Michael M. Conway served as counsel to the legendary boxer, Muhammad Ali, and the House Judiciary Committee for the Impeachment Inquiry of President Richard M. Nixon. But he says his illustrious career as a lawyer was just a “vindication of his original purpose” – to become a journalist.
Though Conway, retired partner at Foley & Lardner LLP, is recognized for his professional achievements, the story of his formative years is largely untold. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism (B.S.,1968) and Yale Law School (J.D.,1973), and is now an adjunct professor at Medill, where he teaches Ethics and Law of Journalism.
As a high school student, Conway received a flyer about the summer National High School Institute at Northwestern University. Despite his passion for journalism, Conway couldn’t afford the application fee — “I didn’t have the money,” he said. “Neither of my parents went to college. My father didn’t have the chance to graduate from high school — he was a foreman in a brewery and my mother was a sales clerk in a clothing store.”
Benjamin H. Baldwin, who died in 2005, was director of the National High School Institute. Baldwin knew Conway from their correspondence. He knew Conway was from a working-class background and that he showed great potential, so he helped Conway get a scholarship to the institute. Conway spoke of Baldwin with humility and gratitude, saying that Baldwin “got him started on education.”
As an undergraduate student, together with his long-time friend, the late Jack Fuller, Conway worked at the Daily Northwestern, Northwestern University’s student newspaper. Fuller, who would also become a novelist, won the Pulitzer Price for Editorial Writing in 1986 for his editorials on constitutional issues.
“All we wanted to do was be journalists,” Conway said. “Our lives intertwined until he died. We were completely different but always together during college, always working in the Daily Northwestern office.”
Expecting to be drafted, Conway and Fuller decided to take a chance and apply to law school believing it would be good journalism training. They took the LSAT without studying and were admitted to Harvard Law School and Yale Law School — choosing Yale because Harvard was three times the size.
Conway said he now had the opportunity to represent journalists, which he would do many times in his career.
The civil rights movement gained traction during the John F. Kennedy administration. Burke Marshall, who died in 2003, was a former Yale Law School professor who guided Conway’s legal career. “He was my teacher and he was my friend,” Conway said. Marshall was appointed assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and played a critical role in the enforcement of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, a landmark Supreme Court case in which the court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.
“Ben Baldwin and Burke Marshall were my mentors. I think about them all the time, every day,” Conway said.
In January 1974, Marshall proposed Conway for service as counsel to House Judiciary Committee for the Impeachment Inquiry of President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Conway reported to Special Counsel John Doar, deputy assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division under the Kennedy administration.
“It was far from clear-cut,” Conway said. “People warned me as a young lawyer that I shouldn’t do it [serve as counsel]. It might be seen as a rogue operation.” The committee staff included 40 lawyers, “37 men and three women,” he emphasized. One woman was Hillary Clinton. “She was my friend before that, Bill [Clinton] was my friend too,” said Conway, speaking about his former law school classmates.
Conway became the de facto chief of staff to John Doar — “It was a complete and fluid meritocracy,” he said.
Perhaps none of Conway’s clients were more famous than Muhammad Ali. At the time, Ali’s fight manager, Herbert Muhammad, shared the same lawyer with Ali. When a senior banker recommended that they hire different lawyers, Hopkins & Sutter, the firm where Conway practiced prior to its merger with Foley & Lardner, was chosen to represent Ali. Michael Phenner, a partner in the firm, became Ali’s business lawyer, and Conway became his attorney. Conway represented Ali in multiple cases during his career.
“He was a terrifically honest man and yet he was the most famous human being on earth,” said Conway as he remembered Ali. “I felt like I was doing a good thing to represent him, I think he had a very good heart. People sometimes took advantage of him.”
Aqilah Allaudeen, a student in Conway’s class, said that he is “extremely humble and understanding.” As an international student, she said that he “always makes a conscious effort to contextualize American-centric content so that no student is left behind.”
“He’s compassionate and he genuinely wants us to be successful,” said Alexis Shanes, who is also a student in Conway’s class.
“They’re entering a very time-honored profession,” said Conway, as he spoke about his students. “A lot of people are depending on them to find the truth and report it. It’s a life well lived if you practice journalism and live with integrity.”
“It’s the opportunities that we’re sharing that are special,” said Conway, as he reflected on the opportunities his parents never had. “The chances that we have, they’re unpredictable.” Conway said that the best thing that has ever happened to him was having been born.
He now prescribes “News Values” by Jack Fuller as a required reading in his class.