Dinner-table talk provided the ingredients for Joe Potchen’s eventual career path, serving up topical debates and fresh perspectives as a staple of mealtimes with his parents and siblings.
“I found great joy in learning about new ideas and trying to understand other points of view,” said Potchen, an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Michigan and a visiting professor at Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business.
“My family background and the enjoyment I derive from discussing issues made the law a seemingly natural fit,” he said. “I saw it as an opportunity to enhance my skills at debating issues and formulating arguments, which are basic tools for lawyers.”
After earning his law degree from Loyola University Chicago, he joined the Attorney General’s Office in his home state. He has held various roles in the nearly 25 years since then, including serving as chief of the Corporate Oversight Division, handling banking, securities, antitrust and other white-collar cases.
In the mid-2000s, Potchen began teaching a business law course for MBA students at Michigan State, where he had earned his bachelor’s degree. He now teaches the graduate-level course Creating an Ethical Organization, part of the curriculum for the Master of Science in Management, Strategy and Leadership program offered 100% online.
The Potchen family’s East Lansing roots run deep.
Three decades before Potchen was an undergrad on campus, his father, E. James Potchen, earned his undergraduate degree from Michigan State. The elder Potchen was appointed the first chairman of MSU’s then-new Department of Radiology in 1975, retiring from the university nearly 40 years later.
Two of Joe Potchen’s siblings are MSU grads and his daughter is studying arts and humanities there.
“We’re huge Spartan fans,” he said.
We spoke with Potchen about his work as a Michigan State visiting professor, the role his courtroom experience plays in shaping his classroom methods and the importance of fostering ethical decision-making.
Q. Can you tell us about your background and how you developed an interest in the legal profession?
I come from a family that prioritizes learning. My father is a doctor, lawyer and has a master’s degree in business. My brother and sister are doctors and my other sister is a lawyer. My parents did a great job showing us the importance of a good education while giving us the tools to excel. They continuously stressed the importance of expanding our world view and thinking about how we can help others. At the dinner table we often debated issues and discussed current events. I found great joy in learning about new ideas and trying to understand other points of view. Now I have a wonderful wife and three fantastic kids. I’ve tried to instill these same ideals upon them.
Q. You have spent more than a decade as a visiting professor at Michigan State University, your alma mater. Can you tell us about the courses and students you teach?
I began teaching at Michigan State for the weekend MBA program in 2005. My first course was business law. Most students in the program have full-time jobs and the average age is around 30. I immediately enjoyed the experience. Class discussions were lively and informative since many students brought their various backgrounds and perspectives into the mix.
A few years later, they asked me to teach the business ethics course in the program and I jumped on the opportunity. I taught both courses for a while, but when I was promoted within the Attorney General’s Office, I decided to focus only on business ethics.
Since 2012, I have also taught business law and business ethics to undergraduate students in Australia for MSU’s study abroad program.
Q. Wells Fargo. Uber. Volkswagen. Recent years have brought a string of high-profile corporate scandals with ethical issues at their core. Are we seeing more of these controversies? Why do these scandals continue to occur?
I’m not sure that we are really seeing more of these controversies. Rather, it seems that the media coverage is greater and more comprehensive. To me, much of what we’re seeing is a repeat of history. Many ethical disasters we see today arise from the same set of mistakes that led to the Enron scandal, the 2008 financial crisis and a myriad of other cases. First, there are usually misguided priorities. Second, there is shortsightedness with some greed mixed in. And, third, there is usually some failed oversight. We must be vigilant at addressing these issues if we are going to see change in the corporate environment.
Q. You’ve noted that allowing a problem to fester can spell disaster. What are some warning signs of questionable ethical behavior?
One of the first warning signs is when we begin cutting corners. We are often taught the correct way to handle a situation or complete a task. However, with pressure we find ourselves doing less than we know should be done. We don’t do that extra verification or we skip the required review. Managers must be cognizant of the pressures they put on staff, and ensure that things are done properly and thoroughly.
Another warning sign is when we stop asking questions and bury our heads to problems that are right in front of us. Author Margaret Heffernan calls this practice “willful blindness” and stresses that we ignore the obvious at our own peril. She stresses the importance of being a critical thinker and to seek answers. One of her quotes that I think is helpful to understanding ethical warning signs is: “We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know.” I believe when we begin choosing not to know, we make ourselves susceptible to a number of ethical pitfalls.
Q. What are the key factors in fostering an environment that promotes ethical decision-making?
Awareness is one key factor. As indicated in my previous response, it is important to be aware of the pressure that staff is under and to ask questions. If managers can foster an open dialogue and notice what is happening in the workplace, it will enhance ethical behavior.
Another factor is leading by example. While this notion may be cliché, it is critical for ethics in the workplace. Managers must behave in the same manner that they expect their employees to behave.
Q. You have served as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Michigan for more than 20 years, currently as division chief of the Corporate Oversight Division. What gives you the greatest satisfaction as a state attorney?
Being able to practice law the “right” way. By that, I mean that I’m not driven by the business of law to bill hours or collect fees from a client. Rather, I’m able to spend time formulating arguments that are based on the law. Also, in my management role, I’m able to work with a number of dedicated and committed public servants who are truly focused on doing what’s best for the people of Michigan.
Q. Given the thicket of ethical issues faced by attorneys every day, where do you turn for guidance and support when faced with such a dilemma?
There are a number of resources. Our office has an ethics policy and a designated ethics advisor where we can seek guidance on various ethical issues. There are also various laws governing ethics for state employees; and the state bar has ethics assistance available. Also, as stated previously, I work with a number of great people and we are free to discuss issues that may arise.
Q. How does your courtroom experience impact your classroom instruction?
I enjoy public speaking. I think that is another reason I turned to law. Spending time to formulate and organize arguments so a jury can follow them is critical to success in the courtroom. This skill transfers easily into the classroom setting. It is important to properly formulate and organize class lectures so students can remain engaged.
Q. How has education shaped your own career path?
Education has implanted a desire to learn. Every time we learn about something new, it is an opportunity to delve into the topic and get as much information as possible to formulate an opinion. The law is a great conduit to learning.
Q. Do you have a favorite fictional lawyer in books or on television?
Atticus Finch, from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I admired his strength and integrity, especially when representing the less fortunate. To me, he epitomizes honor in the legal profession.