Michael Pangburn – Thor Motor Coach
Ask Michael Pangburn if he foresaw a career as a lawyer, and his answer will likely surprise you.
“I wanted to be an FBI agent and serve my country like my father did in World War II,” he says. “After law school, I took the exam but didn’t hear from the bureau for about two years. By then, it was too late.”
That’s because Pangburn had already begun an in-house legal career that started more than 30 years ago. And he has no plans to stop.
As the general counsel for Thor Motor Coach, a luxury recreational vehicle manufacturer, Pangburn is using the work ethic instilled in him by his father to support the company.
“My time as an in-house counsel has been very enjoyable, and I haven’t risked my life doing it,” he says with a laugh.
About one in four motorhomes sold in the U.S. annually come from Thor Motor Coach, the top motorhome brand in North America. For Pangburn, that means ensuring the legal department meets the needs of the business throughout times of growth, expansion, economic downturn and more.
Consumer protection law can be tough to navigate, so Pangburn created a cache of legal briefs and summaries he and his team refer to when needed. It has made the legal department more efficient while saving Thor Motor Coach time and money.
The legal GPS
As the RV industry continues to change, so does the technology at Pangburn’s disposal. He has a deep passion for using tech to streamline process and improves outcomes across Thor Motor Coach’s operations.
One of the tools Pangburn and his team rely on is Case Tracker, a case management software. This powerful tool allows them to keep track of all litigation matters and the fees associated with each case. They can generate reports and gather metrics to analyze their spending patterns, which helps them identify abnormal spending and take further action.
“We’re now requiring outside counsel to update the status of each matter monthly, which has been a crucial help for us as we make informed decisions about legal strategy and resource allocation,” Pangburn says.
Additionally, the Thor Motor Coach legal team utilizes Westlaw, a comprehensive legal research platform that provides up-to-date information on warranty law decisions across the U.S. Pangburn uses alerts to receive newly published decisions every morning, specifically focusing on cases involving RV companies.
After changing its name from Four Winds International Corporation to Thor Motor Coach, Inc. and its merger with Damon Corporation in 2010, Pangburn says he focused on revising the limited warranty to ensure it provided Thor Motor Coach with a reasonable opportunity to remedy any defects in its products. Pangburn says he knows that having a well-written warranty is essential in defending against aggressive plaintiff attorneys.
“We also reviewed and revised our warranty registration process, recognizing the importance of giving buyers the chance to read and understand the warranty before signing on the dotted line,” he says.
The crystal ball for Thor legal
Pangburn says several legal projects are on the horizon for 2024. One main goal is to standardize how outside attorneys input their fees. The hope is that this will provide better metrics and enable more informed decision-making regarding legal expenses.
The inflation of hourly fees emphasizes the need to keep billable hours low by performing more legal work in-house—this is not only a cost-saving measure but is also aligned with the company’s commitment to resolving disputes quickly and efficiently. Keeping customers satisfied and minimizing legal expenses are key objectives for the future, Pangburn says.
“The longer it takes to resolve a dispute, the more difficult it is to retain that buyer as a customer,” he notes.
Advancements in recreational vehicles have brought about new legal challenges. Integrating electronics in RVs allows owners to operate various systems remotely using their smartphones. That means there is a need to constantly address privacy rights and data protection issues.
Thor Motor Coach’s legal department now has a data privacy rights expert on staff to handle the different laws in different states.
“Many states have laws governing who has rights to the data stored in vehicle computer systems that record data,” Pangburn says. “Because these components are high-tech, the need for more employees with advanced degrees has increased.”
The career he always wanted
A native of Goshen, Indiana, Pangburn first became interested in law in middle school when he visited a local Goshen law firm for career day. He says he chose to attend Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, because of its strong track record of students getting accepted to law school—over 90 percent. As a former Indiana high school football all-star player, it helped that Wittenberg was a Division III national champion.
He earned a Juris Doctor from Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana and has spent over three decades in the RV industry. He joined Thor Motor Coach in 2007.
“My college professors, especially at Wittenberg University made me a better student, writer, and person,” he recalls. “I’m forever grateful to all who helped me achieve this career.”
In addition to his day job leading the legal operations for Thor Motor Coach, Pangburn is an adjunct law professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School. He says he enjoys the classroom discussion, the willingness of his students to be engaged and involved and the opportunity to prepare them to be the next generations of lawyers and UCC practitioners.
He is trying to get his students to understand the importance of the written word and the law. Pangburn says he reads many articles and books about writing and is working on a paper that addresses little-known sections of the Uniform Commercial Code. He says he’ll have his daughter Madison, an associate lawyer at Gordon & Rees in Cleveland and a terrific writer, edit the piece—the young teaching the old.
“I have an engraving on my desk that says, ‘no one is more definitely about the solution than the one that doesn’t understand the problem,’” Pangburn says. “My life’s goal has always been to understand the problem.”
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