From the start : Butzel Long appellate lawyer is homegrown talent

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

A mock trial program in high school may have served as the career catalyst for Joe Richotte, a Butzel Long attorney who has been repeatedly recognized by DBusiness as one of the top appellate lawyers in the Detroit area.

“I should probably thank John O’Brien and Dan Lemisch for that,” said Richotte of the two well-known Detroit attorneys who were with the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office at the time. “They did a great job with the program and I took a real shine to it. I loved the intellectual rigor behind it.”

His fascination with the law – and the many facets of the legal profession – has helped Richotte become recognized as a “rising star” within the white-collar defense by Michigan SuperLawyers, a statewide publication that rates the best-of-the-best in their respective practice areas.

It also has enabled Richotte to build a varied practice that includes appellate work, media law, and white-collar criminal defense matters. His legal skills in those areas, displayed over a 15-year career with Butzel, are admired by his Appellate Specialty Team colleague Dan McCarthy.

“Joe Richotte, to me, is an outstanding lawyer—a lawyer’s lawyer if you will,” said McCarthy. “Joe embodies the biblical principle of patience and kindness and I admire his incredible ability to consistently hold a kind and temperate tone—even with his most vicious adversaries. Joe has an extremely sharp and keen intellect and he has mastered the art of distilling the most complicated of legal theories to an elegant and simple essence; his multiple appellate victories are a testament to his skill.  I am most blessed and fortunate to have Joe as a friend and colleague.”

Richotte, who serves on the board of the Catholic Lawyers Society of Metropolitan Detroit, is more than willing to return the praise, calling McCarthy “the guru” when it comes to appellate rules.

“I thought I had a good grasp of the rules, but Dan is in a different league,” said Richotte of his Butzel colleague. “He possesses an amazing knowledge of the appellate rules, knowing them off the top of his head.”

A Detroit native, Richotte began his career at Butzel as a summer associate, landing the opportunity after his second year of law school at Wayne State University where he was a member of the national moot court team.

“They made an immediate impression during the interview process and I knew that if they called with an offer, I was going to jump on it,” said Richotte, who earned a full-ride scholarship to attend Wayne State as an undergrad student. 

As a summer associate, Richotte got an early taste of a high stakes criminal case handled by the firm, flying to Washington, D.C. with Butzel partner Dave DuMouchel to meet with a client.

“Dave was one of my mentors and said the trip would be an opportunity to watch and learn, and to get a glimpse of what a case of that magnitude was all about,” Richotte indicated. 

The client, however, had other ideas, preferring that the young summer associate find other ways to occupy his time while in the nation’s capital.

“So, I walked over to Capitol Hill to see the Senate in session and to soak up that experience,” said Richotte with a smile. “On the whole, that summer was such a great opportunity to learn from some of the best, people like Dave (DuMouchel), George Donnini, and Laurie Michelson, who now is a member of the federal bench. They taught me to learn by doing. They were great mentors for me.”

DuMouchel, who is chair of the White-Collar Criminal Defense and Corporate Investigations Practice at Butzel, said he has the highest regard for Richotte. 

“Joe is a wonderful member of our team at Butzel,” said DuMouchel. “I have worked with him in criminal matters, attorney disciplinary matters, appellate matters, and he is a great partner. He works extremely hard, thinks issues through, and has a skill too few lawyers possess—he knows what he doesn’t know – and is not afraid to ask.” 

While in law school, Richotte also learned from one of his classmates, his future wife Michelle, a University of Michigan alumna whom he met while they both worked for Oakland County during their collegiate days.

“She majored in English and linguistics at U-M and is incredibly smart, eventually finishing fourth in our law school class,” said Richotte of his wife of 12 years. “I’ll never forget asking her to look over a 50-page thesis I had to write in college as part of my honors track program. I’ve never seen so much red ink in my life. She really knows how to write and has been a great help to me in honing that skill.”

Richotte grew up in Berkley, in a neighborhood not far from the popular Westborn market on Woodward Avenue. He graduated from Shrine of the Little Flower High School in Royal Oak, where his younger brother Brian played football and displayed star potential as a track and field athlete.

“My brother started out at the U of D and then transferred to Radford (in Virginia), where he excelled in the hammer throw, eventually becoming so good that he competed in the Olympic Trials in 2008 and 2012. It was really exciting to watch him compete at that kind of level.”

Richotte’s mother, Barbara, graduated from Pershing High School in Detroit, and during her career rose up the ranks to become an executive assistant to a vice president at GMAC Commercial Finance, now known as Ally Financial.

“My dad (Michael) grew up in Roseville and went into the Air Force during the Vietnam era, serving as an M.P. and a marksman before leaving the military to go into the human resources field,” said Richotte, who was in elementary school when his father earned his bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University. “My brother and I have been blessed with great parents, who still live in the house where we were raised.”

They, undoubtedly, have watched with interest as their son’s legal career has developed, particularly in the areas of appellate and media law.

“The appellate work sprang out of my criminal defense practice, as I took on some of Mary Mullin’s cases when she moved to Omaha,” Richotte explained. “Since then, it has grown organically, and I’ve been fortunate to work with people like former Supreme Court Justices Maura Corrigan and Kurt Wilder, who I’ve learned so much from in the past few years.”

His involvement also has grown in the firm’s media law practice headed by attorney Robin Luce-Herrmann.

“Robin is a powerhouse in media law and deserves an enormous amount of credit for building our presence in that field,” said Richotte. “It’s been interesting and exciting to work on cases that involve traditional media outlets as well as digital clients and the wide range of issues presented.”

Of particular interest, said Richotte, was a 2014 case involving a newspaper photographer who was arrested for taking photos at the site of a small airplane crash in which several people were killed.

“He was charged under the so-called ‘Edmund Fitzgerald Law,’ which prohibits with certain exceptions the photographing of human remains in a grave site,” Richotte indicated. “That law was passed after some photos and film footage was shot by underwater explorers of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The law was intended to prevent the desecration or exploitation of a burial site, but in our case, the photographer only took photos of the plane after the bodies had been removed, although there were reportedly some remains at the site.

“Fortunately, we were able to get the criminal charges dismissed against the photographer under several First Amendment arguments we put forth,” Richotte noted.

Richotte also was directly involved in a case last fall in which the Michigan Supreme Court ordered the state’s redistricting commission to release records the panel withheld from public view while drawing proposed congressional and legislative districts. 

“The case was an original action before the Supreme Court that was brought by the Michigan Press Association and a number of media organizations,” Richotte said. “It took a matter of two to three weeks, and was a victory for transparency in the redistricting process, and it was very gratifying to be a part of that.”

The case will serve as “inspiration” for Richotte’s panel presentation at a September 22 meeting at the Hall of Justice in Lansing sponsored by the State Bar Appellate Practice Section Council.

“We will have a blue-ribbon panel including Supreme Court Justice David Viviano, former Justice Kurt Wilder, and Court of Appeals Judge Michael Riordan, who will discuss original action cases in which the court has exclusive jurisdiction,” said Richotte, who is the chair-elect of the Appellate Practice Council and will serve as moderator of the program. “It should be a very interesting discussion.”


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