Lawyers with 50 years in practice continue to add to the profession



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

From just retired to Of Counsel status to still practicing, Grand Rapids attorneys who started in the law in 1965 are still actively contributing to the legal profession.

Back on May 1, the Grand Rapids Bar Association honored all seven attorneys with 50 years under their belts at the annual Law Day Luncheon GRBA co-sponsors with WMU-Cooley Law School.

GRBA Executive Director Kim Coleman placed a 50-year pin on the laps of James Brown, currently practicing full-time at Mika Meyers Beckett and Jones but in the process of cutting back his client load; Boyd Henderson, Of Counsel at Miller Johnson; Richard Rankin, still in practice at Fisher and Dickinson; Ned Smith, who retired last December from Pinsky, Smith, Fayette and Kennedy; and Jerome “Jay” Smith, full-time at Warner, Norcross and?Judd.

Not able to attend that day were Joel V. Soule, who maintains a full-time solo practice but is starting to wind down, and Donald L. Johnson of Varnum, also Of Counsel.

Ned Smith is an informative example of some ways in which those who started in the 1960s continue to keep their hands in the law.

Smith was something of a maverick in West Michigan as an attorney who represented unions and union members; he continued to focus on those types of litigation through his partnership in a series of law firms which involved Robert Kleiner, now deceased, and David Soet, currently a judge. At the time of his December 2014 retirement, Smith was in partnership with Rhett Pinsky (who received the Donald R. Worsfold Distinguished Service Award at the same Law Day Luncheon), Mike Fayette (Kleiner’s former partner), and daughter Kathleen Smith  Kennedy.

In 2004, Smith underwent triple-bypass surgery. When his wife Patricia and his four children, including Kennedy, asked him to “cut out the stress” and stop litigating, he says he responded that litigation was what he did and was not a source of conflict. However, he says with a laugh, “When I got out of litigation in 2005, well, you can’t believe how much stress was lifted.” He also cut back his hours at that time, working Monday, Tuesday and Thursday only.

Still, the decision to cut back completely on representing the unions, one of which he had been with since 1978, is difficult for him. “I had a lot of wonderful relationships,” he says. “That part is hard – not seeing those guys again.”

Smith, a former chair of the Kent County Democratic Party, is a true believer in labor unionism. “It’s the most democratic process,” he says. “The unions organize, the employer uses every tactic they can to fight the union and the unions use every tactic to win too. Then it’s decided by a  secret ballot vote, and the majority rules.”

For many years, Smith would go to the teamsters’ union hall and other union halls once a month and give free legal advice to members. He says that while he is proud of much that he did during his career, that is probably what gives him the most pride.

Now that he is retired, and after additional heart surgery that installed a pacemaker, Smith says he intends to go in to the office once a month or so and “just go over stories and have them bring me up to date. But I’m always available if they want to talk to me,” he adds.

When asked what has changed the most over the last 50 years, Smith pointed to law firms getting permission to advertise. “To show you how old school I am,” he says, “I still don’t like it — you see so much of it. We never advertised, and I had all the business I could handle through word of mouth. But, when I think about it, it’s probably not that bad an idea. A lot of people don’t ever deal with people with white shirts, and they have no idea how to get referrals. And I found out recently that some of these big advertisers... they’re excellent lawyers. So I need to shut my mouth,” he adds, laughing.

Most of the other 50-year attorneys talked about increased use of technology as the biggest transition they’ve faced. Joel Soule comments, “The computer age has really changed things; legal research is so different. I can handle it but I’m not as comfortable with it as I used to be with the books. I like the physical and tactile aspects of it, spreading out the law books and flipping back and forth, but I do think computers have been a big help to many, who may have a different way of learning from mine.”

According to Donald Johnson, a banking lawyer, “Technology changes had a huge impact on my practice, as it has for all lawyers. The first SEC registration statement that I worked on was printed late at night at a Chicago printing firm and had to be filed with the SEC in Washington DC when the office opened at 7:30 or 8 a.m. the following morning. As the youngest lawyer for the company I flew on the company's private jet to DC with the filing package and was back in Grand Rapids shortly after noon... With the advent of the internet, filings became a matter of pushing a button.”

Unanimously the lawyers (Richard Rankin was not reached in time to add his thoughts) felt that technological advances have been beneficial. Says Jay Smith,  “I believe that technology has... enhanced the general practice of law more than any other single factor... given us efficiencies (i.e., computer research) and the ability to provide a better work product for our clients through ease of computer drafting and consistency in document preparation and timeliness. This is certainly demonstrated in my practice of estate and business succession planning.

“At the outset of my career, wills were hand-typed with multiple carbon copies on 8.5-inch by 14-inch paper. Any typo required [retyping] the entire page. No changes could be made... once it was completed for signature.”

James Brown, a municipal lawyer who also cites the increasing number of laws and regulations in his field as a significant change, adds, “I think the technology that’s developed has really made a difference over that time. Communication among lawyers and between lawyers and clients, and being able to transmit documents electronically... The pace of things has increased greatly, which is a good thing.”

Henderson, also a litigator, felt that another important trend over the last five decades has been the increasing number of attorneys in Grand Rapids. “It’s made a difference primarily because all of us knew each other, we all respected each other, and you could almost do handshake agreements. Communications are much different. Grand Rapids Bar members would all get together for lunch once a week,  so we could communicate less formally.”

Similarly, Soule said, “I used to love going to trial. If you needed an adjustment in the trial schedule, you’d call the other attorney and then you’d call the court clerk. Now you have to file a motion, you file a brief — it’s taken a lot of the joy out of it.”

Johnson added, “Another big change, and certainly one for the better, has been law firms recognizing the contribution that women make to the practice of law. It took several years [but]  now the firm has many strong, highly talented and effective  women partners.”