Labor arbitrator attorney the longest-serving faculty member at MSU College of Law
By Sheila Pursglove
For almost six decades, George T. Roumell Jr. has taught labor and arbitration law at Michigan State University College of Law (formerly Detroit College of Law). More than 3,500 students have taken his courses; and some that went on to fame include Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Robert Colombo Jr.; trial attorney Geoffrey Fieger; former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer; Dan Downey, who became a judge in Texas; and a slew of judges on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, including Lawrence Zatkoff, Patrick Duggan, Marianne Battani, and Bernard Friedman.
“I enjoy teaching because I enjoy meeting the future lawyers of Michigan and the country,” Roumell says. “It’s fun to meet former students and see their progress in the profession.”
A senior partner with Riley and Roumell in Detroit, Roumell started teaching in the mid ‘50s. After clerking for Michigan Supreme Court Justice Edward Sharpe, he became a law clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Theodore Levin, and—at Levin’s urging—taught legal research and civil procedure at the University of Detroit School of Law.
When Dean Charles King approached him in 1959 to succeed a departing labor law professor at DCL, Roumell jumped at the opportunity.
He has seen a lot of growth and changes at MSU Law over the decades. In 1959, the night program was a strong and vital part of the law school, he notes. In those days, courses were more limited, concentrating on traditional common law subjects along with some specialties such as labor law and antitrust law.
“Today there are more specialized courses and the curriculum has expanded, with topics such as Alternative Dispute Resolution—not taught in 1957—added,” he says. “Also, today’s MSU Law student body has a more national representation than in 1959 when students mostly came from Southeastern Michigan.”
In addition to devoting years to teaching, Roumell is a generous benefactor to MSU Law and a scholarship was established in his name.
His own student days were spent at Harvard Law School, as he headed for a law career in the footsteps of two uncles: Stephen T. Roumell, DCL Class of ‘31, and Judge Thomas Roumell. It was a far cry from his family roots in the restaurant business.
“I decided I wasn’t fit to be in the restaurant business and believed the alternative was law,” he says,
At Harvard, he had the privilege of studying labor law under Professor Archibald Cox—later the special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal. A seminar from Cox—in addition to his regular course—resulted in a paper written with a fellow student on preemption under the National Labor Relations Act.
“This paper was later published, piquing my interest in labor law, particularly because it was a highly people-oriented area of the practice of law,” he says.
In 1968, Roumell and two partners opened Riley and Roumell PC in downtown Detroit where he focused on the niche of labor law.
A Detroit native and graduate of the Detroit Public Schools, he has worked for 30 years with the Detroit Board of Education.
“I’ve enjoyed the great educators I met and the fine individuals I had the privilege of working with,” he says. “I came to appreciate that the Detroit Public Schools do a good job under difficult circumstances.”
In a landmark case, Roumell handled the remedy stage of the Bradley v. Milliken class action suit filed in August 1970 by parents of Detroit school students and by the Detroit Branch of the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP) against the Michigan State Board of Education and various other state officials. The suit dealt with the planned desegregation busing of Detroit public school students.
“Bradley v. Milliken, particularly when we came to the Detroit-only remedy, allowed the opportunity to develop some creative educational concepts, including developing magnet schools, still in existence in Detroit, and the four vocational high schools that are just outstanding, producing outstanding students,” he says. “It was a thrilling time in working with the board and on Bradley v. Milliken and the opportunity to appear before the Supreme Court.”
Since 1977, Roumell has served as the umpire under the various collective bargaining agreements between the Detroit Police Officers Association and the City of Detroit Police Department, and has written more than 6,000 arbitration opinions.
“The issues presented have been a challenge, and given me insight into the operation of a modern police force and department,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed the challenge and the opportunity to address the problems that have come before me. I’ve also done similar work with the Chicago Police Department and the Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge No. 7 and have had the same experience and reaction.”
In his early days in private practice, Roumell participated in arbitration as an advocate. He eventually began arbitrating as an arbitrator, something he now does full time, and is a member of the National Academy of Arbitrators.
Instrumental in the 1959 founding of the Institute of Continuing Legal Education in Ann Arbor, Roumell also is the author of “Roumell’s Primer on Labor Arbitration,” and co-author of, “Absenteeism and the Impact of the Family and Medical Leave Act.” He enjoys the challenges arbitration and mediation presents in the lives of people, companies, and governmental units.
“The issues being presented seem always to be one of a kind, presenting new challenges,” he says. “There’s nothing boring about arbitration or mediation—there’s something new almost every day.”
Alternate Dispute Resolution is important because many disputes cannot be handled by the court system because of their nature, he explains. “ADR also is less expensive than extensive legal litigation, more expeditious and can resolve problems promptly. In addition, as our society becomes more complex, compared to the rural society that was once the cornerstone of our nation, there are just not enough courts to handle all the disputes that arise in a modern industrial and technological society.”
Roumell, who serves on the rosters of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, American Arbitration Association, and Michigan Employment Relations Commission, has been honored with numerous prestigious awards, including the Frank Murphy Award from the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association; Robert P. Hudson Award from the State Bar of Michigan; Whitney North Seymour Award for Contributions to the Field of Labor Arbitration from the American Arbitration Association; and the Distinguished Service Award from the Labor and Employment Law Section.
President of the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association from 1973-74, Roumell served as 51st president of the State Bar of Michigan from 1985-86—a time when lawyers were getting some bad press.
“My challenge was to reverse this trend and to improve the public image of the bar and also to bring self-respect to the lawyers themselves,” he says.
To that end, Roumell created the Michigan Legal Milestones plaques, commemorating famous legal cases or events and reminding people of the importance of the role of law and the activities of lawyers. There are now more than 30 plaques throughout the state—including one for Bradley v. Milliken.
Under his leadership, the Michigan Bar Journal was upgraded, and its cover always contained works of art to emphasize the value of art in the life of Michiganders. Roumell addressed pressing legal issues in his Journal column, “Roumell’s Remedies for a Better Legal System.” His tenure also saw the creation of the Champion of Justice Award.
“It was a challenge to be a leader of the state’s lawyers and I enjoyed it,” he says.
Roumell still practices in the heart of Detroit, on Griswold Street.
“I’ve always practiced in Downtown Detroit—I think it’s the place to be,” he says. “I enjoy meeting fellow lawyers, judges who are part of the legal scene, and I enjoy being part of the revitalization of Detroit.”