By design: Group trains focus on appellate matters

 By Paul Janczewski

Legal News
Many law firms may claim to have an appellate practice, but in many cases it might just be one attorney who specializes in the field and also performs a number of other duties.
But that is not the case at the Southfield firm of Collins Einhorn Farrell, where five of its 35 lawyers work in the appellate group. And that’s their sole focus.
Take it from someone who knows—Noreen Slank, who heads up the group.
“We are a rootin’-tootin’, for real appellate department,” she said with a grin. 
While Slank is careful not to disparage other firms who say they have appellate groups, Slank knows the value of the appellate team at Collins Einhorn Farrell.
The firm was founded in 1971, and as it has grown, so has its reputation in defense litigation in state and federal courts for institutional and individual clients. It specializes in professional liability defense litigation cases, such as medical, legal and accounting malpractice, and includes asbestos and toxic tort litigation, employment, workers’ compensation, insurance coverage, and general and automobile liability. The appellate group started in 1980, the year Slank was hired. 
“Can just one person be a group?” she asked rhetorically. 
In those early days, Slank likely did the work of two or more attorneys. She was the sixth person to join the firm, hired primarily to handle major cases and appeals. Slank graduated from Wayne State University in 1974, earned a master’s degree a year later, and received her law degree from WSU in 1980.
But her DNA was all about appellate work. Even back then, appellate jobs were scarce, but Slank said she’s always been drawn “to the thinking side of lawyering, rather than the doing side.” 
Luckily for her, the firm, although small in the early days, had made a commitment to have an attorney who would be devoted to research, writing, and handling appeals.
“And it just grew from there,” she said.
The firm was representing other lawyers in legal malpractice cases, and Slank said the research demands were creating a mountain of work. Now, the group is headed by Slank, and backed up by attorneys Deborah Hebert, Geoffrey Brown, Michael Cook, and Trent Collier.
For the appellate group, like the “Field of Dreams,” the mantra was “If you build it, they will come.” And did they ever. Slank said much of the firm’s workload comes from outside, and the appellate group is a major profit center for the firm. Some cases they handle stem from cases produced internally, but many more come from the outside, according to Hebert.
“A lot of cases that come from outside our firm involve complicated legal issues, or large judgments, or tend to be pretty significant cases, so that when they do come in, we need more than just one person to work on it,” Hebert said.
Hebert also found that appellate work was her forte. After graduating from Michigan State University in 1974, she went to the University of Detroit School of Law. After graduating in 1981, Hebert eventually became a partner in a law firm and was the “go-to person” for writing and research projects.
“Anything that really required me to just sit and write and research,” she said of her areas of expertise.
Her appellate background included a law school stint with the state Court of Appeals, where she became acquainted with the “ins and outs” of appellate work. 
“I like the solitude of it, the fact you get a lot of time to think about one thing, and to really explore an issue and get to know it well,” she said. “I think that appellate lawyers and trial lawyers have different skill sets and different personalities.”
Hebert, who joined Collins Einhorn eight years ago, has been active in the State Bar’s Appellate Practice Section. Often referred to as the “mother” of the Appellate Practice Section, Hebert was its founding chair, while Slank also has headed the state panel. Brown is currently a council member.
Slank said the appellate work usually comes with a strict deadline and “intense time demands.”
“The time frames are very short,” Slank said. “We laugh about it, but we welcome it, and we are used a lot around Christmas time, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and other holidays when we can help out our fellow lawyers and put our nose to the grindstone.”
And their work has been noticed, by other attorneys and law firms, and the judges they appear before. Slank stops short of declaring Collins Einhorn Farrell as the go-to firm for appeals in the greater Detroit area, “But I can say, with a little bit of bragging, that we’re one of them,” she said. 
One attorney-rating group named her as the best appellate lawyer in the area, although 
Slank is quick to give credit to her group. 
“This is not a one-man, or a one-woman show,” Slank said. “It’s reflective of the group we have. When you have that kind of depth and a group with all this analytic, research and writing skills that are there, I think that’s why we’ve built a reputation for good work.”
Hebert said a large portion of their work includes being brought in post-judgment from other law firms. 
“But we are not a group that is territorial, either about the client or in rejecting the knowledge of the trial attorney,” Slank said. “If the trial attorney wants to be involved in the appellate phase, we are a group that really nurtures that. And that is good for business as well because other lawyers know that our partners are not out to raid their client. We’re here to fulfill a purpose and we are respectful of their expertise and their client base.”
Slank believes that having an appellate group is important for a firm. 
“Appeals are a different animal than trial level work, both procedurally and substantively because different rules apply,” she said. 
Hebert agrees, and adds they don’t “jettison the expertise of trial lawyers, but we add a new level of expertise that’s appropriate.”
Slank said the respect they’ve gained is reflected through their work “by presenting a consistently excellent brief at the appellate level, and presenting an alert and agile oral argument at the appellate level.”
Hebert said their reputation and expertise is cemented in legal circles by the work they produce on a regular basis, and by their involvement in bar functions that promote appellate practice.
Slank is not one for keeping statistics on the group’s won-lost record, but is proud to say that in a number of significant cases, they have been able to change trial results, reverse large judgments, and record victories at the Michigan Supreme Court after the case has been lost at the first level of appeal.
Slank said they’ve worked on a wide variety of personal injury cases, construction accidents, legal and medical malpractice matters, and product liability disputes, primarily on behalf of defendants. While they do not handle criminal appeals or tax appeals, they do defend attorneys who have been sued in those areas.
“That’s one of the draws of our appellate practice,” Hebert said. “You get to experience and learn about a wide range of substantive areas. You might have a probate appeal one day, an insurance contract another, and a product liability case after that. I love the diversity of subject matter.”
Slank said the group prides itself in handling legal malpractice cases. 
“Being the appellate lawyers to the lawyers is a very meaningful experience that we take very seriously,” she said. “It also exposes us to a variety of practices.”

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