OLECKI '81 - A CALIFORNIA "ATTORNEY OF THE YEAR"
Michael J. Olecki ’81, a corporate lawyer based out of Santa Monica, was named one of California’s lawyers of the year by California Lawyer Magazine. Olecki won the award for his part in the civil rights case Ramirez v County of Los Angeles et al. Representing Raul Ramirez, Olecki helped win a record $18 million award for his client.
Olecki had never tried a civil rights case before. In fact, he says the last time he’d even thought about civil rights law was in law school – 22 years ago. So when a neighbor asked him to recommend a criminal defense attorney, he named a couple of colleagues and went back to practicing copyright law.
A few weeks later, he got a phone call from one of the lawyers he had recommended. “He said something I’ll never forget: ‘This guy is innocent,’” Olecki recalls. “I felt coming from him, in just those couple words, the power of the feeling that this guy is innocent.”
Eight months later, Olecki heard more about the case from his friend, who believed that the Sheriffs Department, and one detective in particular, had hid documents, coerced witnesses, and withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense – all in violation of Ramirez’s constitutional right to due process.
Two months later, he got a call: “We won!” said his friend. “We’ve decided that we’re going to bring a civil rights case, and we think it would be really good karma if you were on board.”
Before agreeing to take the case, he wanted to meet Ramirez. They went to a pub in downtown Los Angeles. “I really liked him. You could tell that he was hurt by all this. I looked this guy in the eye, and said ‘You need to tell me this wasn’t you.’ And he did. And I believed him.”
According to Olecki, “What most affected me [at Haverford] was meeting different people from different backgrounds…Getting worldviews that were so different from mine and trying to harmonize that with what I am.” In this case, Olecki found those different worldviews. After thinking it over, Olecki decided to take the case, joining Michael Sobel and Michael Artan (the team was jokingly referred to as “The Three Michaels").
Ten months later, in a landmark decision, Ramirez was awarded $18 million for damages including lost wages, attorney fees, loss of liberty, damage to his reputation and bodily injury. Olecki, never before having tried a civil rights case, and his colleagues had beaten some of the most experienced civil rights lawyers in the county.
Olecki, who majored in French at Bryn Mawr, was “your typical liberal arts major: political science, science, sociology, history – all of that kind of stuff.” Outside of core classes, the course that had the most influence on him was Ethics in the Professions, taught by a visiting instructor. For the final project of the class, each student had to find a professional and talk to them about an ethical dilemma that they have faced. In what was to be his first introduction to law, Olecki chose to talk to a lawyer. It was this encounter that sent him down the road that led from Haverford to the University of Virginia Law School, to his offices in Santa Barbara, and eventually to the courtroom where he tried his first civil rights case.
Olecki found his first foray into civil rights law to be unsettling, but also “empowering, eye-opening, and at times overwhelming.” This was his first civil rights case, but it won’t be his last. “What happened has made me so much more a believer in civil rights law and in the need to protect people…Everybody deserves the best defense they can possibly have – not just for them, but for you.”
— David Merrell '09