Perfect fit: Attorney well suited for federal magistrate bench

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Laurie Michelson will be the first to say she had a great gig with a topnotch team at Butzel Long in downtown Detroit, where she'd earned the reputation as one of the hardest workers in the firm.

But six months into her new job as a federal magistrate judge in the courthouse two blocks away, Michelson also is very happy in her new position she made the switch.

She enjoys the fact that every day brings fresh challenges. She's again able to spend much of her time engaged in her favorite parts of the law -- research and writing. And she likes the fact that she no longer has to worry about bringing in clients.

In federal court, the cases never stop.

"In private practice you spend so much time worrying about having enough billable hours work," said Michelson, 44. "You can spend all your time just focusing on the work. I'd rather come to work and just worry about doing the work and not: 'Do I have enough clients? What am I going to do when this case ends?'"

Asked if the hours are better, too, Michelson said working hard is just part of her nature, and as long as there is more to read about a case, she'll be taking work home.

That doesn't surprise attorney David DuMouchel, who worked on many cases with Michelson at Butzel Long, including a case in Boston that lasted several months and was at the time the largest health care fraud case brought by the federal government.

The pair gained their client's acquittal -- which was the happiest day in Michelson's career so far.

"Nobody in this law firm worked harder than she did," DuMouchel said. "Nobody. Nor did anybody do a better job. I know she's carrying that same work ethic and quality to her job as magistrate judge."

He said she's a solid team player who has joined an excellent bench, and her polite, pleasant personality is an asset because the magistrate judges' bench is the initial contact litigants have with the court system.

"It's a scary experience for them, and our magistrate judges' bench is a quality group of people who recognize that," he said.

DuMouchel said Michelson will take an active hand in aspects of civil litigation where magistrate judges have an impact, as well as in settlement efforts.

"I was very pleased she was able to get that position, but it was certainly a big loss to our firm and to our clients," he said.

Michelson's admiration for DuMouchel is just as great. In fact, it was when she realized that he would retire before she does that she began thinking about where she would be in 10 to 15 years.

"I wasn't sure I saw myself running that practice or doing that work without him or without the group," she said, sitting in the chair she brought with her from Butzel Long two blocks away ("They were just going to throw it away!").

Michelson always wanted to be a judge; her interest in becoming a lawyer was always more on the academic side. So being a magistrate judge was a perfect fit because it's a combination of criminal and civil, and demands research and writing.

Figuring she'd already learned from the best, she decided to apply to fill the magistrate judge vacancy created by the retirement of Magistrate Judge Donald A. Scheer.

"In a perfect world, you would set your own time line, but these opportunities only come up very infrequently," said Michelson, who is past president of the Federal Bar Association's Eastern District of Michigan chapter.

Michelson was one of five persons nominated by a court-appointed Merit Selection Panel from among 107 applicants. She was sworn in in February.

Because she had been in private practice for nearly 18 years, she felt (and still feels) some anxiety starting a new job with a learning curve. But everyone has been supportive, welcoming, and eager to help, she said. "It's a great place to be."

Every case filed in federal court is assigned to a district judge, and to a referring magistrate judge. Those are all randomly drawn, so magistrate judges work with all district court judges, who for the most part are free to refer any matter to the magistrate judge except for felony criminal cases.

Some cases are routinely automatically referred to the magistrate judges for all pre-trial matters, including Social Security disability cases and prisoner civil rights cases.

Magistrate judges often hear discovery motions, pretrial criminal matters, motions to suppress, and handle settlement conferences, which she finds particularly rewarding.

Magistrate judges do all the preliminary criminal appearances. Those who are indicted or arrested on a federal criminal charge appear before a magistrate judge, are advised of their rights, and have counsel appointed if necessary. Magistrate judges make the initial decision whether they're detained or released on bond pending trial.

"Some people said, 'Why do you want to be a magistrate judge and go do prisoner cases and Social Security cases?'" she said. "And you realize that in these Social Security cases, that is probably the most important thing that's going on in that person's life. There's nothing insignificant about it."

The biggest surprise is how close the calls are.

"I knew, obviously, that these would be tough decisions to make," she said. "And maybe it's just because I'm new, but the vast majority of cases have been much closer calls than I anticipated would be the case."

Michelson, who is single, grew up in Oak Park and Bloomfield Hills and now live in West Bloomfield. The avid golfer says she is completely devoted to her nieces and nephews. Her extended family, including her identical twin, Pam, work for the Troy advertising agency, Simons Michelson Zieve, started by her grandfather. Two brothers-in-law work at Doner Advertising in Southfield.

The family's lone magistrate judge says the hardest part about the transition was leaving her co-workers. Luckily, they're just two blocks away, and enjoy meeting occasionally for lunch at The Caucus Club.

Attorney Tom Cranmer of Miller, Canfield, Paddock, and Stone PLC recalls writing a recommendation letter for Michelson when she was seeking a clerk's position with Judge Cornelia Kennedy of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals after she graduated from Northwestern Law School.

Although he hasn't yet had the opportunity to appear in court in front of her, Cranmer said one of his partners described her as extremely well prepared.

"She knew all the issues that were presented in connection with the motion, was very respectful to lawyers, listened carefully to what they had to say, and then crafted an opinion that was Solomon-esque, and fair to both parties," he said.

"Everything that I hear suggests she's doing a wonderful job."

Published: Tue, Aug 23, 2011