Michigan Lawyers Weekly Announces Hall of Fame Winners
“21 for 21.” This special award recognizes esteemed members of the legal profession who have been in practice for at least 30 years or have reached the age of 60 or older. These lawyers truly are legends, making their mark in the courtroom or the boardroom, in their firms and with community organizations, and with local, state and national bar associations. With their guidance and mentorship, they have launched hundreds of thriving legal careers and have left an indelible imprint on the profession through precedent-setting cases, high-dollar outcomes and successful resolutions for their clients.
DAVE CHRISTENSEN – 2021 HALL OF FAME HONOREE
On first meeting David Christensen, one might think him reserved, with an air of old-school courtesy and lack of artifice not often seen in the cut and thrust of law today. His approach is kind and empathetic, his agenda no more than first to listen, to understand, and only then to assess. He exudes an easy benevolence that instills trust and a willingness to discharge one’s concerns to his undoubtedly qualified command. It has become not only his hallmark but also a constituent tenet upon which he has built his firm – interweaving care and support throughout every aspect of the practice. “I try to put myself in the place of my clients,” says Christensen. “It helps me understand their anxiety, their pain, and their needs, so I can best help them.”
Christensen has amassed an extensive body of work during his 30 years in personal injury law and is equally regarded as an extraordinarily successful trial attorney and a man of principle and compassion.
Throughout his career, he has represented thousands of clients against many of the largest insurance companies and corporations in America, achieving record verdicts in multiple counties, including a $17.8M traffic accident injury verdict, the largest in the history of the State at the time (2014). He has tried over 65 jury trials for personal injury and wrongful death cases and represented clients before the Michigan Supreme Court.
A recognized authority who has helped shape Michigan’s no-fault law, Dave is perhaps more widely known for his work on injury trials and especially on those involving traumatic brain injury (TBI).
A Commitment to Caring
He first encountered brain injury cases at a large firm where his name was one of many on the door and where, for over 22 years, he established a successful practice. Coincidentally, in the same building was a rehabilitation organization, so Dave set out to learn as much as he could about TBI. He spent long hours with the physicians and therapists there, even undergoing the same neuropsychological testing his clients would endure. “These are complex and challenging cases. If you are going to capably represent those who are suffering the myriad impacts of brain injury, you need to understand it on a deeper, real-world, level.” Working with the Brain Injury Association of Michigan and other TBI-focused institutions broadened his depth of understanding of the realities of TBI survivors and resulted in significant awards in this arena.
In 2014 Christensen opened his own firm, and their caseload today is more than 50% TBI-related, with many jury trials each year, and a long list of multi-million-dollar verdicts. Dave’s first official hire was his long-time colleague Sarah Stempky-Kime, whose own son recently suffered a brain injury from severe epileptic seizures. The event further underscored their commitment to serving and supporting those living with brain injury and drives the culture of charitable giving the firm espouses and lives daily. Indeed, a lively collection of original works by artists with TBI and other life-changing injuries or disabilities – some created by former clients – adorns the walls and hallways in both the Detroit and Southfield offices.
“In some ways, of which I am particularly proud,” Christensen muses, “we act like a non-profit. Employees are encouraged to bring forward causes that are meaningful to the group, and everyone participates at a very hands-on level. It helps keep us engaged, humble, and connected to our communities.” From providing food for the Covid-ward staff of an employee’s hospitalized family member, to collecting blankets for shelter dogs and delivering Thanksgiving baskets to the food insecure, the entire staff takes its cue from the culture of compassion he has built.
Unique to Christensen Law is a new program begun in 2020 to answer the challenges the Coronavirus pandemic posed. Like many companies, the firm honored the state recommendations and adapted to a remote model. In the summer when restrictions were lifted, however, new obstacles surfaced as schools remained closed. To assist employee parents, Dave and the team opened the Christensen Academy in a large empty suite across the corridor. They constructed safely distanced learning pods separated by Perspex walls, and built out the facility to accommodate the individual needs of the employees’ children. Dave hired two retired teachers to work with the students on a 1:1 basis, supplementing their online state curriculum with enrichment activities. The Academy has been a great success story, alleviating the frustrations of balancing working from home with at-home learning by providing a safe environment for the continuing education of the children.
Improving the Profession, Protecting the People
Christensen is also focused on giving back to the legal profession by improving the court process and, by extension, providing improved access to justice for the public.
As a member of the Michigan State Bar Negligence Section’s Council, a particular point of pride was their success (during a highly contentious period) in becoming a force to lobby for and to protect the right to a jury trial. Defeating every effort put forth to overturn the no-fault system, the Council strengthened the public’s right to a jury trial and just compensation.
A frequent presenter and moderator of seminars and workshops on trial practice and on Michigan’s no-fault system, Dave has been appointed to key positions that have directly affected the development of no-fault law. As Chairman of the no-fault committee, he works to promote legislation to improve the system.
MICHIGAN DISCOVERY PROCESS
Beginning in 2016, Christensen was asked to chair the Scope and Course of Discovery Subcommittee of the Michigan State Bar’s Civil Discovery Court Rule Review Special Committee to overhaul the civil discovery process as part of a larger effort concerned with court rules of litigation. A 2-year process, the comprehensive examination of the outmoded discovery rules (unchanged in over 35 years) resulted in extensive changes to pretrial procedures and took effect in January 2020. Working with the Supreme Court and multiple stakeholders, the committee was comprised of judges and litigators of all disciplines, and required extensive research, debate, comments, and hearings before being adopted. “It was an effort to reduce the inefficient, cumbersome, processes and the cost of litigation, to open the courthouse doors to more people who might not otherwise be able to afford access.”
