that his classmate always sketched in class and described his cartoons as "amusing, down-in-their-luck-looking people." Years later, he attended one of his art shows.
"It wasn't watercolors and landscapes," Graham said. "To the extent that lawyers are doing stuff artistically, it's more of a relaxation thing, but that didn't appear to be the stuff he was doing. There was a higher level of intensity."
Cramer grew up outside of Detroit and spent a lot of time reading comic books and drawing monsters, cowboys and cool cars like the one from "Speed Racer."
In grade school, he took an after-school art class and learned not only drawing, but painting, sculpting with clay, wax and metals; and painting in acrylics and watercolors.
Cramer attended the University of Michigan, and while he studied political science, he continued to squeeze art classes into his schedule. He began to draw political cartoons for the Michigan Daily , the student newspaper.
Cramer never strayed from the possibility of a dual career and continued to draw editorial cartoons for The Res Gestae and the Ann Arbor News while studying law at the University of Michigan Law School.
"When I would look back at my notes from law school to study for exams, I could always tell the days that I was not very alert," he said. "My notes were usually very little in the way of notes and just drawings. The dates that I was more alert, it was pretty much all notes without any drawings. The days that I was most on my game, I had extensive notes, but also lots of drawings."
At the end of the semester, the law school newspaper would publish a full page, or even a two-page spread, of those drawings.
In 1988, Cramer started as an associate at Pope, Ballard, Shepard & Fowle, a midsize law firm that focused on labor and employment. He credits Joe Tilson, a fellow Michigan law graduate, for recruiting him to the firm.
Tilson, now co-chairman of Meckler Bulger Tilson Marick & Pearson, said he appreciated Cramer's ability to find humor in every situation.
When he asked Cramer to organize a presentation on the Americans with Disabilities Act, his associate created slides of cartoons depicting various people like illegal drug users who were excluded from the protected class.
"Every time I gave this presentation, I would really be able to get the audience laughing thanks to his slides," Tilson said. "Even though I was a partner, he really helped me understand how to use humor."
"The thing about Mike, he's really the kind of person who does not take himself so seriously," he said. "So many people are very self-important, but he's very self-effacing, and, as a result, he really does have instant likability."
As Cramer began to build his law practice, he also discovered the Lerner newspapers, a chain of city neighborhood weeklies.
He started drawing their local editorial cartoons and hanging out with journalists like Greg Hinz, now at Crain's Chicago Business ; Bill Zwecker, now at the Chicago Sun-Times; and Ted Allen, who gained fame on the TV show, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
Labor of love
Cramer moved to New York City in 1989 so his wife, Harlene, could go to graduate journalism school at Columbia University.
He got a job as a labor lawyer in the Mayor's Office of Municipal Labor Relations in between the Ed Koch and David Dinkins administrations.
"I walked in, and they essentially gave me several boxes and stacks of files of 50 to 60 cases," Cramer said. "They told me to go do these arbitrations and win."
"It was also just an amazing, entertaining cast of characters in New York City labor relations for a naïve, Midwestern boy who was in his second year out of law school," he said.
He returned to Chicago and became an associate at labor and employment boutique firm Connelly Sheehan Moran in 1990.
Allison Stein, associate general counsel with OfficeMax, worked with Cramer at the firm for nearly five years. He stood out for his "amazing creativity," which seemed a little unusual for a lawyer, she said.
"He designed our firm's holiday cards with cartoons and they were so much better than anyone else's," she said. "He's also a really nice person. He was the person who the staff would talk to, because he's unpretentious and everything about him is approachable."
Cramer left the firm and moved to Springfield when his wife got a job at The State Journal-Register in 1992. He continued to send editorial cartoons to the Lerner newspapers in Chicago, but he also began drawing for Springfield publications like Illinois Times and Illinois Issues.
After he met Rich Miller, the founder and publisher of the Capitol Fax , he started drawing "Faxtoons" for the political newsletter. The Illinois Press Association later syndicated the pair's columns and cartoons, sending them to nearly 200 small newspapers in Illinois.
Cramer returned to Connelly Sheehan Moran in 1994. He stayed with the firm for five years until he moved to Sachnoff & Weaver.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan was an associate at Sachnoff & Weaver when Cramer joined the firm as a partner.
"I sat down in Lisa's office and the first thing she said was, 'Are you the same Mike Cramer who draws the cartoons?'" Cramer said. "I had done a lot of cartoons about her dad, and I don't think most of them were particularly flattering.
"I'm going, 'Oh crap, this is not how this is supposed to go.' I said, 'Yeah, that's me.' She did sort of a great dramatic pause, and said, 'Well, I want you to know that my dad and I think your cartoons are pretty funny.'"
While Madigan and Cramer shared a similar sense of humor, the Illinois State Bar Association saw things from a different perspective. After drawing for the ISBA Bar News for several years, Cramer said he was fired by the bar association for creating a cartoon that depicted Gov. George Ryan and the Better Government Association's lawsuit against the politician.
"It was sort of a badge of honor to get fired over a cartoon and later events confirmed that the cartoon and the BGA's lawsuit were on target," he said.
In 2005, Cramer joined Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart.
When Peggy Daley moved from private practice to investigations, she hired Cramer as her personal attorney to help negotiate and review her employment contracts.
