Award-winning law firm is a highly successful family affair

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The first thing you notice is the humor.

In the offices of Wardrop and Wardrop, P.C., brothers Robert “Robb” and Thomas “Mac” Wardrop are continually making jokes at each other’s or their own expense, and their sister/receptionist/general office administrator Becky Yankle gives as good as she gets.

One of the running gags is about the firm officers. Each year they release the information that Robb Wardrop has been elected president and Mac Wardrop vice-president. “I never make president,” Mac complains.

This year Denise Twinney, the third attorney in the firm, was elected treasurer — but then, the Wardrops regard her as part of the clan too.

And to quote Robb, “Our staff has been with all of us for years - they are part of the family.”  Wendy Rouse  is Robb’s secretary, Gwen Hancock serves as an associate paralegal, and Shelli Potter is Mac’s secretary.

And then there’s Lily Wardrop, Mac’s daughter, who fills in as receptionist when she is on break from attending college.

Another running joke is about the Wardrop brothers’ 85-year-old mother. Both brothers says they have never had a serious disagreement over the years, and both swear that is because their mom would have to decide who wins. “And the baby would always win — that’s Mac,” Robb says.

Indeed, Robb, the oldest son (they also have another brother and another sister), started the firm in 1991 and brother Mac did not join him until a year later.

Despite uncertainty about if and when Mac would come along, Robb named it Wardrop and Wardrop after the company their grandparents founded. “We still have their stationery. They were insurance agents up in Mt. Pleasant. Really my grandma ran the firm. My grandpa liked to play,” explains Robb with a smile. “So she let him, while she ran it. But she’d always wanted to be a lawyer, so it’s very cool we’re able to honor her.”

One reason the brothers work so well together is that their specialties complement each other. Mac Wardrop is a civil litigator specializing in commercial and tort trials, who represents “everyone from sophisticated corporations to mom and pop shops,” as well as individuals. Robb Wardrop is a bankruptcy attorney, but as Denise Twinney points out, he is more of a “counselor,” while she does the “behind-the-scenes” work. Or as Robb puts it, “She does the bankruptcies, I do more the workout work and the massaging.”

Robb Wardrop’s long-time service on the Federal Bar at the U.S. Court for the Western District of Michigan recently earned him a distinction when, on July 27, the local Federal Bar Association Bankruptcy Section gave him the Nims-Howard Civility Award.

That award, given “in recognition of conduct, skill and advocacy that exemplifies the tradition of civility of the bench and bar in this District,” was named for early Western District bankruptcy judges David Nims, Jr., and Laurence E. Howard. “I think the honor really goes back to the bankruptcy bar itself. When I started with the bankruptcy bar in the early 1980s it was a small group, and those guys demanded that everybody treat each other civilly, including the judges from Nims and Howard through Jim Gregg, Scott Dales, Joanne Stevenson and Jeff Hughes. Civility permeates the bankruptcy bar. I’m nothing different, as I said in my acceptance speech. The award is given out not as much to the person as to the recognition of what we want the bar to be like.”

Both brothers attended Central Michigan University for their undergraduate degrees (and Robb for a masters as well), and both went to the University of Detroit for their J.D.s.
It is difficult to talk about the Wardrop family, in fact, without mentioning Central Michigan. A 2007 article in the university publication Centralight listed no fewer than 16 Wardrop family members who attended and promoted the college, starting with Malcolm Seth Wardrop Jr., also called Mac, in 1909.

Robb Wardrop taught economics there in the late 1970s before attending law school, and he has served on Central’s Board of Control since 2010.

The elder Wardrop brother’s career started out, after his magna cum laude graduation from University of Detroit, at Landman Luyendyk Latimer Clink and Robb in Muskegon. When Landman merged with Miller Canfield, he became a part of that firm, working in bankruptcy and immigration. “I traveled all over the world – Pakistan, the Phillipines, Thailand, Japan.”

But the lure of his own firm proved irresistible and Wardrop moved on. In the meantime, Mac Wardrop was at the now-defunct Clary Nantz, and he wanted to make partner there before considering joining his brother. “I think most people would like to have their own small firms,” Mac says. “You’re close to the clients, and you’re making the decisions. Our firm meetings are us yelling back and forth from our offices. It was fun at the big firm, but I think this is a less stressful practice.”

Both partners have the highest Martindale-Hubbell ratings, and the firm is a “Best Law Firm” in rakings by U.S. News and World Reports.

Ironically, Robb is probably best-known for serving a client who is a crook by his own admission. Grand Rapids playboy Michael Vorce made his millions by falsely claiming title to dozens of high-end recreational boats and obtaining loans based on those claims. His story was the subject of an episode of CNBC’s American Greed, featuring both Robb Wardrop and local Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Verhey.

After Vorce confessed, overwhelmed by the inability to pay back his debt and sensing the jig was about to be up, he convinced most everyone around him that he was repentant while starting up yet another illegal scheme.

Wardrop played a key role in the unfolding drama. Producers of American Greed asked Vorce, “What made you go to Robb Wardrop and come clean?” He replied from prison, probably disingenuously, “The fraud was beginning to consume me,” according to CNBC. 

Both Wardrop and Verhey come off well in the episode, which ran in February of this year. Comments Mac, “We still keep on getting calls on that.”

Mac Wardrop’s claim to fame is serving as chair of the Michigan Civil Service Commission (CSC), a little-known body which will be heavily impacted by Thursday’s Court of Appeals decision on the Right to Work law.

When asked what the CSC does, Wardrop responded with a wry grin, “Well, up until yesterday, we regulated all the conditions of employment for civil servants in the state other than the top tier of the administration. That includes about 25,000 union employees, so we’re not sure what’s going to happen after this decision.”

What is more certain is that the Wardrop brothers will continue to make a good combination in the legal field. Comments Denise Twinney, who has been at Wardrop and Wardrop almost ten years after working with Robb at Miller Canfield, “They’re absolutely phenomenal people and wonderful, knowledgeable attorneys to work with.” Both Wardrops praise Twinney as well.

Robb Wardrop summarizes the situation by saying, “It’s funny; if you’re going to have a partner having your brother is by far the best way to do it.”