Super Lawyers practice ADR-at home


By John Minnis
Legal News

Cindy Merry and Gene Esshaki are Super Lawyers, litigators and founding partners in their respective firms. They’re also husband and wife.

Merry is head of her own firm, Merry, Farnen & Ryan, in Roseville. Esshaki is a founding shareholder of Abbot, Nicholson, Quilter, Esshaki & Youngblood located at 300 River Place near downtown Detroit.

Both are defense litigators, though in different areas. Merry specializes in medical malpractice while Esshaki’s expertise is in complex commercial transactions. Their partnership is in marriage only.

“We never discuss a client,” says Merry. “We discuss issues.”

Esshaki concurs: “To the fullest extent possible, I leave my work in my office. We do not discuss cases. We have theoretical discussions.”

“We discuss strategies, war stories,” Merry says. “We’re both fairly strong individuals. We have to know when to compromise. We have developed that pretty well.”

“I do not litigate the type of cases she does,” Esshaki adds. “The only thing we have in common is we know the litigation process very well.”

With a Bachelor of Science Degree from the University of Michigan, Merry originally went into teaching. She taught phys. ed. for eight years and earned a psychology degree from Oakland University before going to law school.

“I just wanted to go into a profession,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in forensics, things like that.”

Through a mutual friend, Esshaki met Merry, a fellow divorcee, while she was teaching and thinking about going to law school. Esshaki explains that Merry’s father was a World War II fighter pilot and raised his children by the norms of the time.

“She got channeled as a woman,” he says. “Women went into either nursing or teaching.”

Merry earned her law degree at the Detroit College of Law. Esshaki and Merry were married in 1983, a year after she entered the bar: 1982.

“She always felt there was something more challenging out there for her,” Essaki says. “And I think, looking back, she was absolutely right.”

Merry began clerking with Vandeveer Garzia in Troy, where she was assigned to the medical malpractice department. She became experienced in defense work for hospitals, physicians, nursing homes and health care facilities. In 1999, she and two others partners left to form their own firm.

“We literally took the malpractice department and moved it,” Merry recalls.

Today, Merry, Fanen & Ryan has six attorneys. Merry is the managing partner.

Merry is admitted to the state and federal courts in Michigan and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. She is a member of the Oakland, Macomb and state bar associations, and is past chair of the State Bar of Michigan’s Negligence Committee. She is also a member of the Association of Defense Trial Counsel and is on the Michigan executive board of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). She is a certified mediator and a private and court-appointed arbitrator.

Furthermore, she is a Super Lawyer many times over: 2007 through 2010 in malpractice defense, Top 50 Women Lawyers in 2008 through 2010, and Top 100 Lawyers for 2009 and 2010.

Five out of six lawyers at the firm have been named Super Lawyers.

She credits her recognition to her having been in her field of law for a long time and for her exposure as chair of the state bar’s Negligence Committee, the largest section of the bar and comprised of both plaintiff and defense lawyers.

“You get to know a lot of people,” she says. “I think I have the reputation of being very aggressive but fair.”

Esshaki believes his wife is being modest. He should know. He is not only a Super Lawyer himself, he also sits on a Blue Ribbon panel of lawyers that vets future Super Lawyers.

“You’re not nominated so much for your image,” he says, “but whether you are good at what you do. She has done very well, and that’s where I think her nominations come from.”

He also points to her being on the executive board of ABOTA as evidence of his wife’s success in her field of law.

“She was invited to ABOTA two years before I was,” he points out. “Only 5 percent of trial lawyers are ever invited to ABOTA.”

The American Board of Trial Advocates was formed in 1957 by plaintiff and defense trial lawyers for the purpose of preservation and education of the trial-by-jury system.

Esshaki is recognized as a Super Lawyer in the area alternative dispute resolution. He earned that designation in 2007, 2008 and 2009. DBusiness Magazine recognized him as a Top Lawyer in Metro Detroit for 2010. He also holds an “AV” rating from Martindale-Hubbell, the highest rating awarded attorneys by their peers.

Though top in his field and a founding shareholder of Abbott Nicholson, one of Detroit’s premier commercial law firms, Esshaki had an inauspicious beginning.

After graduating from Southfield High School, he went to Highland Park Community College, “which was the only place that would take me.” He then transferred to Wayne State University.

“Things started to happen, just turned on,” Esshaki says of college experience. “I started enjoying school.”

He credits much of his conversion to a visiting professor from Paris who stressed a classical education—art, history, music, mathematics, geography—“all the things that make life worth living.”

