He Makes Things Happen
Mike Parkowski has his fingers in a lot of pies, and as a result is one of Delaware’s most powerful attorneys. by Sam Waltz
F. Michael “Mike” Parkowski of Dover was the subject of a judge’s telling comment: “He’s the top lawyer in Delaware, or one of them, and he’s never in the courtroom.”
Parkowski, 59, a native Pennsylvanian, arrived in Delaware in 1973 with a civil-engineering degree from Villanova University and a law degree from Temple University. His first job here was deputy attorney general for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. In the formative days of the environmental movement, Parkowski drafted numerous laws and regulations, many of which survive to this day. When he started his own firm in 1975, he made environmental law the centerpiece of the practice.
But calling Parkowski an environmental lawyer today is like calling the pope a priest.
It’s where the firm started, but Parkowski now casts an inestimable shadow. Delaware has moved past much of the “clubby world” of its civic traditions, but that clubbiness is not as archaic as some believe. In the meritocracy that is Delaware’s bench and bar, some, like Parkowski, are “more equal” than others.
Parkowski is a principal in and director of Parkowski, Guerke & Swayze, headquartered in Dover with Wilmington offices. He is a past president of the Delaware State Bar Association and earns the highest ratings from legal publishers like Martindale-Hubbell and America’s Best Lawyers. Other name partners in the firm, Barry Guerke and David Swayze are of equal stature. But it is Parkowski’s star that has risen significantly in Delaware in the last 10 to 15 years with the convergence of law, politics, business and government. He is also considered the arbiter of excellence.
Observers at a Sunset Committee hearing last summer, where a state agency (and Parkowski client) was under scrutiny, noted the reach of Parkowski’s influence in the comment of an attorney legislator. In pre-hearing meetings of an ancillary legal action involving the agency, Parkowski and the client agreed they did not want to hash out the litigation intended for the courtroom in front of a legislative committee. But as soon as presentations were finished, committee member Rep. Robert Valihura, R-Brandywine Hundred pressed Parkowski for details of the litigation and the issues behind it.
“Rep. Valihura, that is a matter that is in litigation, so it’s appropriate for a courtroom, but not for a legislative hearing. If you were wearing judge’s robes, Mr. Valihura, I could get into the issue with you,” Parkowski said.
“Well, Mr. Parkowski, you’re the man who can make that happen,” Valihura responded, provoking laughter. Valihura’s comments noted Parkowski’s ability, as chair of the judicial nominating commission, to put a legislator in judge’s robes.
Appointing the chair of the judicial nominating commission is the prerogative of the governor. The attorney chosen by the governor is one whose credentials are spotless, whose judgment is impeccable and whose earned respect is far-reaching. Too, that attorney enjoys the closest confidential relationship with the governor because of the sensitive nature of picking judges.
Parkowski was Gov. Minner’s choice for that post, and it is a job that many Delaware attorneys say he has done well since he assumed the mantle in 2001.
In addition, Parkowski heads one of the state’s most visible public agencies, the Delaware River and Bay Authority which operates the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, airports in Delaware and New Jersey and other community assets. Shortly after Minner’s election in 2000, the DRBA was troubled by disclosures that led to criminal prosecution of the head of the authority, who had used public resources for his own benefit. Minner chose Parkowski to head the DRBA board of directors to lead the clean-up of the agency and the restoration of its integrity and reputation.
Parkowski also has a strong commitment to higher education. Since 1992 he has served on the board at Delaware State University, where he holds the office of treasurer.
Parkowski would not flaunt words like influence and access, but his description of how he adds value to paying clients – and patrons like the governor – certainly turns on those concepts.
“We get things done for our clients, because we’ve been here long enough [to] know who we need to see to resolve an issue. We have credibility with the people we need to have it with, and we get credit for being good at what it is we do,” Parkowski says. “In the law today, it’s not just about the courtroom, it’s about the business of law and helping people navigate complex situations, events, trends and people. That’s not something you learn in law school, or even in many specialized legal practices.”
On a personal level, Parkowski works hard to bring some balance to his frenzied life, a battle he often loses. In 2000, he lost Debbie, his beloved wife of 17 years. He has grown children: Michael, 34, and Alexandra, 20.
As a counselor, Parkowski does not suffer fools gladly. A dynamic man, he is a complex mix of impatience, assertiveness, generosity and charm. Listening to Parkowski run a strategy meeting with a client is like overhearing Joe Paterno in the Penn State locker room lay out how the football game will be played, with a running commentary that reflects higher-level strategy matched with detailed commentary on the blocking and tackling aspects of the game.
Parkowski anticipates and frames the issues, identifies the points of influence, crafts and evaluates the strategies and leads the discussion about how they will be implemented.
He has done it so well, for so long, that he has earned a leading position today as one of Delaware’s top attorneys.
Sam Waltz, a former Capitol Bureau Chief for the News Journal, operates a Wilmington consulting firm.
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