Stage presence: Attorney took special talents in a different direction

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Jon March the accomplished lawyer could just as easily have been Jon March the famous actor had it not been for some much-needed money in the form of scholarship aid to attend Northwestern University’s Department of Theatre.

But for that nettlesome detail in the early 1960s, March likely would have cast himself in a drama career, where he could display his stage talents in a multitude of roles over the next 50 years or so.

Instead, March may have done the next best thing, opting for a career in the law that now spans a half-century and has afforded the opportunity to showcase his courtroom skills in a variety of legal venues.

Including a county court near Lansing back in the 1980s.

There, March was serving as the lead attorney for a defendant in a major medical malpractice case. The outcome of the trial, in many respects, hinged on the testimony of one of the plaintiff’s expert witnesses, according to Craig Lubben, now the managing partner of the Miller Johnson law firm who back then was assisting his mentor, Jon March, in defending the med/mal case.

“I was a young associate for our firm, doing whatever I could to assist Jon in the case, which was a high-stakes matter,” Lubben recalled. “Jon, as was his custom, did a magnificent job in his cross examination of their expert witness, in effect winning the case for our client.”

Afterwards, while basking in the glow of their courtroom victory, March and Lubben had the chance to talk with members of the jury, to hear their thoughts on what had transpired over the course of the trial.

“One of the jurors was particularly willing to talk,” Lubben indicated. “She told Jon, ‘Your cross examination was just like on television.’”

In other words, March may well have been a stage star had the law not come calling for his skillset.

He remains as interested in plying his stagecraft as ever, as evidenced by his regular starring roles in productions presented by the acclaimed Grand Rapids Civic Theatre.

March grew up in Ann Arbor, one of two children. His father, David, was a history teacher at the old Ann Arbor High School, now known as Pioneer High. His mother, Lois worked for the Michigan Department of Social Services in its foster care program. The family migrated to Michigan from Lafayette, Ind.

As an Ann Arbor High student, March seemed destined to attend the University of Michigan until he became involved as a cherub at Northwestern University’s summer theatrical program.

“After that experience, I really wanted to make a career of it by getting a degree in drama, but Northwestern wasn’t offering any financial assistance, which effectively shut the door on that plan of mine,” said March.

Consequently, March enrolled at U-M with intentions to pursue a Ph.D. in history en route to becoming a college professor. His high school sweetheart, Mary Ann, a Wellesley College student, thought otherwise.

“She didn’t think I was cut out to be a professor and, instead, encouraged me to try law school,” March said of his now wife of 54 years.

The newly engaged couple borrowed a car and headed out east to survey the possibilities at Harvard Law School for the 1966 U-M grad.

“Going to law school at Michigan was certainly an attractive option, but I decided that a change of scenery would be good,” March said of his desire to attend Harvard.

March’s law school plan was cemented when his wife landed a $5,400 per year teaching job in the Boston area, a salary that would cover their living expenses plus the annual tuition costs to attend Harvard Law.

“Tuition cost $1,500 a year back then,” March said. “Obviously it’s a far different world now.”

Adding to the intrigue for the young couple was an escalating war in Vietnam and renewed calls to eliminate the marriage deferment for draft eligible students. In response, Harvard “got out ahead” of the possibility by creating an Air Force ROTC program designed especially for law students, thereby offering an avenue into the Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) instead of potential combat duty.
March took advantage of the opportunity, which came with a four-year officer assignment in the JAG Corps following passage of the bar exam.

“I began active duty in January of 1970 at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida and it was a great experience, giving me a tremendous opportunity to be in court on a regular basis,” March said.

His assignment was cut short by a year when his wife was diagnosed with lupus.

“The happy part of that story is that her case never developed into the full-blown type,” March said. “Fortunately, she has been able to manage the disease effectively.”

After leaving the Air Force, March returned to Michigan to begin his job search. He received several offers from Detroit-based firms before testing the waters in Grand Rapids.

Oddly enough, he received a lukewarm response from the first firm he interviewed with in Grand Rapids, prompting him to begin working the floors in the Old Kent Bank building downtown for other opportunities.

“I got off the elevator at every floor, asking for the opportunity to be interviewed,” March recalled. “It was all pretty impromptu, but I still got several offers, including one from Miller Johnson.”

In fact, the offer from Miller Johnson was extended by the firm’s managing partner, Art Snell, who was eating his lunch out of a brown paper bag when March walked into his office with a legal resume to sell.

“He, of course, was an outstanding lawyer and is perhaps the one person responsible for ensuring that Meijer Inc. is still a closely held corporation, watching it grow from a ma and pa type store to a huge Midwestern chain,” said March of Snell. “In telling me about Miller Johnson that day, he was describing just the type of firm I wanted to be a part of.”

So, he did, beginning a legal journey that now is in its 49th year with the firm.

“And that day was the first time I’d ever been to Grand Rapids,” March said with a smile.

March made an early favorable impression when he won a $1.7 million arbitration award for a construction client, quickly developing a reputation as a “go-to” lawyer in the litigation field. Over the years, his work has covered most of the litigation landscape – employment, commercial, construction, and general civil matters. From 2000-05, he served as managing member of Miller Johnson and now is Of Counsel, principally serving as a mediator.

“I was the 23rd attorney hired and now we have around 100 at our three offices in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Detroit,” March related.

One of the young attorneys that March mentored years ago now heads the firm and has a special appreciation for the skill, dedication, and character of his legal steward.

“Jon has been a terrific teacher to me and many others over the years, sharing his knowledge and insights whenever asked,” said Craig Lubben. “He has a passion for excellence in everything that he does, whether in the courtroom, in his mediation work, or as an actor on stage.”

To which Bruce Tinker, executive and artistic director of the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, can attest.

“He has done it all for the Civic Theatre, as the lead actor in a number of our productions, as a board member, and as chair of capital campaigns,” Tinker said of the various roles that March has played. “His involvement has been deep and lasting, and he has a great passion and a real talent for performing. He is truly an inspirational figure in this community, someone who really walks the talk.”

On occasion, however, March admits that “talking the talk” is not necessarily easy, even for a gifted trial attorney accustomed to courtroom success. He remembers one incident in particular when he was a student in a Civic Theatre acting class, assigned a part in a scene from “Amadeus,” the play based on the life of legendary composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. That night, he and his scene partner had to perform the scene on the big stage, before an audience of family and friends.

“I had a deposition in Kalamazoo that day and planned to go right to the theatre after that to perform the scene,” March recalled. “I had the lines all memorized and was ready to go, confident that I could perform the role.”

Then, as he was about to perform the scene, March caught a paralyzing case of stage fright.

“Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe,” March said. “I was literally frozen and wasn’t sure I could get a word out of my mouth.”

Fortunately, he did, overcoming the stage fright odds to play the part and many others over the course of his amateur acting career.

“But even now, after all these years as an actor, I know that it can happen again – and probably will,” March said with a grin.



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