Former judge now focuses on Altnernative Dispute Resolution


by Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Attorney Peter Houk once mediated a dispute in Wisconsin between a craft brewer and a German company that installed the brewing equipment. The installer had lived with the brewer during the installation, and become fast friends – but during the course of the dispute, the two sides were so estranged they couldn’t meet face to face.

“It took two days but at the end they were in the same room and agreeing to do more business,” says Houk, an arbitration and mediation attorney with Fraser Trebilcock in Lansing, whose primary focus is Alternative Dispute Resolution.

Houk’s all-time favorite case was a young couple that bought a lottery ticket together. After a huge win, the man ran off with the proceeds – and a newgirlfriend.

“After several hours we were getting nowhere and the plaintiff said if she could just talk to her former boyfriend alone, she could get this settled,” Houk says.

Houk put the two of them in a room and stood outside the door, since there had been abuse issues. The voices grew louder – then the young woman bolted from the room crying and ran down the hall. Houk followed to find out what had transpired behind closed doors. The woman told Houk, “Just write it up.” Houk went back to the room where the defendant, also in tears, said the same thing: “Just write it up.” 

“They agreed to split the money 50/50,” Houk says. “I sure would like to know what was said in that room.”

A certified mediator with the International Mediation Institute, and a member of the State Bar of Michigan Alternative Dispute Resolution Section, Houk became a fan of ADR during his 17 years as an Ingham County Circuit Court judge, the last 10 as chief judge.

“I settled many cases and believed that Alternative Dispute Resolution resulted in a fairer, less traumatic result for most parties,” he explains. “During my 17 years on the bench I witnessed a number of verdicts that in my view were tragically wrong and mediation could have prevented or ameliorated these injustices.”

Prior to donning judicial robes, Houk served as Assistant Attorney General for the State of Michigan, Lansing City Attorney, and Ingham County Prosecutor. While serving on the bench, he was twice recognized by as one of the state’s “Most Respected Judges,” and has been named among Super Lawyers, Leading Michigan Lawyers, Best Lawyers in America, and achieved an AV Preeminent® peer review rating by Martindale-Hubbell. A Fellow of the State Bar of Michigan, he was selected as 2015 “Lawyer of the Year” in Lansing, for arbitration.

According to Houk, the most enduring part of his 45 years in the legal profession has been the relationships that were formed.

“Attorney General (Frank) Kelley is a remarkable man. He and his department heads were tremendous mentors to young attorneys,” he says. “I remember being counseled as an intern that I would have to sign my name to everything I wrote and not to do so unless it was ethically and legally correct. Period. In all of my subsequent jobs I told all of my assistants the same thing.”    

When Houk became City Attorney, Lucille Belen and Joel Ferguson were on the City Council.

“What fabulous teachers of the art of politics and compromise,” he says.    

Houk enjoyed his service as county prosecutor.

“The men and women that served in the prosecutor's office with me were all dedicated to making a difference not only in individual cases but at a macro level,” he says.

The office started a victim’s witness program and established a domestic violence program to help abused women find resources; established a priority prosecution program to keep serious repeat offenders off the street; and greatly expanded the existing pretrial diversion program. “We used it to help offenders develop a sense of responsibility by having them work on projects assisting senior citizens,” Houk says.

The Flint native and graduate of Flint Central and Flint Junior College (now Mott Community College) didn’t set out to become a lawyer – but while working at Ford Motor Co. the summer after his junior year at the University of Michigan, he took a course in constitutional law.

“It was like throwing a lighted match on a bucket of gasoline,” he says.

Deep-sixing his plans to join the U.S. Navy, Houk set his sights on law school.

“I didn't know what the LSAT was and got signed up a week before the test,” he recalls.

He earned his J.D. from Wayne State University School of Law.

“I enjoyed the intellectual rigor of the program and the excellence of the faculty,” he says. “The student body was genuine and cohesive.”

Houk also met his wife Rose at Wayne Law.

“There were six women in our class of 277 – I was lucky enough to marry one of them,” he says.

The Houks make their home in DeWitt with Lady, their black Lab, and enjoy spoiling five grandchildren.

Houk relaxes from the stresses of legal work by cycling, a sport he took up 27 year ago when he told his then 14-year-old son that he had to have a “great adventure” – and the teen suggested a long bike trip.

“I’ve always loved the outdoors and cycling provides an opportunity for that, as well as exercise and meeting some really fun people,” Houk says.

His wife “sags” for him (i.e. provides Support And Gear) on many of his adventures, that include the Black Bear Century rides in northern Michigan.

“I think I pressed my luck during the Black Bear Century race two years ago,” he says. “The weather turned foul and a tornado touched down about five miles from where I was sheltering with other cyclists while Rose was coming to get me.”
Houk has finished 11 Labor Day DALMAC tours (Dick Allen Lansing to Mackinac), all of them more than 300 miles. The first time he cycled the Mackinac Bridge, a former assistant who had done the ride before and who was coaching him, told him to get in the right line of about 200 cyclists.

“I didn’t realize until too late that put me right next to the edge while we crossed – it’s a long way down,” he says.

    Four years ago, a driver chatting on her cellphone turned into his path, causing him to collide with a fellow cyclist.

“I tore every ligament in my left knee – no surgery, but I work out regularly and emphasize building the muscles in my quads,” he says. “I must be a slow learner because I keep on riding even after a couple of bad accidents.”