Former judge will spearhead mediation practice for Garan Lucow Miller



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Many of the skills needed to be a successful rural judge transfer well to the practice of mediation and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).

Terrence R. Thomas was a judge in Newaygo County for 36 years, and Garan Lucow Miller’s Grand Rapids office, and its clients, will now benefit from what he learned while on the bench.

Says David Couch, Grand Rapids Co-Managing Partner for Garan Lucow Miller, “When we learned that the judge was retiring, we were so excited to have the opportunity to have him join us and do facilitation and mediation work. We couldn’t think of anyone else who would do a better job.”

Garan Lucow Miller retains the names of its founders. Back in 1948, after meeting at Wayne State University School of Law, Daniel L. Garan, Milton Lucow and Albert A. Miller put together a Detroit office, and up until recently Michigan has been the sole home for the firm’s expansion plans.

In order to ensure that clients would deal with attorneys local to them who are well familiar with the local legal scene, the firm strategically opened in locations around the state: there are offices in Ann Arbor, Grand Blanc, Lansing, Marquette, Port Huron, Traverse City, and Troy, in addition to the original Detroit office and the one in Grand Rapids, at 300 Ottawa.

As part of a drive to become more of a Great Lakes regional firm,  Garan Lucow Miller opened an office in Merrillville, Indiana. Couch says, “We would love someday to have an office or offices in Ohio as well.”

Historically, Garan Lucow Miller has focused on insurance defense, in particularly personal injury insurance defense. Now, by design, the firm’s practice areas range far and wide, from bankruptcy to Intellectual Property to real estate law.

Some of the practice groups are very specialized, including such diverse areas of law as admiralty and equine — Couch’s co-managing partner David N. Campos participates in the latter.

“Hiring Judge Thomas is part of our diversification. More and more cases are going toward forms of ADR. It’s less costly and it helps clear up court’s dockets. And clients are often happier,” says Couch, himself an insurance defense attorney who was named a Michigan Super Lawyers “Rising Star” in 2008 and 2009.

Judge Thomas adds, “In so many counties, the courts are overburdened. Now only about one percent of cases filed go to trial.”

Thomas reflects Couch’s enthusiasm for adding mediation and other types of ADR to Garan Lucow Miller’s palette of tools.

“I’ve had 36 years of settling cases, because that’s what a judge does,”?he says, “and I’m glad for the opportunity to continue doing it from a different perspective.”

Thomas’s path from the very small town of Bitely — “my parents owned the Bitely Tavern at one time,” he says — to his career on the bench was fairly direct.

He graduated from a high school in Windsor, Ontario, and went on to Wayne State University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in Education. He then attended Detroit college of law, graduating in 1968.

Even while attending the university, Thomas began his career in public service; he was on the Dearborn Board of Education from 1963 to 1968.

Following law school, he took a job as an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney in Newaygo County. “Back in those days you could prosecute in Newaygo County, and defend in other counties,” Thomas says. He practiced in counties near Newaygo, including Oceana, Mecosta, Lake, Mason, and Kent.

After being elected Prosecuting Attorney for Newaygo in 1977, Thomas ran for the 27th Circuit Court Judge in 1978, taking the bench in 1979.

Over his long career, he was also assigned by the Michigan Supreme Court to serve as a Judge of the Court of Appeals and was given other assignments outside of his Newaygo County jurisdiction. He urged the county to build its current courthouse, construction of which he oversaw, along with supervising the development of the 27th Circuit’s Family Court.

“Our bench was no different than any other, with one exception.  I would take more time because we’re more rural. That meant both that I had the time so I could, and also that so many of the parties needed to keep costs down. So rather than them having another hurdle, which might add another $2000 to the lawsuit, I would spend more time in the chambers dealing face to face with the litigants.
“I used to say I can look out there at everyone in the trial, and see that the lawyers were going to get $300 even if they did $10,000 of work – that’s all these people can pay. So I felt some obligation to the public to minimize the cost and the time,”

The judge handled a wide variety of cases, including some that were complex. When the owners of the Double JJ Resort in Rothbury, who had recently put in a costly water park, reneged on their debt, just one of the many ensuing cases had over 25 litigants. But there were also cases over the years which Judge Thomas felt could best be handled by going out to the farm or homestead. “I’d say, ‘I’ll meet you out there at 5:00. You draw an imaginary line where you think your property dispute is,’ or something like that. I would resolve a lot of those issues that way.”

For Thomas, that hearkens back to a time when there were justices of the peace, a practice abolished in 1969 in Michigan, as well as constables and “fence viewers.”

“The fence viewer would mediate or make a determination in a property or land-based dispute,” he says. “He was more of a mediator, because he didn’t survey, he just went out there and listened to both of the farmers”?— certainly, a precursor to ADR.

Couch says that Garan Lucow Miller attorneys make use of outside mediators frequently, but the firm will be looking at the demands for Judge Thomas’s skills, both here and around the state, to gauge whether it will expand its own mediation and arbitration practice.

Comments Thomas, who served on the bench before no-fault insurance and no-fault divorce, “The law anticipates and always circles back if necessary. With mediation, we’re really going back to our roots.”