Tom Melsheimer would rather leave a vacation a day early than a day late. He wants to head home feeling like there’s more to see and do, so he’ll make a return trip. This wise travel tip can also serve as a metaphor for Melsheimer’s varied legal career, which has established him as one of the most successful trial attorneys in the state.
Like his trip to Africa this summer that ended with the entire family wanting more, Melsheimer doesn’t want to be pigeonholed and bounces from court to court so he is ready to come back when he receives that call.
Sitting in front of a bowl of chips and salsa at old school Tex-Mex haven Ojeda’s, Melsheimer has a way of making you feel like an old friend. Weaving legal memories with familiar laments about texting his kids to come downstairs for dinner, his bright eyes dance as if he were engaging 12 jurors during an opening argument.
From patent law and representing Mark Cuban to taking on drug companies and defending bariatric surgeons, the managing partner at Winston & Strawn has skins on his wall unlike many in his field.
“Cases are the best on the very first day, like anything else. It never gets better than the first day.”
He is fresh off a successful defense of Dr. Nick Nicholson in the Forest Park Medical Center healthcare fraud case, where seven of the nine defendants were found guilty in a $40 million bribery and kickback scheme. While other lawyers live and breathe criminal defense, Melsheimer hadn’t tried a criminal case in 20 years.
Despite this, Melsheimer had back-to-back meetings with two of the defendants prior to the Forest Park trial. Melsheimer chose to defend Nicholson because it was the better fit. “Cases are the best on the very first day, like anything else,” he says. “It never gets better than the first day.”
His approach was to forcefully defend his client’s actions without disparaging the co-defendants. There is a tendency for co-defendants to deflect blame toward each other in a case like this, Melsheimer says, but he stayed disciplined. “That sounds great and noble and like you are a zealous advocate for your client, but is usually a cop out for your flailing,” he says. “You don’t know what arguments to make, so you start making arguments that don’t advance your case.”
Melsheimer’s ability to connect with an audience and tell a story have helped him take home victories that include both the largest Medicaid and bank fraud cases in the state’s history. He jokes that his case selection process is not precise, but the variety comes from his commitment to finding a case that will go to trial, which is much rarer today than it was 25 years ago.
He enjoys deep dives into diverse subject matter and has become an expert in everything from anti-psychotic drugs to touchscreens. He learned early on as an Assistant U.S. Attorney that he would never be an expert in any one subject, so he made it his mission to ferret out the story that will get the jury’s attention.
Melsheimer works to meet the jury where they are, and leaves them wanting more, like a vacationer leaving the beach a day early. “I try to use their beliefs to craft a story that will be compelling and not violate their principles,” he says. “If someone is a hunter, you are not going to convince them that guns are bad. If you try to do that, you are going to lose.”