A faraway place nearby-- Elder law specialist celebrates 15 years as 'log cabin lawyer'

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By Wayne Peal

Legal News

For 15 years, Jim Schuster has been metro Detroit's "log cabin lawyer"--and he wouldn't have it any other way.

"I used to have an office on the 17th floor of the (Southfield) Town Center Building," Schuster said, referring to one of the area's tallest skyscrapers. "But, even then, I used to say that I needed a place where I could reach out and touch the grass."

He can do that from his current office, which sits on a wooded lot adjacent to a Rouge River Watershed wetland.

The Southfield site is about a mile south of bustling I-696 and almost in sight of the Town Center and its neighboring urban office towers.

In look and feel, it's a thousand miles away. It's a place where he can feed the birds and watch the squirrels. The windows open to let in the nature sounds and Schuster and staff can step out onto a wooden deck for an up close view of the woods.

"It's like being up north--and that's just what I wanted," said Schuster, whose practice involves what he calls elder law.

He conducts estate planning, reviews benefits allocation, and sets caregiver protocols for seniors and their families.

For the record, his office is a real log cabin and one with a lengthy history at that.

"I met a woman who told me she used to live here," Schuster said of the long, one-story building which dates to 1940. "I know it's been used as a residence but mostly it's been a rental property. Before we came here, I believe it was a copy repair place."

A sketch of the building from its early days hangs on a wall facing Schuster's desk.

Schuster originally shared space at the Town Center with another attorney.

"That was a nice office, very warm looking almost a throwback to the 1950s," he recalled.

But when the other attorney moved to more contemporary offices, Schuster knew it was time to leave.

"Actually, someone else spotted the cabin first but told me to take a look. We looked and we liked it immediately. I had been in Traverse City and I wanted something that carried that country feel."

He wasted no time in buying the building.

At first glance, the place looks more like an upscale hunting lodge than a law office.

Stuffed animals scattered around the reception area give it a homey feel.

"It's like stepping back in time," said longtime client Fred Goodnow. "You can almost imagine what it was like 70 years ago."

Goodnow is something of a log cabin fan in his own right.

"My wife and I seriously considered buying one before we bought our vacation spot," he said. "When I first came to this place (Schuster's office) I liked it immediately. It was everything I imagined a cabin would be."

The building features wood paneling and a stone fireplace. A portrait of another famous log cabin lawyer hands above the mantle. Despite his long, lean appearance, Schuster is hesitant to draw comparisons between himself and the 16th President. Nor is he necessarily a Lincoln scholar.

"You could say I'm an Abraham Lincoln fan," he said. "But it's more for what he represents. To me, Lincoln was the kind of lawyer who would sit down with people, face-to-face and help them with their problems. That's what I aspire to be."

Elder law, his stock in trade since the mid-1990s, is the most recent step of a career which has seen Schuster serve, at various times, as a tribal rights judge and civil rights attorney.

The Detroit native said his love for nature was influenced by his 1980s service in a northern Michigan courtroom adjudicating disputes involving the Bay Mills Indian Community. That job came, in part, though, Schuster's personal ties to the state's Native American community especially through his wife, Elaine.

"My wife is part Native American and her father still lives on the reservation," he said.

Schuster himself is a father of one and also grandfather. Returning to southeast Michigan, Schuster later maintained a busy practice as a civil rights and employment law attorney.

But by the early 1990s, Schuster, said, court dockets had exploded in both areas.

"You could work on a case for two years and not receive any payment," he noted. "That made it difficult."

Though he was rising in his profession, and even served as chairman of the state bar's general practice section, Schuster grew restless.

"In 1995, I was at a meeting in Chicago, where I saw a presentation on elder law and I thought that was just the kind of practice I'd been seeking all along. It's not confrontational, it's collaborative."

It wasn't the first time his career took a new and unexpected path. As a young man, he signed up for the Detroit Institute of Technology and was contemplating a career far away from the law.

"I was part of that generation who thought they didn't need to go to college. You could just go out and get a job," he said.

He soon found out that working with machines was far less satisfying than working with people. That revelation would eventually lead him to Wayne State University, where he received his law degree. Active in his community, Schuster has served on the Southfield Historic Districts Commission.

Though not his true residence, the cabin remains his home. For the most part, his clients are charmed.

"There are those who take a look around and say, 'It's interesting,' really meaning, 'Where's the steel and glass?'" he laughed. "But most of those who come here really appreciate it."

Schuster thinks he knows why.

"This is not a place for conflict. It's a place where you can sit down, collect your thoughts and then decide what you are going to do."

Published: Thu, Dec 23, 2010