50-year attorneys miss collegiality, cherish time in legal profession


 John D. Tully, Frank S. Spies, and Robert P. Cooper received their 50-year pins at the Law Day celebration.


By Cynthia Price
Legal News

It has been a long journey for John D. Tully and Robert P. Cooper, but both cherish their careers in the law and feel the legal profession offered them the opportunity to enjoy great lives.

Tully and Cooper were two of five attorneys recognized for 50 years in practice at the Grand Rapids Bar 2014 Law Day Celebration at the end of April, and two of only three who attended the event  in person.

Both Tully and Cooper say the major difference between now and when they started practicing in the 1960s is the number of attorneys in the area and resulting decrease in close connections.

Says Tully, “As far as collegiality,  everyone being able to meet in person was a big thing,” and has a personal story to illustrate what he means.

“I remember talking with Vern Ehlers when he was still in Congress,” he relates. “I asked him whether the antagonism between Republicans and Democrats I’d heard so much about was being exaggerated by the media. He told me, if anything it’s worse than that, and I blame that on the jet plane.”

Tully was perplexed, but Rep. Ehlers explained that when he was elected Gerald Ford asked him if he was going to stay in Grand Rapids or move to Washington. “Ehlers said Gerry Ford told him, people used to stay in Washington on weekends, you’d play golf or cards with other members of Congress, but more and more, members would leave town and go back to their districts. He said that meant they didn’t get to know people on the other side as people,” Tully continued. “I?could see his point. I think congeniality comes from ease of contact, so if you start to lose that it certainly has an impact.”

Cooper explains that when he first joined the Grand Rapids Bar, there were weekly luncheons that most attorneys attended. “The camaraderie at that time was much greater than it is now, when it’s primarily based only on people’s own personal friendships or on their area of practice. I think that specialization has been a factor. I suppose just the sheer numbers now create a lack of closeness.”

A Grand Profession, A Grand Tradition, a history of the Grand Rapids Bar published in 1995, acknowledges the same trend but views the timeline a bit differently. “In 1958, bar association membership topped the 300 mark for the first time, and the budget rose to over $10,000 a year. Ten years later, membership stood at 436, the budget had nearly doubled, and the days when all the members knew one another by name were virtually at an end,” it reads on page 100. The authors add, “By the 1960s, it was becoming almost essential for lawyers to develop some degree of expertise in a few selected areas.”

However, Cooper saw that trend taking place more in the 1970s. “My dad was an attorney, and he just loved the practice, but at that time the attorney did a little bit of everything, even taxes — now, that’s an area of the law that’s become so complex you have to specialize in order to help your client.

“I went from a young kid doing a little bit of everything to specializing myself. When I started doing municipal bond work, I literally did nothing else because I had to focus on that, and they took a lot of time.”

Cooper’s undergrad career was interrupted by two years in the military. The Grand Rapids native started out at Michigan State, but finished up at Tri-State College in Angola, Indiana (now Trine University).

He married his wife Ann, also a well-known attorney in Grand Rapids (recently retired from Drew Cooper and Anding), and the two went to Bordeaux, France, after she received a scholarship to pursue her political science degree. “It was kind of like a two-year honeymoon,” he says, with the couple traveling in France, Germany, and Spain while he worked for the Esso Company. He took the LSAT in France and re-

turned to obtain his J.D. from Dickinson School of Law in Pennsylvania.

He worked for another firm before joining Clary, Nantz, Wood, Hoffius, Rankin and Cooper, which added his name because he had already garnered many clients in the municipal bonds arena — work he absolutely loved. In 1992, he joined Law Weathers, from which he retired in 2004.

John Tully’s journey was quite different, starting with his place of birth, New Jersey. He came to the Midwest when the University of Notre Dame offered him a basketball scholarship, and became enamored of the area, so he enrolled in University of Michigan Law School to obtain his law degree.

After clerking for U.S. District Judge Noel P. Fox, Tully decided to stay, accepted an offer in 1966 from Warner Norcross and Judd where some of his Michigan classmates already practiced, and has remained there to this day, currently Of Counsel.

Again starting out as a general practitioner, Tully was drawn to litigation, about which he has few regrets. “I think the older I got, the more I appreciated how much easier it would be to have a specialty, to know an area cold, but it was still very enjoyable,” Tully says. “Tom McNamara [one of the classmates who encouraged him to choose Warner Norcross] would say, trial lawyers have bathtub brains — they fill the tub up with all the knowledge needed to try the case and then pull the plug and everything drains out.”

Among the remaining attorneys receiving a 50-year pin in 2014 was Frank S. Spies (shown above), who served as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, appointed by President Gerald R. Ford. After that he had a solo practice, and in 1997 joined whatever, working in liquor, premises, products, and other liability; he has published widely on the topic of liquor liability and lectured on the topic for the Institute of Continuing Legal Education.

Not able to attend Law Day was Frank Booth Burr, Jr., who had a solo practice in Eastown, and in 2010 applied for appointment to the Grand Rapids City Commission, but lost to Ruth Kelly.

The final recipient, also unable to be at the celebration, was Richard G. Leonard, who practiced in insurance defense and litigation for Rhoades McKee.

Retirement suits both Tully and Cooper just fine. Cooper shows no sign of slowing down, staying active doing occasional mediations for the Dispute Resolution Center, serving on the Grand Rapids Housing Commission board, and particularly working with the Grand Rapids chapter of SCORE, a group of active and retired business owners/executives and professionals who volunteer to advise West Michigan businesses to improve their success.

He also welcomes his family to a lovely summer cottage the Coopers own on Lake Michigan. “I always say I have six girls,” he says, “my one and only wife, two daughters, and three granddaughters.” The couple travels extensively, including visits to the three grandchildren’s college towns.

Among other activities, Tully is  learning to play the piano; between him and his wife Cheryl, an artist, they have seven children and seven grandchildren, some of whom afford him the opportunity to take vacations in Florida. He comments, “I’m just enjoying the free time.  It’s nice to wake up in the morning and not have a long list of things that have to get done. At the same time, it was nice to have your day structured as it was when I was working.”

He adds, “But all in all, I’m proud to have been a a lawyer.”