Push for greater diversity in the bar marks MAJ president's year in office

By Rick Haglund

Legal News

Richard Warsh didn't always possess a burning desire to become an attorney.

He decided to attend law school mostly because his friends at the University of Michigan were planning to do so after earning their bachelor's degrees. And he thought his high school debating experience could help him in a legal career.

"I wish I could tell you that I had a great passion for the law from the time I was 12 years old, but I can't," Warsh said with a grin during an interview in his Southfield office.

But Warsh has since developed plenty of passion for the legal system, both as a practicing workers' compensation lawyer and as president of the Michigan Association for Justice, which represents about 1,700 plaintiffs' trial lawyers in the state.

Warsh's one-year term leading the MAJ ends July 1 when President-elect Barry Gates of Ann Arbor will take over as the association's leader.

As president, Warsh has pushed for more diversity among members of the bar, created a two-day trial institute to improve the skills of trial lawyers, boosted membership, and worked to get members more involved in the state's political system.

"Rick has done a fantastic job as president," said Mike Behm, a Flint attorney who serves as MAJ's vice president. "He's really worked to diversify our organization by reaching out to the specialty bars."

Warsh organized a mixer, inviting the 15 largest law firms in the state and minority legal organizations, including the Wolverine Bar Association and the Association of Black Judges of Michigan.

"The mixer was extremely successful. I think we had a couple of hundred people there," he said. "It's essential we attract more people of color to the profession. The lack of diversity has always been troubling to us."

Warsh also started the two-day trial institute, which he hopes will become an annual MAJ event.

Some of the state's top lawyers and judges, as well as jury consultants, were brought in to help lawyers polish their trial skills in the areas of auto negligence, medical malpractice, and employment law.

"Trial preparation is becoming a lost art," Warsh said. "We wanted to put together a program to help lawyers become better lawyers."

The 35 lawyers who attended didn't just listen to lectures. They were required to prepare opening and closing statements, which were then critiqued by the instructors.

Warsh also stepped up enforcement of MAJ bylaws requiring executive board members to attend at least two board meetings a year and recruit new members.

MAJ officials said Warsh recruited more than a dozen new members himself and kept total membership from slipping, which often happens in a down economy.

On the political front, MAJ has met with the Democratic candidates for governor this year, but the Republican candidates have so far declined to address the organization, he said.

That's not surprising. The trial lawyers and the Republican Party have long been at odds. But Warsh said there needs to be a dialogue between the two sides.

"There is far too much partisanship in government," he said. "If we can sit down and find some commonality, we'll all be better off."

Finding common ground with opponents is something Warsh said he tries to do in his law practice, as well, while at the same vigorously representing the interests of his clients.

That's easier in the practice of workers' compensation than in some other parts of the law, he said, because it's a specialized area in which most of the lawyers practicing it around the state know each other.

"There's a higher level of trust among the attorneys," he said. "It's easier for us to cut through the noise and get to the meat of the case. Nobody sells anybody down the river."

Warsh, a native of Oak Park, graduated from Oak Park High School in 1970 and earned a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Michigan in 1974. He received his law degree from the Detroit College of Law in 1977.

Earlier in his career, Warsh worked as a workers' compensation attorney for the Wausau Insurance Co., a path he said many budding plaintiffs' attorneys take before going to the other side.

"It gives you a good background," he said about working for an insurance company. "It teaches you to look at all sides of the law."

Since 1980, Warsh has represented plaintiffs exclusively in workers' compensation cases, much of that time as a sole practitioner. He has been in partnership with attorney Joel Alpert for the past eight years.

His office suite has more the look of a busy medical practice than a fancy law office. There are no marble floors or dark-paneled walls one might see in a corporate law firm--just painted white walls, functional furniture and carpeting.

Thick case files are piled on bookcases while pinging sounds announcing the arrival of new e-mails on his computer are heard regularly during a recent Monday afternoon interview.

Behind his desk are pictures of Warsh with President Barack Obama and Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Also prominently displayed in his office are family photos, including those of his two sons--Daniel, who just finished his second year at the U-M Law School, and Jonathan, who will be a senior undergraduate at Harvard University this fall.

Warsh, 57, has been married to his wife, Deborah, a social worker, for 33 years.

Neil Miller, a Troy attorney who has known Warsh for 15 years, described him as "a bright, caring, exceedingly hard-working attorney" who is on call for MAJ duties practically around the clock.

"He's everywhere," Miller said. "I think he has (Gov. Jennifer Granholm's) ear. He's made connections politically for the association. People respect his opinions."

Warsh became involved with MAJ about 20 years ago as then-Gov. John Engler and the Republican-controlled Legislature undertook a series of broad tort reforms that drew the ire of plaintiffs' lawyers.

"We were kind of young and brash at the time," he said. "We were trying to curb some of the reforms that were taking place. Those were some interesting days."

About the same time, Warsh was working to raise the profile of workers' compensation attorneys, who he thought weren't getting enough recognition from the MAJ, then known as the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association.

"Workers' compensation one of the most misunderstood areas of the law. We used to get kind of a short shrift when it came to respect," Warsh said.

He and a number of other lawyers started their own organization, called the Committee for the Protection of Workers' Compensation, which was later merged into MAJ.

Warsh said it's rare for a workers' compensation lawyer to lead MAJ because it's a niche area of the law that has its own court system inside of state government.

But he thinks that's been an advantage because it has provided him with a level of independence in assessing issues related to MAJ.

"It gives me a different viewpoint," he said.

After his term as president ends, Warsh said he plans to continue advocating for the rights of plaintiffs through MAJ and his own legal practice.

Many of those rights have been diminished over the past two decades, Warsh asserted, a result of tort reform and conservative justices who have overturned long-held legal precedents.

Many lawyers have exited workers' compensation practices, he said, a result of a poor state economy and tougher legal standards for workers to get compensation and maintain their disability status.

"There are fewer workers to get hurt and fewer jobs to get hurt at," he said. "Workplace injuries have fallen dramatically since the 1970s and 1980s."

But those who do get hurt have a more difficult time qualifying for workers' compensation because of some recent court rulings, Warsh said.

"Courts have changed standard of disability," he said. "The conservative political winds have affected workers' comp."

And there's a perception--reinforced by the occasional outrageous case reported in the media--that the workers' compensation system is rife with fraud.

One such case that received national media attention in early May involved a 43-year old Pennsylvania woman who collected thousands of dollars in workers' compensation payments while working as a stripper.

But Warsh said he regularly sees a different side-employees who lose their jobs, health insurance and homes because of workplace injuries. During an interview he talked about these cases almost angrily, as if he were addressing a jury.

"Plaintiffs are made to feel by insurance companies as if they are at fault," he said. "The feeling is that it is somehow wrong to access the civil justice system. One of my jobs is to ensure them that they haven't done anything wrong."

Miller said it's that kind of passion that has made Warsh an outstanding MAJ president.

"He's a real hard worker who is committed to his clients," Miller said. "And he's committed to making the state of Michigan a better place. That may sound kind of corny, but it's true."

Published: Mon, May 24, 2010