Mike Ciresi, the hard-nosed courtroom battler who engineered a $7.1 billion settlement against Big Tobacco but could not win the hearts and minds of Minnesota voters, is going a new direction.

Ciresi and the law firm Robins Kaplan Miller Ciresi announced Tuesday that a 44-year relationship that tackled corporate greed, deception and malfeasance is over.

Ciresi and two Robins Kaplan partners, veteran litigators Jan Conlin and Katie Crosby Lehmann, have formed their own firm, Ciresi & Conlin.

The parting was described as amicable by both Ciresi and Robins Kaplan executive board chair Martin Lueck.

In the course of his career, Ciresi, 68, was involved in verdicts and settlements exceeding $12 billion for clients ranging from Honeywell and Kraft Foods to the government of India. In 1997, he was named one of the "100 most influential lawyers in America" by the National Law Journal.

Ciresi is perhaps best known for taking on Big Tobacco in the 1990s and clinching a $7.1 billion settlement on behalf of the state of Minnesota and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota in 1998 after a bruising four-month trial.

"This is not like usual partings. I spent my whole career here and helped build the firm," Ciresi said in an interview. "It's bittersweet for a lot of folks, but they understand. The law these days calls for more flexibility and a larger firm carries some restraints."

With Ciresi's departure, Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi will officially change its name to Robins Kaplan. The firm remains a formidable national legal presence with more than 220 attorneys.

"From our standpoint, over the last five years we've strengthened the practice to the point where we have more front-line trial attorneys than we've every had," Lueck said. "Mike did so much to help many of us get started in our careers and it was hard to ask him to do more."

Ciresi said he and the Robins team have been discussing his departure for several months.

Ciresi & Conlin will open its doors in Capella Towers in downtown Minneapolis on Feb. 1. Ciresi said his new firm will partner with other firms on various cases. He said the firm will practice in the area of big-stakes litigation, mass tort law and patent litigation. He did not rule out jointly handling cases with Robins Kaplan.

"On a smaller platform you can collaborate with other firms and be able to bring unique skill sets to the table," Ciresi added.

In addition to the tobacco case, Ciresi won $500 million for Honeywell against Minolta, $2.7 billion for Kraft Foods against Starbucks, $500 million for the government of India after the disastrous 1985 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal and $38 million for women injured by the Dalkon Shield IUD.

"Ciresi has a national reputation and an international reputation as one of the most accomplished trial lawyers, period," said Peter Knapp, an advocacy professor at the William Mitchell College of Law. "He's a smart, hardworking, strategic thinker."

Ciresi has also been an active figure in Democratic politics in Minnesota, though unsuccessful in his attempts to run for office.

In 2000, he lost to Mark Dayton in the DFL primary for U.S. Senate, one of the costliest primaries in state history. Ciresi contributed $2.6 million to his campaign and loaned it another $1.5 million but was still outspent by Dayton.

In 2008, Ciresi again ran for Senate but he dropped out of the DFL Party endorsement contest that eventually went to Al Franken, who was elected later that year. Ciresi said his new firm will devote a portion of its revenue to philanthropic causes in education. Ciresi also will remain head of the Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi Foundation for Children, which was formed in 1999 from proceeds of the tobacco case.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269