By Jo Mathis
Julie Fershtman is president of the State Bar of Michigan and a partner in the firm of Foster, Swift, Collins, and Smith in Farmington Hills. She practices primarily in the areas of insurance defense, insurance coverage, business litigation, premises liability, and sporting and recreational liability. She is also considered to be one of the nation's leading practitioners in equine law. In the American Bar Association she is a vice-chair of a committee of the Tort, Trial and Insurance Practice Section. A frequent author and speaker on legal issues, she has written hundreds of articles, three books, and has lectured at seminars, conventions, and conferences in 27 states on issues involving law, liability, risk management, and insurance.
Mathis: Is being a lawyer everything you hoped it would be back in Emory Law School?
Fershtman: Actually, it's more than I expected. Law school never taught me that a career is truly what you make of it.
The expectation when I graduated 25 years ago was that we'd find jobs in firms, with the government, or in-house at a corporation. Never were we told that we could develop a unique area of practice. Never were we told the benefits of involvement in bar associations. I discovered these on my own years later. In my experience, it was through exploring opportunities that I've found a very fulfilling practice in the law. I love what I do.
Mathis: What is it about trial work that you love so much?
Fershtman: A trial practice instructor in law school once said: "A trial is like a play where you write the script." In some respects, she was right. But in other respects, she wasn't. A trial is a continuing challenge. Witnesses surprise you, forcing you to think on your feet. Trials also allow us to be a bit theatrical. For example, I'll sometimes ask a witness to repeat an answer--pretending that I didn't hear it even though I surely did--just to emphasize that answer to the jury. On other occasions, when a witness testifies in a manner that I know is damaging but for which I cannot object, I've called upon my high school acting experience to keep a stone face in case the jury is looking for a reaction. That isn't easy.
Mathis: You often lecture on liability, insurance, and risk management. How do you keep them glued to their seats?
Fershtman: Well, I really can't say whether an audience is glued or not, but I get plenty of repeat engagements around the country. I like to give the audience a verbal road map of what I intend to cover. Also, I give examples of real-life cases. With 25 years of experience, there are plenty of real-life case studies to share. Audiences get caught up in these interesting, and sometimes tragic, stories. And they're all true.
Mathis: Why did you go into law?
Fershtman: My father, Sidney Fershtman, was an attorney with a general practice in the Detroit area. He died when I was a first-year law student. As I grew up, I saw first-hand the impact he had on his clients. They looked to him for help with family law matters, such as divorces and child custody disputes, and criminal matters. He counseled his clients at tremendously difficult times in their lives and gave them comfort, assurance, and hope. A lawyer's work also seemed fascinating from the "scholarly" side, too, in that answers could be found through statute and case books, and persuasive writing and speaking were essential. Being a lawyer, as I saw it, required a unique combination of skills, including an element of creativity.
Mathis: What do you most hope to accomplish as the 77th president of the 41,500-member State Bar of Michigan?
Fershtman: I will work hard to advance the bar through its Strategic Plan. But as a former solo practitioner for 17 years, joined by an associate for a few of them, I'm committed to enhancing the bar's services that benefit solo and small firm practitioners. One example is the State Bar's Practice Management Resource Center. It offers information on how to manage and market a practice. These difficult financial times have impacted Michigan lawyers, and many are forced to do more with less. This service could help make a positive difference for Michigan lawyers. I also intend to be accessible. My goal is also to listen to members to determine how the bar can better serve our members. Fortunately, the bar is assisted by its recent member survey and Economics of Law Practice Survey. Also, I launched the first-ever State Bar of Michigan president blog--www.sbmpres2012.com--that will chronicle my travels around Michigan and nationally.
Mathis: Your father, the late Sidney Fershtman, was a lawyer and your husband, Robert Bick, is a lawyer. Do you talk about anything other than law in your house?
Fershtman: My husband practices transactional corporate law and mergers and acquisitions law. He knows I'd never understand any of it. And since he has no interest in litigation, I don't discuss my work with him. Our 15-year-old daughter, at least, finds my work interesting. I've been known to test case theories and opening statements on her. She's an insightful kid.
Mathis: Do you have a favorite lawyer joke?
Fershtman: I'm not one to joke about lawyers, but I'll never forget an ad campaign decades ago from a bar association--I think it was the New York State Bar Association. The top of the page stated: "Did You Hear the One About the Lawyer?" You expect a lawyer joke to follow, but you read on to learn something positive about the lawyer pictured -- a volunteer service project he did or a major pro bono case he handled that saved someone's life.
Mathis: What's your idea of the perfect day off?
Fershtman: Day off? I'm a confirmed work-alcoholic so my husband plans our vacations. In the last few years he's arranged family trips to the Middle East, Italy, and New York City. Our daughter is a Broadway theater fan and loves museums and galleries. Each summer we never miss the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
Published: Tue, Jun 12, 2012