In the News The American Lawyer

Lifetime Achievers: Thomas Gottschalk

In December, on the eve of his retirement from General Motors Corporation, Thomas Gottschalk met with an elderly woman at the Detroit Legal Services Clinic to help her write her will. Gottschalk had already handed over his general counsel title to Robert Osborne, but was still with GM until April. So when GM attorney Steven Cernak sent out an e-mail seeking lawyers for the department’s rotation at the clinic, Gottschalk answered the call. The woman “probably had no idea she was talking to the [former] general counsel,” says Cernak.

In fact, the clinic might not even exist if it weren’t for Gottschalk. In 1997 the GM general counsel convinced lawyers at Ford Motor Company and other Detroit companies to form the clinic with GM. Today, GM lawyers alone take 25-30 pro bono cases a year on everything from wills to dog bites. “I really felt in-house counsel could very much be leaders,” says Gottschalk, 65. “I felt to do that, we had to have a full agenda, as was expected of legal professionals.”

Gottschalk has long been a pro bono leader, first at Kirkland & Ellis and then at GM. His first case of any type was pro bono: In 1968 he represented two students who had been arrested at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Nearly 40 years later, Gottschalk is “still committed to pro bono” says Thomas Yannucci, head of Kirkland’s management committee.

Gottschalk joined Kirkland in 1967 as a litigator after graduation from the University of Chicago Law School and a brief clerkship for a personal injury lawyer. At Kirkland he handled a variety of cases, including discrimination, antitrust and product liability. But he always made time for pro bono work, including acting as the initial lead lawyer in an American Civil Liberties Union case that resulted in the desegregation of the Chicago Police Department’s command levels.

By 1975 Gottschalk had left that case and was working for a different Kirkland client — GM. During the late seventies and eighties Gottschalk successfully defended the automaker against allegations that it fixed prices and, later, that it covered up brake defects in its 1980 X-car. The wins helped cement Gottschalk’s reputation with GM, which hired him as general counsel in 1993.

The in-house position provided Gottschalk with a bully pulpit. He backed a moratorium on the death penalty and urged other corporate counsel to do the same. In the 2003 case Gratz v. Bollinger, GM filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policy in admissions.

Under Gottschalk, GM also insisted that its outside counsel roster be as diverse as the company. From 2003 to 2005, the percentage of female outside counsel for GM climbed to 27.3 from 22.5, and minority outside counsel rose to 15.1 from 10.5.

Today, Gottschalk is back at Kirkland where he is of counsel — and, as of July, a firmwide coordinator of the firm’s pro bono program. Says Gottschalk: “I think they’re hoping I’ll give it a bit of a lift.” Count on it.