Asked and Answered

By Tom Kirvan

James Elsman, of the Elsman Law Firm in Birmingham, sat down to answer some questions on 50 years in the law as well as his life in a different kind of court, after he again was ranked No. 1 in men’s 75 and over tennis in Michigan for the second straight year. Elsman began his legal career with Chrysler in 1962, earning the worldly sum of $7,500 a year, some $300 more than Wall Street was paying first year lawyers at the time. He joined the automaker, at its corporate offices in Highland Park, after law school at the University of Michigan and Divinity School at Harvard. He earned his bachelor’s degree from U-M, where he studied Chinese and Russian for a possible career with the CIA.

Kirvan: How’s your tennis?

Elsman: Painful. I get beat more and more, and the hips and knees complain — I’m talking about when I play with women. However, my Metro Racquet Club in the ‘hood is still going successfully. Send it your spare money, as we train kids that even Roy Roberts can’t reach. Mrs. Crosby is the boss there, wife of my original partner, Principal Emeral Crosby.

Kirvan: What has changed in 50 years of law practice?

Elsman: Are you kidding? The whole world has changed, and I don’t even dare mention the recent elections. Let me count the ways:

(1) Women. More ladies now go to law school than men. God bless them. They don’t do so well in law practice by owning their own firms, but the judiciary and academia are more than kind to them, even allowing time for babies. There were almost no women in my law school class, but Amalya Kearse is now on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. She also was black, so we weren’t so Neanderthal, even 50 years ago.

(2) Diversity. Everyone is yelling the word, but nobody can define it. I just believe in a level playing field for all, not favoritism, but I’m a minority on that. There were just Catholics, Protestants, and Jews when I started. If you were GLBT, you just kept silent. I never knew one, until this century. There was even one prominent Muslim— the famous Mike Berry, who is still alive. It was never an issue, and they named an air terminal after him at Metro.

(3) Hardball Law. I used to settle cases over lunch, a drink, or supper. Now, you have to do a long dance through discovery, case evaluation, facilitation, motions, trial, appeals, etc. Lawyers owe the public a much better system of justice, but nobody is leading. For example, 10 good doctors and 10 good lawyers could devise a system of settling medical malpractice cases for fair value. No games. The same with the “Foreclosure Crisis” if lawyers and lenders cooperated. One thing is for sure — we can’t have defense counsel motivated to elongate a case, to get more billables. America’s middle and poorer classes can no longer afford lawyers. Let’s be honest.

(4) Corruption of the Judiciary. The judges have been corrupted by financing their next election. We have to amend our systems, drastically. In short, our best lawyers seldom make it to judgeships. I favor a modified “Missouri Plan.” Judge Victor Baum and myself once sued in the Supreme Court to limit lawyer gifts to $100 and won, but there is more to do — as exemplified by the recent Supreme Court spending excesses, and the “purchase of justice” we all know about.

(5) Advertising. It is not “Sam’s” or “Fieger’s” fault, because everyone is doing it. When I started, it was beneath lawyers to advertise. Now, even the big firms get out their P.R. releases and dominate the charity and society pages — besides the legal newspapers. Is it all about money? Do you really have a lawyer-client relationship?

(6) Computer Age. We used to read law books. Now, we hunch behind computers for research and communication. At the end of the day, we say: “What did I get done?” Lawyers cannot even spell anymore — they use spell-check systems. The day of the solo practitioner seems doomed in metro areas. Specialization is taking over.

(7) Law Schools. Today, many college kids go to law school because there are no jobs and they need more education upon undergrad being completed. Not me. I used to read Clarence Darrow and Louis Nizer, way back in high school. I haunted courtrooms when I was 17; saw murders and accident trials. Many lawyers discover too late that they hate the law, but need to keep a job. I was on a career path from an early age. Today, law schools give you much publicity if you donate to them. It sickens me. Why don’t they better prepare us to practice law with practicum courses? We are not there for academics. The recent one-third flunk out rate on the bar exam shows we may have many who should not be inflicted on the public.

(8) Ego. Lawyers brag more today, whether they practice or are judges. True humility is hard to find. They also brag when they have tricked a new lawyer — or an old lawyer. The profession will not survive long on such bloated egos and games. Care about the client, now! The profession doesn’t exist for you, the lawyer. You are merely a servant. Money does not measure your worth to clients, not to society.

(9) Real Substance to Pro Bono. We lawyers have not given nearly enough to society. The reality is that Detroit is the “Murder Capital of the U.S.,” if not the world, and we sit on our hands in the midst of such, making our money? Congress won’t solve this with ADC, food stamps, adult foster care homes, Social Security disability, welfare, or any program. I believe lawyers can do much more. How about each of the 25 largest law firms starting a charter school and staffing such with, yes, its lawyers, who are brilliant in many fields and acting as “Big Brothers” and “Big Sisters” to the school children.

Kirvan: So, attorney Elsman, what have you done to make life better for others?

Elsman: Not much, for 50 years of practice. Law is not a monastery. And, I believe you should keep your mouth shut about your “Mitzvahs.” God knows. Besides the completely
integrated — ownership and members for more than 40 years — Metro Tennis Club at 6 Mile and Meyers, I guess I haven’t done much. My big pro bono work is to represent more than 100 open-air preachers regarding their First Amendment “free speech” rights. I just concluded one case in Dearborn where my preachers faced a Muslim man who tried to run them down in a car. We worked it out in a Judeo-Christian way, i.e., the charge was attempted murder, but the man spent no time in jail, but got “anger management” and probation. Everyone was happy and the situation defused. By the way, I would not represent Terry Jones, pastor.

In my younger days, I did plenty of activism. At Michigan, I was editorial director of The Daily, and in the fall of 1957, I snuck into Little Rock Central High School to see if one of the nine kids was adequately protected from rednecks. I was arrested by Eisenhower’s military, but got the story. Thus, I was a “Freedom Rider” long before others went to fight segregation in the South, almost a decade later. This was a turbulent time in U.S. history — I actually trained Tom Hayden, leader of the SDS, while at The Daily. He later married “Hanoi Jane Fonda.”

In the spring of ‘58, I snuck into Batista-Cuba to see Castro in the mountains outside Guantanomo. Again, I was arrested — by Batista’s men and almost killed. I got the story and helped establish “investigative journalism” at Michigan.

Kirvan: Ready to retire?

Elsman: No. If the Lord tarries, I will work and play some tennis, but, frankly, I don’t mind those monthly Social Security checks I worked for. I guess I am a “Type A” and always will be. I particularly like the complex challenges of class actions, and business-related plaintiff and med mal cases. I did defense at Chrysler, so I see both sides easily and do case evaluation in all three positions — plaintiff, defense, or neutral.

Now, back to your tennis game . . .

I play tennis tournaments with many lawyers you would not expect - U.S. District Judge Paul Borman, Don Pierce, Mel Saperstein, et. al. Mel sums me up this way: “Elsman is definitely out of shape, but he wins mentally by never having been less than No. 1 for 40 years straight, always anticipating your next shot. To say he is chubby is too kind. Elsman has never met a meal he didn’t like; and he has never grabbed the check for one.”