NATIONAL CIVIL IMPROVEMENTS
Dave also participated in a Washington DC think tank supporting state court systems, the National Center for State Courts. In 2013, he was invited to work with an elite group of state supreme court justices, legal administrators, Fortune 500 general counsel, and senior practitioners from major law firms comprising the Civil Justice Improvements Committee as commissioned by The Conference of Chief Justices* to study and develop model policies and rules to make states’ court systems more accessible. Over the course of 3 years and working with the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, they authored a plan that would become a framework to restructure court systems throughout the country to be more efficient and expeditious in processing cases. It was adopted in 2016, expanding access to justice on a national level.
*The Conference of Chief Justices was founded in 1949 to provide an opportunity for the highest judicial officers of the states to meet and discuss matters of importance in improving the administration of justice, rules and methods of procedure, and the organization and operation of state courts and judicial systems, and to make recommendations and bring about improvements on such matters.
Awards & Accolades
- Michigan Lawyer’s Weekly, Leader in the Law, 2012
- Best Lawyers, Lawyer of the Year, Personal Injury Litigation – Plaintiffs, Detroit, 2019
- Best Lawyers in America, Personal Injury Litigation, Plaintiffs
- American Board of Trial Advocates Inductee, highest honor for a trial attorney, one of only 112 in Michigan, 2016
- S. News and World Report, Best Lawyers in America, 2009
- DBusiness Magazine, Top Lawyer Metro Detroit, 2010
- U.S. News and World Report, Best Law Firms, Tier 1 Ranking
- National Trial Lawyers, Top 100 Michigan Super Lawyer
- Martindale-Hubbell, AV-Preeminent, the highest rating for legal ability and ethics
- National Trial Attorneys Association, Top 100 Trial Attorneys
- National Trial Attorneys Association, Top 50 Consumer Lawyer
- Best of Michigan Business Award, Community Leaders, 2016
- Deal of the Year, Non-Profit, Help Source Agency, 2007
- Corp! Magazine, Civic Responsibility Award, 2020
Christensen earned a master’s degree in Chinese Studies, learned Mandarin, and started out as an import entrepreneur at a time when the US had just normalized relations with China and there were few western businesses in the country. He then transitioned into private mortgages before earning a Juris Doctor with honors from the University of Michigan and pursuing his dream of helping those in need seek justice.
The early days were a tough learning curve for Christensen before he won his first major jury trial and was awarded a million-dollar verdict. Soon after, he took on more complex accident cases including TBI and school abuse cases.
One such case, tried in Lansing, involved a Michigan Department of Transportation salt truck running a stop sign. Christensen’s client was seriously injured, requiring multiple surgeries that prevented her from work. The state argued government immunity protected them from economic wage loss claims and tried to limit damages to non-work-related costs. The judge decided against MDOT, thereby allowing compensation from public companies. The case set a precedent for Michiganders injured by state vehicles, protecting the rights of victims going forward. “The significance of this case goes far beyond the young lady,” says Christensen, “the court upheld her right to make that claim, and that’s really what this case was about.”
Another memorable case involved a 14-year-old female high school student who was harassed and sexually abused by a school janitor, a previously convicted and paroled felon, on whom no background check was performed. The plaintiff claimed that her civil rights had been violated when the school system did not respond or take corrective action to the harassment and failed to vet their subcontractors. The defendants argued that they needed notice of on-going infractions, despite the girl complaining to the assistant principal about inappropriate behavior prior to the attack. Christensen won, the defendants appealed, and the case was settled after the appeal.
Charitable & Community Involvement
- WorkSkills Corp., a 501(C)3 Organization: Board Member since 2014
- Washtenaw Council on Alcoholism: Board Member 1993-1999
- Spectrum Prevention Services: Board Member 1999-2003
- HelpSource Agency, Social Services Organization: Member since 2003, Board Member (2 years), Vice President, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, awarded non-profit deal of the year for the creative dissolution and reassignment of this 90-year-old organization’s services, personnel, and programs.
- Big Brothers & Big Sisters of Ann Arbor
- Dawn Farm Addiction & Treatment Center, Ann Arbor
- Michigan State Bar: Member since 1991, Negligence Section Council (6 years), officer (4 years), Chairman (2 years)
- Michigan Association for Justice: 20+ years Member of the Board, served as Secretary, Treasurer and Vice President, on the Executive Board and Chairman of the No-Fault Committee (4 years), Chair of Legislative Committee (3 years). Frequent speaker and moderator at meetings, the annual institute and conference. Presents and conducts workshops on advanced issues in TBI cases, trial lawyer skills, cross-examination of defense experts, mediation, and facilitation.
- The Institute of Continuing Legal Education: Presents annually at no-fault summits, moderated Judges’ Session in 2020, a first-ever Zoom event of +500 attendees.
- National Center for State Courts: Lawyers Committee member since 2008, Special Committees
- American Association for Justice: Member since 1992
- Coalition Protecting Auto No-Fault: Member
30 YEARS ON
“I’ve always felt it my duty to improve the community wherever I can.”
What Christensen appreciates most about being a lawyer is the ability to make a positive difference in peoples’ lives; he believes the law provides a license to do that in a meaningful way.
Empathy and altruism are not solely buzzwords, but rather the warp and weft of his practice and the firm. Being able to work on greatly challenging cases to him is indicative of the sheer amount of people who need assistance. “If I can help, either by refining the process, the machine, or by fiercely defending victims’ rights, then I will have made a contribution of value. I’m lucky to be able to do that.”