'An unlawyerly lawyer' Ann Arbor attorney helps clients build their dreams

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Step into the Ann Arbor law office of Steven Rich and it's immediately apparent by the guitar, the children's artwork, the giant Lava Lamp and the cards promoting his laser lightshow that here works a guy who likes to mix business with pleasure.

And among those pleasures are team building and connecting clients with others who can help them, while clarifying their legal relationships and obligations.

Most people have no idea what Steven Rich means when he says he practices "generative law."

"I use the term as an alternative to fighting and competing--which, yes, in this profession, we all do sometimes," said Rich, sitting in one of several law offices above the Main Street Espresso Royale. "But in my practice I do try to emphasize making things: taking something creative, innovative, or helpful, building something around it to make it useful and sustainable, and replicating it to increase social utility and longevity. Generative.''

Rich helps people reach their dreams.

His clients include a creative roster of people who make art, food, music, web sites, automotive equipment and e commerce ventures, as well as innovators in IT, marketing, medical, scientific, manufacturing, media and education. He also helps nonprofits and arts based enterprises.

Rich loves both technology-based companies and those made of brick and mortar. Last year, Glee and Steve Havens, a master pastry chef and her engineer husband/business partner, consulted Steve about a special dream: Glee's own local high-end bakery. Rich helped the couple think through and formalize their business structure, contractual relationships and other legal necessities.

Today, Glee Cake and Pastry dispenses delectable treats in a European atmosphere on Main Street in downtown Chelsea.

"That kind of connection and joy in dealing with cool, skilled, adventurous people of good will --that's the best part of the job," he said. "The dream turns into a business which turns into a livelihood which becomes a portfolio of intellectual property and long term good will."

Rich loves being involved in the community, and not just in legal-related organizations. He sits on the Board of Flint's Center for Civil Justice; is an Ann Arbor SPARK consultant and committee member; a volunteer coach with Great Lakes Entrepreneur's Quest; counselor to Creative-Rights.org, a new non profit supporting artists; and a senior consultant to the Chelsea based Factotem Constellation, a socialistic network of technology and business service providers.

Determined to continue casting a broad net, Rich also just formed an association with the Oakland County law firm of Evans & Luptak.

Still, Rich insists his favorite networking event is running into a friend on the street.

"My favorite kind of relationships are long-term ones; I'm hoping to keep watching some of those folks I've helped, and stay a part of their lives," he said.

Rich grew up in the Washington, DC suburbs, in Silver Spring, Maryland, the son of a Polish immigrant who survived the Holocaust and the U.S. soldier who liberated her from a concentration camp and went on to a career in government and diplomacy.

"To this day, despite the bad things my mother has seen, she relentlessly sees the good in people, and she also sees duplicity and fascism around corners," he said. "My dad was a socially gifted, warm person who built community wherever he went. Both were people of deep social conscience. If a trace of that legacy moves through me and my children and my own community, I'm happy."

Rich's father passed away when he was in middle school. His mother will be 88 next month.

Before moving to Michigan in 2003, Rich was a software product manager who helped raise the visibility of speech and language technology, as well act as a 'bridge between developers and end users.'

Rich and his wife, Patricia Deldin, moved to Ann Arbor after she was recruited as a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, and he was invited to work concurrently for the Michigan Poverty Law Program and Legal Aid of South Central Michigan.

He quickly realized he was surrounded by hard-working, creative people making the best of a damaged economy, infrastructure and culture.

"There's a kind of magic here," said Rich, who spent last weekend in Detroit with his wife and sons Jacob, 17, and Benjamin, 8. "The `Imported from Detroit' phrase touched me, because I understand the dark side and the light side, and the hope and the promise. The big picture of why I do what I do here is that we decided to be part of the solution; not part of the problem of smart, creative people leaving."

While at the Michigan Poverty Law Program, he served two roles: representing low-income people in Washtenaw County, and a ''Technology Attorney'' helping publicly funded Legal Aid programs expand their use of technology.

After three years, he worked with employment attorney Nick Roumel, who says Rich is bright, engaging, and analytical in a creative way.

"There is nothing conventional about Steve," said Roumel. "He is the most unlawyerly lawyer I know, and I mean that in a good way. When he and I worked together and were taking photos for our web page, he wanted to have them taken at the Fleetwood Diner wearing flannels and jeans. In situations where other lawyers will just become more stressed, Steve will sit back, smile, press the tips of his fingers to each other, and say to himself, "This is a fascinating issue! How can we solve it?"

Roumel said that Rich and his son once fixed what Roumel thought was a hopelessly broken CD player, just by tinkering with it.

"That's his approach to practicing law," he said. "Creative tinkering can fix anything."

Rich later went into private practice with Michael Gatti and Robert Dawid. They currently work together at 214 S. Main among several attorneys who work in private offices off a long hallway in what Rich calls "The Lawyer Clubhouse.''

Clubhouse members include Larry Margolis, Tania Cook, Adam Eichner, Daniel Shiemke, Will Farah, and Stacey Washington.

"I love the camaraderie and the individuals, and being downtown," said Rich, who also fondly mentioned 'several guitars' in the office.

"What I do now involves standing between multiple parties and helping an enterprise or endeavor move forward based on the joint expectations, hopes, dreams, and wishes of the folks who are whispering into either ear."

Sandra Xenakis, director of the Art Meets Business program at The Arts Alliance and a business coach for creative entrepreneurs and small business owners, met Rich when he spoke at an Art Meets Business meeting about legal issues for artists.

"Steve is knowledgeable, generous and very approachable as an attorney for artists," she said.

She said she appreciates the fact that he speaks in language artists understand and offers what they need--and no more - at an affordable price.

Rich went to law school at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where his favorite memories involve taking his books on hikes into nearby Giant City State Park and learning the law in the woods.

"That's why I didn't get to know some of my classmates," he said. "But I loved it."

Over many years, music has played a big part in Rich's life, and there was a time when he made a substantial part of his living playing the bass and guitar.

That's been a while.

"But I refuse to put down the sword permanently, and as a matter of fact, in my current life it's become more important," he said. "I do lots and lots of cerebral stuff, and music is a nice counterbalancing force."

In fact, many of his clients and collaborators are very technical, which often coincides with those who are very musical.

"Music's all over my life even if I wasn't playing music," he said. "So I might as well."

He's recently begun a monthly gig at Silvio's Organic Ristorante and Pizzeria in Ann Arbor, and his next performance there is Tuesday, April 17. Special guest Mike Gatti and other musical members of the bar may join him at future dates.

What time?

"Whenever I feel like opening my guitar case," he said. "About seven-whatever. We'll just say evening."

Always interested in the latest technology and the next Big Thing, Rich can sometimes be found manning the lights as one of the men behind Illuminatus, a lightshow troupe that includes laser and video effects deployed at conventions, parties, trade shows, concerts, and dances.

''I often took apart flashlights when I was five; this is the logical extension," he said. "Actually, a lot of what I do is probably related to that, making things light up combined with the sense of community I got from my parents and brothers."

What's next for Rich?

He says it's simple.

" I want to take care of the people I know, get to know more of them, say no once in a while," he said, "and do good work."

Published: Thu, Mar 29, 2012

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