Profile in Brief: Improbable Path

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

When he was an eighth grade drop-out and runaway, Joel Newman couldn't imagine living to 21, much less to his present 63.

And because he never did get a high school diploma or GED, he couldn't quite imagine getting a law degree at the age of 37, either.

Newman, who just opened his own practice in Birmingham this summer, figures that while he's accomplished a lot so far, he still has a way to go. His partner of 22 years, J. Leonard Hyman, died in July at the age of 89 after practicing law for 64 years.

"So I have a little ways to catch up on him," he said.

Newman left home in Cincinnati in 1962, in the middle of the eighth grade. When he first got to California, he went to the Union Rescue Mission, his first home away from home.

After living there about a month, he got a job as a busboy and moved out. In 1976, someone he knew at Chrysler helped him get a job in Highland Park as a mechanic.

But four years after Newman moved to Michigan, Lee Iacocca took over the failing company and Newman was among the first 20 percent of employees laid-off.

What seemed like a blow at the time became a turning point to a new life.

He received government benefits and trade adjustment assistance, which he used to first audit a couple of classes at Wayne State, and then enroll after excelling on an S.A.T. test.

The former UAW officer majored in labor studies with a minor in Spanish.

College was difficult, but he studied hard. The first time he had to write a paper, he called a friend, who taught him how to do it long-distance.

When Newman told a Wayne State counselor he wanted to go to law school, he "kind of laughed at me," Newman recalled.

"I didn't have any education. I hadn't finished the eighth grade, and he wasn't sure I could do it," he said, noting that he saw the practice of law as an empowering way to do something useful for people.

That counselor must have been impressed when Newman graduated at the top of his class, with high distinction, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Newman's performance at Wayne and LSAT test scores qualified him for admission to the prestigious University of Michigan Law School with a partial scholarship.

Law school in leafy, cerebral Ann Arbor was a different world from working as a mechanic in Highland Park.

"I'd never been around so many smart people in my life," recalled Newman, whose divorce during his first year made him a single father with a12-year-old daughter.

In 1985, Newman joined the Birmingham law firm, Carson Fischer Potts and Hyman. In 1991, with J. Leonard Hyman, Norman Lippitt and others, he helped form Hyman Lippitt, P.C. and worked with whom he believes were some of the best lawyers in the state.

In one case, he represented a local real estate developer in an action against a major life insurance company and its subsidiary for breach of a joint venture agreement to acquire a high-rise building in Miami, Fla. After a jury trial lasting three weeks, his clients were awarded $5 million.

In another case upheld by the Court of Appeals, he obtained a fraud verdict involving employee medical insurance. The jury awarded his client, a corporation, double its actual damages and attorneys' fees.

He has participated in numerous shareholder and family disputes, at least two of which involved more than a billion dollars in assets, and has obtained many multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements for his clients.

When Hyman passed away this summer, Hyman Lippitt went through a transitional period and Newman realized this was a good time to start his own firm.

"I really wanted more freedom in terms of the cases I take and the people I represent. I wanted to do more pro bono work, more contingency work than the firm was doing," he said.

Headquartered in the former Hyman Lippitt building in downtown Birmingham, H. Joel Newman, PLLC is a business law firm specializing in business law and business litigation, including malpractice, fraud, breach of contract, shareholder disputes and securities fraud.

He shares his office with 15 lawyers, and works with them on a case-by-case basis.

Being boss is a big change, largely because of the administrative functions involved, and because he is working harder than ever.

"But it feels very good," he says. "I've already taken on a couple of (family law) cases I wouldn't have been able to take with Hyman Lippitt just because there's not a lot of money in them."

"I got help from the government for a couple of years going to school, and it's my religious belief that I have a responsibility to give back."

Newman lives in Franklin, with his wife, Viola, a court reporter he met in trial in 1989, and their daughter, Sarah Aijing, 7, and son, Mandell, 8. He is active in his Unitarian Universalist church, and says this is a wonderful time in his life.

Published: Wed, Sep 14, 2011