“Then once you have that foundation,” he says, “then decide what you want to do for a living.”

He earned his BA degree in 1971 and went right into WSU Law School.

“I knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” Esshaki recalls.

His father, a storeowner, was not so sure and wanted his son to learn a trade “just in case.”

“So I was a butcher,” Esshaki says. “He taught me to cut meat. Let me say, it was not a pretty job. If anything, that inspired me to work hard in law school.”

He began clerking at Abbot Nicholson as a third-year law student in 1973 and never left.

“I’ve had two jobs in my life,” Esshaki says, “here and with my father.”

Despite his father’s concerns, Esshaki did not have to go back to cutting meat. He excelled at Abbott Nicholson, eventually rising to managing partner, a post he filled for 12 years.

“To become managing partner at a firm where you clerked is quite an accomplishment,” he says.

Even so, he agrees with a colleague’s comparison of a managing partner to “a fire hydrant outside a dog pound.”

“The two happiest days of my life,” he says, “were my first day as managing partner and my last day as managing partner. I decided managing partner was a role for a younger man.”

That younger man turned out to be William D. Gilbride Jr.

When Esshaki was a young man starting out, Abbott Nicholson was a smaller firm, allowing the fledgling attorney to try his hand at everything. Four or five years later, the firm opened a litigation practice, and Esshaki found his calling.

“I love litigation,” he says, “and I love to fight.”

The cases grew in number and complexity. He enjoyed the work, but as his partner, C. Richard Abbott, told him, “Litigators are dead or drunk by 60. Keep that in mind.” Esshaki did and became an arbitrator.

While Esshaki still litigates a couple of cases a year “to keep my skills up,” most of his practice involves complex commercial arbitration and ADR, alternative dispute resolution.

“I literally become the judge in arbitration cases,” he says. “My decision is binding.”

Esshaki said it is his complex commercial litigation experience that makes him a successful, sought-after arbitrator and mediator, someone business litigants trust and are willing to give up their rights to their day in court, a jury trial and to appeal.

“They feel they are better off,” he says, “to end the dispute expeditiously and quietly. As an experienced litigator, I can tell the client what his attorney can’t: the likelihood of success, cost, what happens if you lose. I am able to bring reality to the parties.”

To become a mediator, Esshaki took the mandatory 40-hour class. Now he teaches the follow-up class, “Masters in Mediation,” for senior mediators.

“Litigation is expensive and time-consuming,” he says. “It’s a wasteful process for dispute resolution. Anytime that jury goes out, you are no better than 50-50.”

“It’s been very challenging,” he says of his roles as mediator and arbitrator. “There’s often a great deal of money on the table, and it is often very contentious.”

When not litigating and managing their respective firms, Esshaki and Merry raised two successful daughters. One, Katherine, graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and is practicing in Cleveland. The other, Kristin, went to Albion College before earning her MBA at Michigan and is an executive at Ford Motor Co.

Merry relates how Katherine vowed never to be a lawyer because “you two just talk about the law too much.” Esshaki tells how Kristin one-ups her sister by pointing that while Katherine graduated from the country’s No. 5 ranked law school, she went to the No. 1 ranked business school.

“They saw what being a professional was,” Merry says, “and the rewards for hard work.”

Katherine interned for five years at Abbott Nicholson “because she was good at it,” the proud father says. “Her sister is just as competent in her field. They were very competitive.”

Now that they are empty-nesters, Merry dotes on her canine family members, Lucy, a Chihuahua/miniature pinscher mix (“I had her DNA tested”) they got from a local veterinarian, and Ricky, a German short-haired pointer (“We don’t know what he is really”) they adopted from the Grosse Pointe Animal Adoption Society.

Esshaki said the best thing about being married to an attorney is that “she understands your life,” like when she has a 6 p.m. dinner party planned and he calls and says he can’t make it because he is with a client. “She understands I can’t go. She knows what I go through.”

“We share,” Merry says, when asked about the best part of being married to an attorney. “We have a lot to talk about.”

She said the worst thing is when he tries to tell her something about the law and she disagrees.

“We let it go,” she says, “because he’s not going to change his mind, and I’m not going to change.”

“We both understand,” Esshaki says, “that when I seek your advice, it doesn’t mean I’ll follow it. And it’s not an insult to you if I don’t follow it.”

When asked the worst thing about being married to a lawyer, Esshaki says, “We are trained to question; we are trained to fight. And sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you find yourself engaged in that verbal combat.”

As litigators, both are quick on their feet, but Merry says her husband says he can’t remember the last time he won an argument.

“It works well,” Esshaki says.