"I've turned to Michael on these things, because he is very strategic," she said. "He'll be able to tell me, 'Let that particular thing go, it's just not important.'"
Daley has also recommended Cramer to several of her clients who needed advice on labor and employment issues. She said while some litigation lawyers push clients to fight for a win, Cramer encourages clients to consider creative solutions.
"Sometimes you have these pit bull litigators and they drink the Kool-Aid so much that they can't be the one who settles … Mike's got that ability to put himself into other people's shoes," Daley said. "I think that makes you a really smart lawyer."
As Cramer considered his most interesting cases, he counted several that brought bizarre fact patterns.
He handled one wage-and-hour case where the plaintiff alleged that she worked through her lunch hour without receiving compensation.
The plaintiff not only claimed that her employer owed her years of back pay, but she also tried to certify a class of more than 200 employees.
He convinced the court to deny the class certification, and when the single plaintiff continued to trial, he offered to settle for all of the wages that she claimed she was owed.
The plaintiff refused, so he brought a witness who testified that she left the premises to pick up her lunch and ate while watching "The Jerry Springer Show."
Cramer said the judge, who ruled in his favor, told the courtroom, "This is not an overtime case, this is an undertime case. Jerry Springer? Really?"
He handled another case where two female sales employees sued their employer after being fired for not generating enough sales. The women alleged sexual harassment, claiming that they received offensive e-mails while at work. They also alleged sex discrimination, claiming that they brought in more sales than male employees who were retained.
Cramer recruited a computer forensics expert, who examined one of the plaintiff's computers and found that she sent her friends e-mails that she had called offensive.
He also saw that after receiving an e-mail from her employer that asked why she was absent from work, the plaintiff replied that she was working from home and the field. Minutes later, she sent another e-mail to her friend saying she had not devoted full attention to work for nearly a month, he said.
"Not only was the company correct that she wasn't doing anything to generate new sales, but she had an e-mail admitting it and also admitting that she lied to her boss," he said.
Cramer found that the e-mails undermined her claims and illustrated the value of electronic evidence.
"In some cases, you have to explain your client's behavior or find a way to deal with it," he said. "Sometimes you find behavior from the other side where the people who claimed they were morally wronged by the company were not."
Speaking of creativity
Despite his busy law practice, Cramer always searches for something creative to do on the side.
He joined other local cartoonists in drawing for the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune before the newspaper hired Scott Stantis as its full-time editorial cartoonist in 2009.
"I like to think that being a lawyer actually has a positive impact on those creative things and that doing creative stuff on the side makes me a better lawyer," Cramer said.
"Writing a good legal brief and creating a good editorial cartoon are really similar in certain ways, in that you are trying to, in a succinct and engaging way, persuade someone to your viewpoint."
Cramer, who lives with his wife, and their three children in Oak Park, focused more of his recent attention on filmmaking. He premiered "Dear Mr. Fidrych" at the 2009 Detroit-Windsor International Film Festival and won the award for "Best Director."
He said he found Fidrych fascinating since he went from playing Triple-A baseball to starting for the Detroit Tigers to shutting down the New York Yankees on national television.
"But it was not just that he beat the Yankees — it was the way he did it," Cramer said. "He was about 6-4, 150 pounds, skinny, had a big, blond Afro … he was a bizarre character, but extremely genuine and likeable. They called him 'The Bird' because he looked like Big Bird from 'Sesame Street.'"
After becoming a "rock star of a baseball player" who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated , Life and Rolling Stone , Fidrych hurt his knee and shoulder the next season. He left the Tigers in 1981.
"So, incredibly fast rise to the top, equally fast fall," Cramer said. "I wanted to tell his story."
Cramer's film features a 12-year-old named Marty who likes poetry and wants to be a baseball star. The child sends Fidrych a poem, and 30 years later, he takes his own son on a road trip to find the famed baseball player. He convinced Fidrych to play himself in the movie and shot some of its scenes on his Massachusetts farm. Fidrych, who died in an accident in April 2009, never saw the finished product.
Cramer gave his family and several friends lead roles in the movie. Daley and her husband both received parts and allowed scenes to be filmed in their home. As a parent, Daley was touched by Cramer's work with his children in the movie, she said.
"He wasn't pulling himself away from his family, he was pulling himself toward his family," she said. "I was quite jealous, thinking, 'I wish I could be this clever and think of this wonderful, great activity to do with my kids.'"
Anne Larson, a principal and chairwoman of the labor and employment practice group at Much Shelist, met Cramer in law school and later worked with him at Connelly Sheehan & Moran.
She initially intended to pursue a career in music and dance, and since she still remains active in theatre, she understands Cramer's attraction to the arts. She was "just floored" by his movie, she said.
"I know how hard it is to do all of the outside activities that I do and excel as a lawyer and here I am watching a movie that he wrote, directed, acted in and also included his entire family in," Larson said. "I thought it was the most wonderful thing."
Tilson, who saw the movie twice, referred to Cramer as one of the most "balanced people that I know." He views his friend as one of the few lawyers who can manage a major practice, dedicate time to his family and also pursue other outside passions, he said.
"I think he's one of these people who could have easily become a professional artist, a movie producer or pursued any number of other careers," Tilson said. "With all of these talents, I am glad he chose to be a lawyer."