Up to the challenge: State Bar honoree beats the odds in health scare

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By Linda Laderman
Legal News

Julie Fershtman, a shareholder at Foster Swift in Detroit and a nationally recognized expert in equine law, has been an attorney for more than 30 years, but her interest in the legal profession started long before she graduated from law school.

Unlike most of her peers, Fershtman liked to spend her breaks from school working. As it turned out her father was a criminal defense attorney, who was also her employer. 

That experience gave her the chance to see what it takes to practice law, and to read the bar journals that were scattered around his office.

“I didn’t spend a lot of time going to summer camp. I worked for my father a lot, helping to file things and running to the courthouse,” Fershtman said.

She said she would look through her father’s bar journals “and see the kinds of things the bar was accomplishing, even back then.

“The legislative work it was doing and how active it seemed to be helping lawyers do their job, and of course, looking out for the public,”?Fershtman said. “That gave me a lot of respect for the bar.”

Fershtman’s ongoing respect for the bar will be recognized when she receives, along with her 21st Century Practice Task Force co-chair, Bruce Courtade, the Roberts P. Hudson Award at the State Bar of Michigan’s annual meeting Sept. 27 in Grand Rapids.

Like many young lawyers, Fershtman said her involvement in the SBM started as a way to meet other new attorneys and expand her involvement in the legal community.

“When I was two years out of law school and the bar journal came out with petitions to join its Young Lawyers Section, it seemed like a natural progression,” Fershtman said. “I didn’t do it because I wanted to be president of the bar, but I thought it would be a great opportunity to break the monotony of being a young associate and a chance to learn more about the bar. I joined in 1988 and have been involved ever since.”

In 2012, Fershtman became president of the SBM, a term she began with a diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer, and a resolve to not let it stand in the way of her new responsibilities.

“Maybe having breast cancer at the worst possible time was a great motivator because I wanted to get through the presidency and I wanted to do a good job. I was really angry from the moment they found that lump. I wondered if that helped me get through, because I got through it pretty well, considering that I had a double mastectomy and four rounds of chemo,” Fershtman said. 

“Throughout I just stayed focused,” she added.

During her treatment, Fershtman made every minute count, even using her insomnia, a side effect of chemotherapy, to channel her sleeplessness into a project for the SBM.

“One of the side effects of chemo for me was insomnia, and I also had a presidential blog, http://www.sbmpres2012.com, and if I couldn’t sleep, I was writing entries on my blog,” Fershtman recalled. “The day my cancer was confirmed, I went to a bar event and that night I posted on my blog. I just kept focusing on my presidency instead of feeling self-pity. It also helped to have great staff and people like Bruce (Courtade) who, at the time, was my president-elect.”

For his part, Courtade saw Fershtman as someone who stepped into her new role with such confidence, that very few of their colleagues were even aware of what she was facing.

“Julie is a long-time friend and a true inspiration. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she didn’t miss a beat. In fact, by the end of her term most people hadn’t even realized what she’d been dealing with. That’s just the way she is,” Courtade said. 

With Courtade, Fershtman and the task force issued a report that among other initiatives, recommended that the legal community find a way to reduce costs for their clients, through a concept called “unbundling.”

“When a person hires a lawyer the obligation and expectation is to carry through that work from the beginning to end. It has been against the regulations for an attorney to only help a client with a discreet task,” Fershtman said. “There was a strong recommendation for the task force that they change the rules to encourage unbundling of services for a whole bunch of different reasons. I’m glad to say that was one of the initiatives of the task force that has been approved and implemented.”

Apart from her efforts on behalf of the bar, Fershtman has a robust equine law practice that is rooted in a childhood love for horses.

“My parents divorced when I was young, and I was with my father on the weekends. He didn’t know what to do with me so, when he learned that I liked horses, I started taking riding lessons,” Fershtman said. “I progressed and he ended up buying me a horse. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a little hairy pony, but I love horses and have owned a few over the years.”

After earning her undergraduate and law degrees from Emory University, Fershtman returned to Michigan, where her love for horses eventually spilled over into her law practice.

“I was at a firm that was encouraging lawyers,” she said. “It wasn’t until that point that I started researching equine law. It was in the early ‘90s. There wasn’t an Internet.”

Fershtman said she would spend weekends at the law library reading cases and articles on the law and horses “until they kicked me out.” 

“In my research I started noticing trends trends in liability. There was a body of law that was being passed in certain states and they seemed to begin picking up steam,” she said. “I became one of the first to track and write about this trend. Suddenly, I started getting speaking invitations. That’s how it started, with me researching and writing about it.”

As for being named a recipient of the Roberts P. Hudson Award, Fershtman said she is grateful, but at the same time she pays homage to past beneficiaries of the award.

“There are some pretty amazing people on the list of past honorees which also includes Julia Darlow, who was the first woman to be president of the SBM. That was in 1986 which is interesting because the bar was formed in 1934,” Fershtman said. “The fact that I am now on the list with people of this caliber is just overwhelming.”

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