West Michigan attorneys win big in WMU-Cooley Distinguished Briefs Awards


By Cynthia Price
Legal News

For the 32nd year, Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School has chosen what a panel of judges deems to be the best briefs submitted before the Michigan Supreme Court (MSC).
West Michigan authors took the lead on this year’s two briefs so honored:?Freemont Insurance Company v. Gro-Green Farms, Inc., and Kevin S. Reffitt v. Dawn M. Bachi-Reffitt.

The Freemont Insurance Company submission was also written by Michael E. Korn and H. William Stertz of Stertz & Weaver PC of Saginaw and Bay City, attorneys from West Michigan’s Bursch Law PLLC and Warner Norcross & Judd Grand Rapids office led in receiving the honors.

In Freemont Insurance Company, John J. Bursch of Bursch Law co-authored with Warner Norcross’s Conor B. Dugan; and in Reffitt, Bursch’s co-authors were Matthew T. Nelson of Warner Norcross and the two Saginaw-area attorneys above.

Unfortunately, none of the awardees were able to attend the July 27 ceremony in Lansing. “It feels strange not to hand out an award,” said WMU-Cooley Professor Mark Cooney.

Cooney organized the event along with Law Review Symposium Editors Errin Kane and Alysha Warren and other students; he has been involved for many years, and actually won the award when he was in private practice before joining the faculty.

Professor Cooney is also the editor-in-chief of The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, and contributes to the State Bar’s Michigan Bar Journal “Plain Language”column. He teaches Research and Writing, and Advanced Writing courses for WMU-Cooley.

He introduced the evening’s keynote speaker in glowing terms. “As speakers, we’ve had a lot of judges – Court of Appeals Judges and MSC justices — but I really love it when we break that once in a while and have an actual working lawyer, someone who’s working on those briefs and really knows what goes into it,” Cooney said. “I’m thrilled to introduce you tonight to one of Michigan’s truly outstanding appellate attorneys, Tim Baughman.”

Baughman (shown on page 1) is currently a Special Assistant Prosecuting Attorney with the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, having retired as that office’s Chief of Research, Training, and Appeals in 2015. He made seven appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court and over 75 in the MSC over his 42-year career. He also served as the Reporter for the MSC Committee to Revise the Rules of Criminal Procedure, and is on the Model Criminal Jury Instructions Committee.

He is also, through experience and study, an expert on the Michigan Supreme Court’s workings. He noted that when he started practicing, the Michigan body did not have a regular term, so it could be years after briefing and argument that they would hand down a decision. He also told the mostly-student audience about the increased use, and occasional frustrations, of Mini Oral Arguments.

But his main focus was on briefs, and how to write a good one for the various purposes that come up when practicing at the appellate level.

“Remember when you’re writing for leave to appeal, it isn’t to win – it’s to get the court’s attention so they’ll hear your case,’ Baughman said.

Following the philosophy of author and speaker Bryan Garner, who wrote The Winning Brief among other books, Baughman noted that the most important element is likely the  issues framing statement. He advised that it is no longer deemed necessary to confine that to one sentence, but that any writing in a brief should be direct and clear, and as simple as possible.

Following Baughman’s speech, Cooney again took the stage. He thanked the judges: Hon. Rosemarie Aquilina, Hon. Kathleen Jansen, Hon. Michael Riordan, Hon Paul Denenfeld (a Kent County judge), Prof. Bradley Charles, Prof. David Finnegan, and Prof. David Tarrien. Cooney is himself a judge.

The panel uses seven criteria to make their decision – question presented, point headings, statement of case, argument and analysis, style, mechanics and best overall brief.

This is not the first time that John J. Bursch, who has also practiced in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and excels in oral argument as well, has won the award. Formerly with Warner Norcross, Bursch started his own firm about a year ago.

Bursch comments, “I’m very pleased that the Law School chose to bestow a Distinguished Brief Award on two of the Michigan Supreme Court briefs I co-authored this past year, a record 7th and 8th time that my briefs have been so recognized.  The Award has special meaning to me because of the individuals who conduct the review process: law professors, distinguished lawyers, and sitting judges.

“Will Rogers once said that ‘The minute you read something that you can’t understand, you can almost be sure that it was drawn up by a lawyer.’

I’m delighted to buck that stereotype...  I’m convinced that’s the best way to serve my clients.”
Nelson and Dugan could not be reached for comment by press time.