Competitive edge: Attorney spearheads MSU's Trial Practice Institute

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

The son of a coal miner in Johnstown, Pa., John Pirich wasn't on a fast track to a legal career.

"I didn't know any lawyers, or ever spoke to any lawyers," he says. "Becoming a lawyer was total serendipity."

What Pirich--now a partner at Honigman in Lansing--did have was an early interest in government and the political process.

"I grew up in the Kennedy/Nixon era--and I still remember that famous TV debate," he says. "Also, Dad was very active in union activities at the mine, and I heard a lot of talk around the dining table."

So Pirich, who graduated from Flint Central High School after the family moved to Michigan, earned an undergrad degree in political science from the University of Michigan, then became a high school teacher in Flint. A year later, he decided to try his hand at law school, and earned his juris doctorate from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

Co-chair of Honigman's Appellate Advocacy Practice Group, Pirich is also an adjunct professor at Michigan State University College of Law, where he is Director of the Geoffrey Fieger Trial Practice Institute.

"I started teaching at MSU 12 years ago and was blessed with opportunity to create and direct the TPI," he says.

While this means a lot of weekend work, and missed football games and social events, the rewards are worth it.

"The experience with students is so exceptional," he says. "You can sometimes get a little jaded in law, but then to see these young people so excited, enthusiastic, and idealistic, is wonderful--it's a joy to mold and direct them."

The TPI--launched in 2001, with a $4 million gift from Fieger--offers a two-year curriculum, with eight required classes and one lab. The program emphasizes skills training, development of case theory and themes, analysis of litigation strategies, civility, and ethics.

"The then-chair of the board of trustees championed this concept, to integrate academic instruction with practical experience," Pirich says. "Our students are capable of doing activities after graduating that might take a couple of years of working in a traditional law firm to acquire. In this economy, anything that gives you a competitive advantage is good."

Pirich took his own first steps into litigation in 1972, as a summer intern at the Attorney General's Office; and then spent four years there.

"I was assigned to state affairs, and got involved in election matters--ballot questions, general election law. There's not a lot of work in election law, so for about three-quarters of my time I also did litigation.

"Attorney General Frank Kelley had a tremendous program, it mentored young people and let them get experience and fly once they were ready to leave the ground. I argued my first case in the 6th Circuit Court in Cincinnati, just two months after passing the bar exam."

After leaving government service, Pirich established a private practice partnership in Lansing, and practiced for several years before joining Honigman.

"Government work is spectacular but you don't learn the business side of running a law firm," he says. "In private practice, you're more independent, and learn the business side as well as the legal side. I enjoyed building relationships with people in life/death situations, and situations that impacted their careers and their families. It felt good to make a difference."

Pirich represents clients in insurance negotiations and coverage disputes, environmental permitting, compliance and administrative requirements and in commercial litigation. Clients include individuals and major publicly traded corporations and everything in between.

He regularly handles administrative matters, specializing in gaming, liquor, election and insurance issues before the various state regulatory boards and, as necessary, in court; represents manufacturers, trade associations, wholesalers and retailers in the alcoholic beverage industry in a myriad of regulatory, enforcement and litigation proceedings; and regularly appears before the liquor control commission and gaming control board with respect to all regulatory and legal issues associated with such activities.

Named among The Best Lawyers in America for the past 17 years, Michigan Super Lawyers for the past five years, and named in The Best Lawyers' 2012 Lansing Government Relations Lawyer of the Year, he enjoys working with, and mentoring, young lawyers in his capacity as co-chair of Honigman's Appellate Advocacy Practice Group.

He is also very involved in the Lansing community.

"My mother used to preach, 'to whom much is given, much is expected--a great lesson," he says. "I enjoy giving back to the community. I love theater, and got involved in the Wharton Center for Performing Arts at MSU, as a board member and also served as president."

He is also past president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce; is a board member of the MSU United Way; a Parish Council Member of St. Thomas Aquinas/St. John Student Parish; and for the past two years has served as chair of the Sparrow Hospital Foundation.

"It's a joy to have such a phenomenal facility in Lansing," he says.

He and his wife Marybeth are also very involved in Ele's Place, founded by their then-neighbor Betsy Stover after her daughter Ele died before reaching her first birthday.

The couple met when eachh worked at Miller Canfiel, where Marybeth was on the support side; she is now a personal trainer. They have four children and eight grandchildren, ranging in age from 5 months to 16.

Pirich enjoys reading escapist fiction, and listening to modern music. He and his wife also enjoy overseas travel, and have crossed off three of their "bucket list" places--Australia/New Zealand; South America, especially Chile, the homeland of their adopted daughter; and South Africa--where the couple went on Safari in the Kalahari Game Reserve.

"In South Africa you see both breathtaking scenery and daunting issues," Pirich says. "I love to travel, it gives you a great perspective on the world. And I think Sydney, Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro are the world's most beautiful cities."

Published: Thu, Jun 21, 2012