By Sheila Pursglove
Attorney Robert Riley enjoys litigation as just one aspect of a greater problem-solving process.
“Clients hire lawyers because they have a problem that needs to be solved—not because they love going to court,” he says. “Sometimes litigation is the best option, but oftentimes, there are multiple ways to solve the problem without having to resort to a lawsuit.
“I like the challenge of helping craft solutions that are economical, practical, and make sense for my clients’ businesses. Winning in court is obviously important and a fun part of the job, but going to court is not necessarily the goal at the beginning of the day.”
A member of the Litigation Department at Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP in Detroit, Riley spent the better part of 2014 successfully litigating a breach of contract dispute arising out of a U.S. Navy patrol boat shipbuilding program, obtaining a $5.8 million judgment, plus attorney’s fees, for an international manufacturer.
Currently he is working on a trademark dispute involving energy drinks. On the commercial side, he deals with troubled automotive suppliers and is working on an emergency supply dispute on behalf of GM.
“I love learning about different industries—they’re all unique and present different challenges and opportunities,” he says.
A member of Honigman’s Value Team, Riley explains that when clients hear the word ‘value’ they often think that means low cost.
“Our approach to value is much deeper than that—we focus not just on price, but also on proportionality, resource allocation, communication, predictability, and efficiencies that most firms gloss over,” he explains.
“Our attorney-led Value Team is unique not just among Detroit law firms, but among firms across the country,” he adds. “I was fortunate that Carl Herstein, the Chief Value Partner, and Joe Sgroi, the Associate Chief Value Partner, were interested in expanding their team. Working with them affords me the opportunity to put the financial and managerial skills I learned in business school to good use.”
Riley also serves on the firm’s Summer Associate Committee – “Probably the coolest part of my job,” he says. “Working alongside and recruiting law students is great. There are so many talented students out there and I enjoy telling them about the work I do and how they can have a meaningful impact on their clients, on the community, and on their careers by joining Honigman – plus we get to check out all of the exciting stuff going on in Detroit along the way. This summer, we had a blast kayaking on the Detroit River, fowling in Hamtramck, learning to cook at Mire Poix in Royal Oak, and hitting some of the great new restaurants around the city.”
Riley followed in the footsteps of his father, the founder and managing partner at Riley & Hurley, P.C., in Dearborn.
“Watching him grow the breadth and depth of his practice through years of hard work was inspirational,” he says. “My mom is a high school teacher and administrator at Detroit Country Day School and has always impressed on me that I should help other people. The combination of their work, along with a motivation to stay in school as long as possible, got me thinking that law school made sense.”
Riley earned his juris doctor, cum laude, from Wayne Law School, where he was founding president of the WSU Law School Chapter of the Federal Bar Association.
“Getting to know my classmates and professors was my favorite part of law school,” he says. “Now that I’m working in Detroit, I get to see lots of them in practice, whether they’re on the opposite side of a case or we’re working together. It’s great to see how successful so many of them have become, and I think that speaks volumes about the quality of education Wayne Law provides.”
Moot Court provided his first exposure to forming, drafting, and presenting arguments before a court.
“Thankfully, the judges were my classmates, but their feedback was invaluable and I’m glad I got to practice in front of them,” he says. “I try to make it back to Wayne each year to judge moot court competitions – the students now are a lot better than I was.”
Three internships each added a layer of experience that has shaped his career, he notes.
“Working with Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm provided unique insight into governmental leadership,” he says. “U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds was my first legal boss – she took the time to give meaningful feedback to each of her interns and convinced me I should pursue a judicial clerkship after law school. Working with the Assistant U.S. Attorneys at the Department of Justice provided invaluable trial court exposure.
“Looking back, I would choose the same internships if I could do law school all over again.”
Following law school, Riley clerked for Michigan Supreme Court Justices Marilyn Kelly and Bridget McCormack.
“The best mentors I could have asked for,” he says. “Justice Kelly took a chance on me coming out of law school. She initially hired me for one year, but I somehow convinced her to let me hang around for four and a half years. Her patience allowed me to grow as a legal writer and more importantly, as a thinker. Too often, we rush to judgment without understanding the entire picture. Justice Kelly’s patience and understanding really impressed me.
“Justice McCormack is just awesome – she was willing to let me stick around following my clerkship with Justice Kelly and help train her initial clerks and assist with her transition to the bench,” he adds. “I was only with her for a couple of months, but I didn’t want to leave. She’s also super smart and down to earth—a combination that is grossly underappreciated and really makes her shine as a Justice. Michigan is lucky to have her on the court.”
After Justice Kelly impressed upon Riley the huge, underserved need for family law attorneys in Michigan, he jumped at the chance to get involved in drafting an amicus brief in a family law case during his first few months at Honigman. Since then, he has deepened the firm’s relationship with several local legal aid programs to ensure their views are shared with Michigan courts, and is continuing to build the pro bono amicus practice at the firm.
“We have a steady flow of cases in which our pro bono clients seek our advice,” he says. “Even though we don’t always represent a party-in-interest, it’s rewarding to advocate on behalf of families, children, and the otherwise underserved. Plus, it’s a great way for lawyers to make a difference in cases that aren’t about dollars and cents.”
Riley’s work on pro bono family law matters led to his involvement with the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy (CFA) that provides legal advocacy and social work services to low-income families to prevent the unnecessary placement and prolonged stay of children in foster care.
“Working at a business law firm is great, and Honigman gives its attorneys the flexibility to pursue personal interests too,” says Riley, who currently serves as president of the CFA board of directors.
Riley, who earned his undergrad degree from the University of Michigan, returned to Wolverine territory two years after his law degree to earn his MBA, with high distinction, from the Ross School of Business.
“I wanted to better understand finance and why businesses make the decisions they do,” he says. “Lawyers are only helpful to the extent they truly understand a client’s issues – I wouldn’t be an asset to my clients if I practiced commercial litigation in a vacuum and didn’t appreciate the motivations and business justifications behind their choices. Another couple of years of Michigan football tickets wasn’t a bad motivation either.
And I use the financial, managerial, and practical skills I picked up at Ross on a daily basis.”
In his leisure time, the life-long Birmingham resident enjoys tennis, hockey, golf, and skiing, as well as playing the piano. He manages Honigman’s hockey team and plays in a USTA Tennis League.
“And on occasion, you can find me putting divots in otherwise nice golf courses,” he says.
A volunteer at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, and a member of the DIA’s Founders Junior Council, Riley also serves on the United Way Emerging Philanthropist Leadership Committee.
“The program is a great way to get involved and be active in the community,” he says. “We’ve got lots of unique events throughout the year to engage like-minded people who are interested in leading change in Detroit and its surrounding areas. Downtown Detroit’s rebirth gets lots of great press, but there are still so many areas of need that go unnoticed.”
Litigator enjoys crafting solutions for his clients
By Sheila Pursglove