Early Indication: Upbringing gave U-M grad a taste of life's challenges

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

It was anything but a carefree and ordinary childhood for Sara Kruse, a University of Michigan alum now in her 15th year as an attorney with Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss.

Her upbringing, which was marked by an "eventful" three-year stay overseas and the divorce of her parents when she was at the tender age of 11, may go a long way in explaining the devotion to her own family and the corresponding desire to help institute a modified work schedule at Jaffe for parents with young children.

"I probably had more than my share of life lessons by the time I was a teen-ager," Kruse said with a hint of a smile during a recent interview in Jaffe's 25th floor headquarters overlooking Southfield.

She was born in Washington, D.C., while her father was pursuing his Ph.D. in anthropology at Catholic University. By the time Kruse was about to enter the second grade, her father had accepted a State Department assignment in Liberia, the West African nation whose capital city, Monrovia, was named after James Monroe, the fifth president of the U.S.

"In many ways, we lived an idyllic life there," Kruse said of her family, which included her parents, Kathleen and Paul, an older brother, David, and a younger sister, Christine. "At least for a while."

They lived in a rather upscale neighborhood near the ocean in the tropical city, exposed to "many different nationalities and cultures," enjoying the benefits of a private school education, widespread travel, and a range of diverse activities.

But that changed dramatically in 1980, when a bloody military coup toppled the civilian government, setting the stage for a pair of civil wars that left nearly a quarter-million dead and the country's economy in shambles.

"My family was held at gunpoint, our car was stolen, and our lives were turned upside down," Kruse said of the political uprising. "It went from tranquility to chaos almost overnight. We didn't know if we were going to get out of there alive. Even though I was very young at the time, it was an experience I will never forget."

Within a few weeks, Kruse's mother and the three children were allowed to return to the safety of the U.S. Her father elected to stay behind, hoping to make the best of an unsettled situation that forced the Liberian populace into the confines of martial law.

"We eventually went back to Liberia, rejoining my father but in a totally different setting," she said. "We lived in a guarded complex, subjected to a dusk to dawn curfew that limited virtually everything about our normal way of life. It took a toll on everyone."

It undoubtedly was a factor in the marital break-up of her parents, a divorce that suddenly cast Kruse's mother into the role of primary provider for three children.

A former teacher, she returned to the U.S. with her children, landing a job as a contract paralegal at Miller Canfield in Detroit.

"She held us together as a family, working very hard to support my brother, sister, and me," Kruse said, noting that her mother was soon carving an impressive career path of her own. "She set a great example for all of us and now is the Vice President, Development and Major Gift Services for the Beaumont Foundation. As a mother and as a career woman, she has been a great inspiration to me. She is dedicated, hard working, and a real perfectionist."

Qualities that Kruse likewise has displayed during a legal career at Jaffe that began when she was a summer associate entering her final year at Wayne State University Law School, according to Peter Sugar, a noted attorney and longtime partner with the Southfield firm.

"Sara is very detail oriented with a desire to know as much about a transaction as possible," said Sugar, who specializes in securities regulation, corporate finance, and mergers and acquisitions. "She likes to look at a deal from every angle, and demonstrated that natural inquisitiveness from the early stages of her career. She now is deeply experienced in all aspects of transactional work and has displayed an ability to cut to the heart of some very complex matters."

A resident of Pleasant Ridge, Kruse majored in political science and Asian studies at U-M, where she studied Mandarin Chinese.

"I absolutely loved school and the opportunity to learn about different cultures," Kruse said of her collegiate career. "I'm sure that living abroad helped point me in that direction."

She and her husband, Patrick, a veteran law professor and attorney specializing in business litigation, corporate, and municipal law, met while they were students at Michigan.

"We decided to go to different law schools," Kruse said of her husband, a graduate of University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. "We studied together, both in law school and when we were preparing for the bar exam, but he is more of an academician and really loves the research side of the law. I'm more into the nuts and bolts."

Since the early days of her career, she has worked with Jaffe client Jeff Williams of Ann Arbor on a regular basis. That relationship dates back to the formation of Genomic Solutions, a life science products company that went public in 2000 and later merged with Harvard Bioscience. One of the state's most recognizable entrepreneurs, Williams most recently contributed to the rise of HandyLab and Accuri Cytometers, leading to the successful sales of both companies to Becton Dickinson.

"It's been a privilege to work on deals of that type and with entrepreneurs such as Jeff Williams," Kruse said of the recent exit transactions. "They have involved companies that are the byproduct of high-tech ideas that have created jobs and opportunities in and around Southeast Michigan."

Despite the rigors of work, Kruse has made her family life a priority since the first of her three children was born more than 12 years ago. The arrival of her daughter Emma, now in seventh grade, followed by daughter Grace, 9, and son Ryan, 7, changed the way Kruse approached her law practice.

"The hours and the demands were so great at work that I had to strike a better balance if I was going to be a good mother to my children," Kruse said of juggling a full time legal career with her parental responsibilities.

Two years into motherhood, Kruse took a "leap of faith," asking the leaders at Jaffe to consider adopting a flex work schedule for staff members with parenting duties. In her case, she preferred a Monday through Thursday schedule, a four-day work week that would afford more of an opportunity to spend time with her kids.

"They embraced the idea, which clearly demonstrated their progressive approach to the modern workplace," Kruse said of the law firm. "I'm not sure that such a proposal would have been looked upon so favorably any place else. The willingness on the part of the firm to be flexible has instilled even more loyalty from those of us who have taken part in the program. It is a wonderful fringe benefit about working here."

Sugar was among the Jaffe partners who endorsed the flex schedule proposal - with one caveat for Kruse.

"I wanted to make sure that she understood the need to stay strong if other lawyers tried to maneuver that schedule to fit their own needs," Sugar said. "I didn't want to see her dragged in unnecessarily when it was clear to all parties what her work schedule was each week. There have been some occasional bumps, but now people know and respect her schedule. One of the primary reasons, of course, is that her work speaks for itself. She is an outstanding lawyer, and her clients and colleagues know that for a fact."

Published: Mon, Jan 16, 2012