February 25, 2020
A fifth-generation Hawaiian with a 45-year law career under his belt, Michael Lilly ’74 says he has “a lot of aloha” for McGeorge School of Law.
“The culture at McGeorge is like a family with a strong connection between grads,” said Lilly from his retirement home on the slopes of Haleakala, Maui. “Some of my best friends are my classmates and my best friend is (fellow alumnus) Bill Baker. We forged a lifelong bond at McGeorge.”
Lilly graduated with honors from McGeorge following his 1968 graduation from UC Santa Cruz. He was a member of the McGeorge School of Law National Alumni Board.
Before his retirement in June 2019, Lilly practiced commercial, wrongful termination and personal injury litigation and was licensed in both Hawaii and California. He was a partner in the Honolulu law firm of Ning, Lilly & Jones for 34 years and appeared twice before the U.S. Supreme Court. He served as attorney general and first deputy attorney general of Hawaii from 1981 to 1985.
When in private practice, he won a $2.1-million wrongful termination jury verdict, the largest in Hawaii state history. He also won state Supreme Court cases on wrongful termination, the right to campaign for political office, land reform and open government.
Lilly credits his McGeorge professors for his success, noting that they were all approachable and available, and many of them were practicing lawyers. “They were funny and entertaining,” he remembers.
“We started the Courtroom of the Future when I was there and the trial lawyer who was our professor taught us how to argue a case, how to present it to the jury in real time,” he said. “It was hands-on stuff—not just theory out of a book. You were doing it.”
During his long legal career, he served as chairman of the Governor’s Crime Committee, president of the Hawaii Prosecuting Attorneys Association, director of the Western States Drug Information Network and was founder and member of the Vice President’s National Narcotics Border Interdiction System office in Hawaii.
“I’ve hired a lot of lawyers as attorney general and I’ve seen good and bad ones,” Lilly said. “I haven’t seen a bad one from McGeorge.”
Lilly is a Vietnam War combat veteran with decorations including the Legion of Merit, Defense Meritorious Service Medal and two Meritorious Service medals. He retired as a Naval Reserve captain after 30 years of service, including five commands.
He was a founding director of the USS Missouri Memorial Association, which relocated the battleship to Pearl Harbor as a memorial and tourist attraction. He is vice chair of the Honolulu Ethics Commission and fundraising chair of Guide Dogs of Hawaii. He is a member of the Society of Attorneys General Emeritus Network and a past member of the SECNAV Retiree Council, trustee of Menlo College, director of the Armed Services YMCA of Hawaii, director of the Friends of Pearl Harbor, president of the Navy League’s Pacific Region and Honolulu Council, chairman and president of Diamond Head Theatre, and president of the Naval Reserve Association’s Pearl Harbor Chapter.
Born in Honolulu, Lilly said his great-grandparents came to the island in the in 1840s and 1850s, one of them becoming attorney general and minister of finance to the king. “We have a long history here and a rich one,” he notes.
He and his wife, Cindy Walter — a world-renowned author of 10 books on quilting — have four children. Lilly also is an author whose first book, “If You Die Tomorrow,” about estate planning was published in 1990 and is on its third printing. Released last fall is “Nimitz at Ease,” a book on how Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz’s relationship with his grandparents helped Nimitz win the Pacific War.
In retirement, he is an avid gardener who cultivates avocados, citrus and other fruit trees on his 3.4-acre property. He and his wife enjoy travel, and he remains a frequent speaker on legal topics at seminars and on radio and television.