Self-Described 'underachiever' still going strong in legal career at 81


By Jo Mathis
Legal News

At the age of 81, Larry Sperling is one of the oldest fulltime working attorneys in the state.

Nonetheless, Sperling insists he’s the slacker in the family.

His oldest son, Michael, founded his own law firm in Milwaukee, is active in many charities, and is the only person in the country who plays national doubles tennis tournaments with his father, his wife, and his daughter.

Another son, Gene, is director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economy Policy, and arguably one of the most powerful men in Washington.

Sperling’s daughter, Anne, an immunologist, is an associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago.

His youngest son, Rick, is the founder and CEO of the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, and has been awarded Detroit Free Press Lifetime Achievement Award.

And his wife of 60 years, Doris, founded Young People’s Theater and the Family Learning Institute among other things, and was one of the founders of Bach Open School.

“So I’m the underachiever,” says Sperling with a smile as he sits in his Ypsilanti law office that looks out on a leafy courtyard. “I think of it like this: I sit here like a wise person with my legs crossed, and all these active people are spinning around me. Every once in a while, they land here and ask me for some advice. And then they go spinning off again.”

Sperling, of Pear, Sperling, Eggan, & Daniels PC, is grateful for a career he still loves, a close family that includes 10 grandchildren, and good health that allows him to play tennis a couple of times a week.

Still, he insists he’s not as happy-go-lucky as he looks.

“I’m definitely a first-class worrier,” he says. “I worry about everything. A friend of mine once wrote an article that said there are people who are always worrying about something. And then when it’s solved, they’re worrying about something else. That’s always been me.”

Sperling grew up in Brooklyn, a mouthy kid who was told his verbal skills would one day serve him well as a lawyer. He met his wife on the train to Ann Arbor, each heading for freshmen year at the University of Michigan. They were married on the day they graduated (the wedding was in her native Miami, so they skipped the actual graduation ceremony).

In 1956, after graduating from the University of Michigan Law School, Sperling was recruited into the Attorney General’s office in Washington, D.C., where he worked for two years.

Then it was back to Ann Arbor, where Sperling worked for himself.

Because of his connections to the local tennis crowd, he pursued a case on behalf of a local teenage girl under the Equal Protection clause of the United States Constitution and was successful in getting her to play on a boys’ high school team.

He was also the first attorney for a young guy interested in going into the pizza business. Tom Monaghan became a friend and client as Sperling watched in amazement as his success took off.

“I think I had a retainer with him of $125 a month,” he says with a laugh. “He was a very hard worker and was upfront and out-front about everything. The only lie I ever heard him tell was that he was a better basketball player than me.”

Nonetheless, Sperling decided corporate law was not his thing.

“There’s something about using your talents to help people instead of helping corporations,” he says. “There just wasn’t the satisfaction and significance (in corporate law). I used to do depositions for a firm in Detroit that did defense work. There was a claim in which a boy riding a bicycle was hit by a truck, and unfortunately the other attorney hadn’t prepared the client. And by the time the deposition was over, I had the boy running into the truck.”

He told the plaintiff’s attorney to settle the case before the deposition was transcribed.

“And I decided I never wanted to do this again,’” he recalls.

In 1985, Sperling joined Pear, Sperling, Eggan, & Daniels PC. He then did a lot of work in personal injury and automobile negligence and workers compensation.

“But between the current Legislature and the current Supreme Court, they have killed the rights of people,” he says, explaining how the Open and Obvious doctrine means victims are to blame if potential hazards could have reasonably been seen. “And it used to be that if you were injured and couldn’t do your own job, you were entitled to workers’ compensation. Now you almost have to prove that you can’t do any job.”

Sperling now does only Social Security disability work, which is satisfying because it so directly helps people.

He works “from 8 to 4 California time.”

In other words: 11 to 7.

“Throughout my career, I’ve gotten much more work done after 5,” says Sperling, who lives in northwest Ann Arbor off Huron River Drive.

His entire clan—children, grandchildren, fiancées and others—spend every Christmas together in a new location for a week or two. Puerto Rico was a recent sunny destination.

Sperling’s pride in his family is obvious, and he is especially happy that they’ve become people who help others.

When the Sperlings visited son Gene at the White House a few times, they were pleased to hear how respected he is there.

“One of the best compliments we ever got was way back when James Carville said, ‘Some people in Washington’—and he hit Gene on the head—‘have it up here. And some people, but many fewer, have it down here,’ tapping his heart. ‘Gene’s the one guy who has both.’”

Throughout his career, Sperling has had only two secretaries. The first was with him for 25 years before she moved to California.

His current secretary has been with him for 28 years and calls her boss the “most fair, caring and humane person” she’s ever met.

“After all these years, I can say that he truly cares about every client and goes above and beyond to do all that he can for them,” said Sharon Wolters, adding that his only downfall is that his jokes aren’t nearly as funny as he thinks they are.

Sperling had a quintuple bypass 26 years ago and a hip replacement a few years ago. Otherwise he’s in good health, and can’t remember the last time he took a sick day.

Those 50 vitamin pills a day might play a part.

“Everybody says it doesn’t work, but I’m still here,” said Sperling.

Sperling says he still practices law for the same reason he still plays tennis.

“This is what makes me happy,” he says, smiling. “This is what makes me useful. They’re going to carry me out. I don’t know when. But that’s what it’s going to be.”