Risk and reward: Solo practice grew into a boutique firm specializing in bankruptcy law

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

It’s very tough nowadays to hang out your shingle as a solo practitioner, according to attorney Earle Erman.

But that was a route he successfully took in the mid-’70s, founding his own solo practice and growing it into Erman, Teicher, Miller, Zucker & Freedman, an eight-lawyer boutique firm in Southfield, specializing in bankruptcy, insolvency, and the debtor/creditor area.

Armed with a Michigan State University degree in advertising – a background that taught him how to present and package an argument in a persuasive way, Erman headed to Detroit College of Law, now MSU College of Law, before transferring and graduating, cum laude, from Wayne State University Law School.

His first job was for an attorney who was a bankruptcy trustee – an area Erman had some familiarity with as a few family members practiced in this field.

“I like bankruptcy work,” he says. “I became a bankruptcy trustee during my first job, and had a few cases where I would administer assets or run businesses. I ended up acting as a trustee for almost 20 years while continuing my law practice. I eventually decided I wanted to get more into the exclusive practice of law.” 

After 18 months with another firm, Erman decided to fly solo –and wore many hats, handling probate assignments, criminal assignments, divorce, real estate, and bankruptcy.  Eventually, his practice settled into bankruptcy law.

“I always believed your clients weed out what your specialty is going to be,” he says. “You end up shying away from areas of law you don’t like, and get more work in the areas you have an interest in.”

His firm grew gradually, adding lawyers one at a time.

“Over the years, we developed the insolvency practice pretty exclusively,” he says. “It’s broadened, but my four partners – Julie Teicher, David Miller, Craig Zucker and David Freedman – have all been recognized as having significant experience in their respective practice areas, all of which are in the debtor/creditor area and business related.”

Although small, the firm has an excellent reputation and has been involved in many of the major bankruptcy cases filed in Detroit and many of the major cases filed in New York, Delaware, Illinois, California and Nevada involving Detroit-related companies. Erman and his four partners have all been recognized by The Best Lawyers in America and the firm also was recognized by U.S. News – Best Lawyers “Best Law Firms” in the areas of bankruptcy law and corporate law.

“We’re proud of that because we are in the Tier 1 category,” Erman says. “So we have a fairly seasoned and well-experienced group of lawyers.

“We found a niche, and I’d like to see our firm continue. I’d like to keep working as long as I can since I still enjoy it. What makes our firm so special is that we really have a great mix of people. We often eat lunch together as a group in our lunchroom. We get along really well and enjoy talking about our cases and their complexities and consulting with one another on the issues. And we’ve been able to maintain that balance of working hard when necessary while also recognizing we need to enjoy our time away from the office.”

In the years ahead, Erman would like to see the firm expand, if and when necessary. 

“We’ve never been interested in expansion just for the sake of expansion. Lawyers tend to wait until they’re overloaded before they hire someone – we’ve been guilty of that as well.” 

 Bankruptcy is an interesting field and many attorneys who specialize in it really enjoy the work, he says. 

“It allows you to deal with a lot of general areas of law, which makes it interesting.  Even though you deal with the Bankruptcy Court and the Bankruptcy Code, at the same time, you could be dealing with a case that involves like tort issues, family law or real estate law.”

In his view, it’s a good niche for new attorneys coming out of law school and looking for areas that are solid and are going to last.

“The bankruptcy practice area is that,” he says. “Recently it’s been hard for new attorneys to find jobs. I’d still encourage an attorney who has an interest in bankruptcy to pursue a position in that field.”

 While the bankruptcy practice is cyclical, it’s always been a fairly significant part of the practice of law, he says.

“Bankruptcy is mandated by the U.S. Constitution, so it’s not going to disappear, but there have been ups and downs,” Erman says. “Right now, I’d say we’re in somewhat of a down market in the bankruptcy practice area. National bankruptcy filings for businesses are down. Not that there’s nothing to do right now, it’s just that a lot of the big cases, like the auto manufacturers and suppliers, have been filed in the last 10 years. The surviving manufacturers and suppliers are now seeing better times.

“Personally, I’m happy to see improvement in the economy and look forward to Michigan’s economy continuing to improve.”

 Another important part of the firm’s practice is representing the construction trade’s fringe benefits funds, something the firm started doing at its inception in the 1970s. 

“This is basically collection work against contractors who are not paying their fringe benefit contributions,” Erman explains. “We’re working for a trust fund established under ERISA on behalf of a group of employees, who may not have received their health care benefits, pension, or vacation pay.

“This takes us into the Bankruptcy Court, a natural fit for our practice. The law has developed under the Bankruptcy Code and otherwise in a fairly favorable way for union fringe benefit funds.  This gets us involved in many of the cases that are filed in Detroit and out of state.”

Erman, named in The Best Lawyers in America-Bankruptcy, is admitted to practice in numerous federal courts, and is a member of the State Bar of Michigan (Debtor/Creditor Rights Committee), American Bankruptcy Institute, and Federal Bar Association.

Erman has enjoyed sitting on a Merit Selection Panel that made recommendations for a Bankruptcy Judge seat in the Eastern District of Michigan; and speaking to a panel of experts in Washington D.C., studying possible changes under the Bankruptcy Code that could have eliminated certain protections for employees under collective bargaining agreements.

“My participation, I believe, played a part in preserving the rights of workers under the Bankruptcy Code,” he says.

A Huntington Woods native who now lives in Bloomfield Hills, Erman is a cheerleader for the Great Lakes State.

“I love living in Michigan. We have so many great resources in this area –culturally, the landscape, the Great Lakes. I think a lot of the young people who’ve moved out of the state to find jobs would really like to be back if the economy here were such that they could find jobs, because this is a really fabulous place to live.  I’m a big believer Detroit is coming back and, in our lifetime, we’ll see it back to the days when it was strong.” 

  Erman and his wife Beth – a substitute teacher in special education – have three children. Mark followed his father to Wayne Law and a law career; Alyse works for a nonprofit agency in the area of community development; and Eric works in the beer brewing industry. 

Erman de-stresses from the practice of law by participating in a number of activities outside the office, including serving on the board of the Anti-Defamation League; he has also served as co-chair of the Board of Visitors, and chair of the Development Committee, at WSU Law School.

An avid bicyclist since the 1970s, he rides about 3,000 miles a year, all over the state and especially up north. He often rides with a group of about a dozen men and women.
“While we don’t compete in organized races,” he says, “we’re somewhat competitive with one another in that we try to ride hard and stay strong.”

A couple of years ago, he and three friends went to France and bicycled the same routes at the same time as the Tour de France riders.

“That was very tough, but also very exciting at the same time,” he says. “We rode three of the stages of the Tour over the course of a few days. For me, bicycling is exercise and mental therapy. It’s a way to get in a good workout, spend time with friends, and recharge.”

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