Up to the Task: Attorney ready to 'roll up sleeves' for good of her clients and OCBA

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

While age-wise she is squarely planted in the “fortysomething” category, attorney Kari Melkonian is known by some as the “ultimate Oakland County ‘insider,’” a label she has earned while working in various legal roles since she was a high school student at Waterford Mott.

That title has taken on added luster in the past five years, thanks to her involvement with the Oakland County Bar Association as a key board member and as an equity partner at Collins Einhorn, the Southfield based firm that is marking its 50th anniversary this year.

“She began her professional career in the Oakland County Courthouse while still in high school,” said Mike Sullivan, a past president of the OCBA and the former managing partner at Collins Einhorn. “She knows the court system from the inside and out, having served as a judicial assistant, law clerk, and research attorney. No one knows the court system like Kari, having practically grown up in it.”

As such, said Sullivan, Melkonian is “truly a self-made professional, having worked to put herself through undergraduate and law school” at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, where she graduated in 2008.

“Kari is a connector, and has a way of bringing people together,” Sullivan indicated. “No one knows more people than Kari, and she attracts a crowd of friends and admirers wherever she goes. She is very well regarded by the members of the bench in both Oakland and Wayne counties. Indeed, she counts many members of the bench as her colleagues and friends.

“Kari is also a fearless litigator,” Sullivan added, referring to her role in the general liability group for the firm. “She knows her way around a lawsuit, and how best to protect her client’s interests while maintaining professional relationships with all the other lawyers on the case, including opposing counsel. It’s perhaps the ultimate compliment when you can call your competitors and opposing counsel your friends, and when the feeling is mutual.”

Melkonian grew up in Waterford, where her parents Shirley and Mike raised a family of three children, including two boys, David and Scotty. Her mother worked as a beautician before retirement, while her father operates a floor covering business in Clarkston with his son Scotty.

“My parents are salt-of-the-earth and have been incredibly supportive throughout my life,” said Melkonian, just the second in her family to attend college. “They have been wonderful role models for me and my older brothers.”

Her climb to the legal profession was along a steep and obstacle-lined path, much of it carved by her own doing.

“I was not much of a student in high school,” Melkonian admitted. “I barely graduated, in fact.”

And yet, for all her struggles in high school, Melkonian did have a seemingly far-fetched dream of one day attending law school.

“I watched a lot of law programs on TV, and I was fascinated that you could start and end a case in the span of 30 minutes,” she said with a smile. “Those programs, silly as it may sound, really sparked my interest in pursuing law school.”

But first, she had to convince her parents that she was worthy of attending college – and a community college at that.

“They about fainted when I told them that I wanted to go to college,” Melkonian said. “They were cautious enough to say it would be better if I tried the community college route instead.”

So, she did, enrolling in the night program at Oakland County Community College while working at the Oakland County Courthouse in several entry level positions with the probate and juvenile court divisions.

At age 19, she landed a job as a court clerk for Probate Court Judge Barry Grant, where she worked for the next three years while pursuing a college degree. Melkonian then worked for Probate Judge Linda Hallmark as a court clerk, spending the next decade in that role before she was hired by Oakland County Circuit Judge Martha Anderson as her judicial staff attorney.

It would be a six-year stay where Melkonian got a taste of the Family Division of the Circuit Court as well as the Civil/Criminal Division, affording her the “opportunity to prove myself as a young lawyer,” she said.

During that time, she had the good fortune of collaborating with Judy Cunningham, then Corporation Counsel for Oakland County, as defense counsel on a professional ethics matter. Cunningham, who served as president of the OCBA from 2013-14, soon would become a big fan of the up-and-coming lawyer.

“My first impression of Kari was that she was incredibly bright, articulate, well-versed in the law, an excellent speaker and writer, not to mention her enthusiastic ‘roll up the sleeves’ attitude to get the job done,” said Cunningham, who worked for the county for more than three decades before retiring in 2014. “After several months working together, our collaborative efforts resulted in a dismissal of the case in our favor.”

Cunningham, who had long been involved in bar association activities, then invited Melkonian to follow suit.

“I was so impressed with Kari’s abilities that I encouraged her to become active in the OCBA for which I then served as president-elect,” Cunningham related. “I asked Kari to serve as vice chair of the OCBA’s Criminal Law Committee, which meant she would move up to be its chairperson the following year.

“Kari enthusiastically agreed to serve, and since taking on that initial leadership role, she has been a driving force in the county bar,” Cunningham said. “Kari now serves as an elected member of the OCBA board of directors. She is definitely a mover and shaker in the bar association. She takes on challenges with enthusiasm and gusto. She views them as opportunities for learning, growth, and expanding her legal abilities and career.”

After some two decades in government work, Melkonian opted to apply for an opening in the private sector with Collins Einhorn in 2014, she indicated.

“I had some dealings with them over the years, and I was really impressed with their work and how they treated people,” Melkonian said of the firm and its culture. “I knew it would be a longshot to get the job, but I figured that my range of experience and body of work would at least give me a chance.”

She figured right, thanks in part to a “good word or two” from Cunningham, who quickly had become one of Melkonian’s chief cheerleaders.

“Kari confided to me that she was looking for a new job and that she had applied to work at Collins Einhorn,” Cunningham explained. “I contacted two of its major partners to share my thoughts about Kari. I explained that my intent was not to interfere with their firm’s hiring decisions, but that I was so confident Kari would be a stellar addition to their practice they would be missing out if they didn’t hire her. The firm hired Kari – a great match for all.”

And for the OCBA, which in 2020 honored Melkonian with its Distinguished Service Award in recognition of “exceptional voluntary service to benefit the organization.”

For Melkonian, her work with the OCBA and other community organizations has become a “labor of love” and totally enriching experiences.

“There are few things as gratifying as helping out on behalf of a good cause,” said Melkonian, who counts the Upper Peninsula among her favorite travel destinations. “There are so many needs in the community that it’s imperative we all get involved.”

Which is why officials at Collins Einhorn trumpeted the news that Melkonian was the recipient of the Distinguished Service Award last year.

“Kari is passionate about her community and volunteers her time in many activities and charities, including various animal rescue organizations, and as a speaker to volunteers of a women’s shelter regarding the Personal Protection Order process,” the firm said in a prepared statement. “Every year, Kari participates as a volunteer for the University of Detroit High School Mock Trial Team program and has volunteered as a judge in various high school, college, and law school mock trial competitions. Kari was also an adjunct instructor at Baker College of Auburn Hills, where she taught research and writing, and family law courses to students in the paralegal program.”