Friday Feature: Taming of the Screw: Area law office proves more than satis-factory

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Pardon Gary Saretsky while he rakes his office. It’s one of the hazards of the job.

He prefers to see it as a perk, however.

His outlook is part of the casual, refreshing, almost irrepressible atmosphere that permeates the offices of Saretsky Hart Michaels & Gould in Birmingham’s revamped “Rail District” on the east side of the city.

Saretsky, a founding shareholder of the firm and an attorney since 1980, works in a garage. It fits his unassuming style quite nicely, especially on a warm spring day when he can raise the garage door, opening up the south side of his office to the glory of the afternoon sun – and an occasional leaf that blows in.

As law offices go, the one story brick building at the corner of Eton and Cole Street sports an interesting past. It used to be a screw factory.

Eric Michaels, a partner in the firm, is not one to hide from the history of the place, especially when it can be spiced with humor.

Rather, Michaels and his law partners see value in embracing the past, even at the expense of inviting half-baked and otherwise lame jokes about attorneys and that five-letter “S” word.

“We’ve heard them all and a few more,” Michaels says of the jokes from amateur pundits. “We pride ourselves on having a healthy sense of legal humor.”

Now, three years after settling in to their new legal digs, Saretsky, Michaels, and their partners Miles Hart and Karen Gould can truly enjoy the last laugh.

Nobody in their right mind would joke, “They’re screwed,” for taking on the monumental task of rehabbing a run-down factory.

“One of the beauties of the project is that we began with a blank canvas, so we enjoyed a sense of freedom in designing an office that reflected our philosophy and our tastes,” says Saretsky, a University of Michigan grad who earned his law degree from Wayne State University. “We especially like that this office has an abundance of natural light. It helps brighten our days here.”

Philosophically speaking, the look of the office contrasts quite sharply with the focus of the firm’s practice. The artsy, somewhat avant-garde appearance at 995 Eton would seemingly be at odds with a firm that specializes in the high stakes world of securities litigation and arbitration. A stuffed shirt Wall Street firm it is not.

“We didn’t need a huge office space to make an impression on our clients,” says Saretsky. “We were looking for a compact space that would enable us to keep our fees at a reasonable level. Our clients certainly can appreciate that desire.”

Equally important, the firm’s brain trust wanted to provide a pleasant, upbeat, and interesting work environment for its staff, complete with plenty of free parking spaces nearby.

“If we were located in downtown Birmingham, we would be allotted four parking spaces for our employees, while everyone else would have to fend for themselves,” says Michaels. “The question would then become where we would draw that line. It wouldn’t be fair and it would work a hardship. We’re not into that.”

Instead, the firm has created a somewhat Google-like headquarters for its staff of 14, including eight attorneys. There are balloons (some 10,000, in fact), assorted jars of candy, Nerf basketball, HD TVs, and opportunities to play various games of Wii in the comfort of a “mosh pit.” Friday barbecues are a regular summer feature come lunchtime. Perhaps someday there will be beach volleyball.

“We’ll look into that,” says Miles Hart with a wink.

At 6 feet, 6 inches tall, Hart would cast an imposing presence if indeed such a plan was hatched. The Wayne State law grad, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University, says that he gladly deferred to his three partners when the design of the office was taking shape.

“We all knew better than to involve me too much in that process,” he grins, instead remaining singularly focused on his work defending claims involving fraud, misrepresentation, churning, and other securities matters.

The last name on the firm’s letterhead deserves much of the credit for the artistic touch of the place, her partners agree. Karen Gould, a U-M alum with a law degree from Wayne State, has an eye for art, helping pick out distinctive pieces that add color and intrigue to the office.

Gould and Saretsky began their quest with a budgetary principle in mind – “art on a shoestring.” As such, one of the first places they looked was at an exhibit showcasing student works from the Detroit College for Creative Studies.

Then there was some homegrown artistic talent to accent. Gould’s niece, Melissa Gildenberg, a pre-med student at U-M, and her sister-in-law, Jolie Altman, both have eye-catching works featured in the office.

“Their styles and their creativity really add luster to our office collection,” says Gould, an attorney since 1991 and an editor of the law review at Wayne State.

Altman, a Birmingham artist, created a truly uplifting piece for the law firm’s collection, a striking 10,000-balloon masterpiece that welcomes visitors in the front entryway to the office. The balloons are in deflated form, of course. And to be precise, Michaels believes the number now falls short of five figures.

“I think my kids have plucked a few of the balloons,” he admits.

They, like others young and old, also probably have raided the candy jars just down the hallway. The sugar-coated wall is lined with some 30 jars of treats, ranging from M & M’s to Snickers bars to chewy Bit-O-Honey.

“That wall has helped diffuse a lot of contentious matters,” says Saretsky with a smile. “It has a way of putting people in a good mood, no matter what they’ve just been through.”

To the back of the building hang several more conversation-starting pieces of art. Foremost is a gigantic leather briefcase, complete with “size 92” men’s briefs, neatly tucked away inside. It was a gift from a satisfied client, says Saretsky.

In a nearby conference room is a map of the Continental United States, carved together with vintage license plates. In the main conference room is a giant antique wheel, positioned alongside a rocket ship loaded with gumballs. The rocket was an office-warming gift from a friend of Gould’s and was a prophetic sign that the firm’s practice would “take off.”

It has, due largely to the legal expertise they share and their expressed desire to create a work atmosphere where the sky’s the limit. Each Friday, during the warm weather months, the firm’s staff gathers outside for a lunchtime barbecue, sharing tasty summer dishes and a sense of togetherness.

“It’s our Crazy Glue,” Saretsky says of the summer rituals.

This feature first appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of MOTION Magazine.