Legal liaison: Longtime litigator relishes role as court ombudsman

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Joel Serlin, even after a distinguished 42-year career in the law, is not accustomed to the limelight.

 He prefers to operate quietly and effectively without fanfare, far removed from any sort of legal spotlight that could only serve to distract from the important issues at hand. 

As such, Serlin was a logical choice to assume the role of the first ombudsman for the Oakland County Circuit Court, a volunteer position that has been created to serve as an intermediary between the bench and bar, to principally address administrative and case management issues. The pilot program will be evaluated for its effectiveness after a six-month period, according to Circuit Court Administrator Kevin Oeffner.

The post, which has been in the works since the fall of 2010, is being modeled after a similar ombudsmanship for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Attorney George Bedrosian has served in that ombudsman role for the U.S. District Court since 2005.

“It was an honor to even be considered for this position,” Serlin said during an interview in his Southfield office where he is a senior partner and head of litigation for the firm of Seyburn, Kahn, Ginn, Bess, & Serlin. “It is a true privilege to serve in this capacity, to work for the betterment of the bench and bar.”

Serlin, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University in 1965 and appeared destined for a teaching career before turning to the law, has a reputation for “legal excellence” that has spanned more than four decades, according to Peter Alter, president of the Oakland County Bar Association.

“The selection of Joel Serlin as our first ombudsman of the Oakland County Circuit Court has been extremely well received,” said Alter, a partner with Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer, and Weiss in Southfield. “Joel is a ‘natural’ to serve in this capacity. He is a very well respected and highly accomplished litigator who has excellent relationships with both the bench and the members of the bar. For years, he has also been and still is one of the top facilitators in Michigan and often is appointed to serve as a receiver, master or arbitrator. He is known for his independence of judgment, integrity, and intelligence. He is the perfect choice to serve as the court’s ombudsman.”

As ombudsman, Serlin has been granted authority to address “attorney and judicial concerns” related to practice before the Circuit Court bench, offering a “confidential and discrete forum” for the resolution of issues in “which there is no established procedure” for redress, he indicated.

“I see my role as that of a liaison between the bench and bar, promoting a constructive dialogue in which the goal will be to further elevate the already high standards of practice at the Circuit Court,” said Serlin, a 1968 graduate of Wayne State University Law School. “My desire is to be a good listener, to offer guidance based on my years of experience, and to be able to candidly discuss matters of importance with each party.”

Serlin said that he has met with Chief Judge Nanci Grant and every other Circuit Court judge over the past few weeks, and has been impressed with the spirit of cooperation that has been displayed. He also said that attorney George Bedrosian has shared his experiences as ombudsman for the U.S. District Court, offering a perspective that Serlin found “very enlightening.”  Serlin also expressed his appreciation to the leadership of the Oakland County Bar Association for the confidence they have placed in him in his new role.

Chief Judge Grant, in a prepared statement, said: “Our bench is excited to participate in the inaugural ombudsman program. We embrace the program, and the opportunity presented, as an illustration of the importance attached to the transparency and accountability of the bench and bar—to each other, of course, but more importantly to the administration of justice in Oakland County.” 

Daniel Quick, a member of the OCBA board and a copyright specialist with Dickinson Wright, was among those who spearheaded the creation of the ombudsman program for the Circuit Court, and believes that Serlin possesses the “wisdom and demeanor” to make an immediate impact.

“He has a reputation for excellence throughout the legal community and he commands respect from both the bench and the bar,” Quick said of Serlin. “He is a man of utmost honesty and integrity. He also has the skill to be direct and firm, yet can display the soft touch when required.”

Serlin grew up in Detroit and is a product of Detroit Public Schools. He taught junior high math in Detroit before setting his sights on law school. His father, Max, was a residential builder, the oldest of 10 children. 

“My father had a high school education and was the patriarch of his family,” Serlin said. “He was a very hard worker and made a living for his family. He did what it took to provide for us, building houses or delivering telegrams for Western Union up and down Woodward. He also worked at Edgewater Park. He was a worker, plain and simple.”

Serlin’s mother, Ida, emigrated from Poland during World War I and “suffered through many tragedies” during the early stages of her life, but never displayed any bitterness and “was the sweetest, most kind person that you’d ever meet,” he said. She raised the couple’s two children, Serlin and his older brother, Arnold, a retired architect who resides in West Bloomfield.

Following high school graduation, Serlin enrolled at Michigan State, excelling academically while also serving as captain of the fencing team his senior year. He earned three varsity letters in the sport and helped the Spartans capture the Big Ten title as a sophomore.

He and his wife, Cathy, a former bank auditor, have four children in their blended family, ranging in age from 35 to 41. Their oldest, Jeffrey, earned an engineering degree from Purdue University and an MBA from Ivy League Cornell, and resides in San Francisco. Son Brian, a University of Michigan alum, is a doctor who now lives in Huntington Woods after obtaining his medical degree from the University of Iowa. Their son, Benjamin, is pursuing a degree in physical therapy at Wayne State, while the youngest in the family, Jacob, is employed by Chrysler after receiving his design engineering degree from Central Michigan University.

Serlin has stressed the importance of “preparedness” and  “work product” throughout his legal career, and considers retired Oakland Circuit Court Judge Steven Andrews a “mentor” and a “great example” for all attorneys to follow.

“I learned the hard way from Judge Andrews what it was like to be a trial attorney,” Serlin said of his close friend. “I was not immune from his candor in the courtroom, but I took his comments as an opportunity to learn and to be better as an advocate. 

“I am fortunate to know many members of the Circuit Court bench and the reception that I’ve received from them in my new role has been overwhelmingly positive,” Serlin added. “I have the utmost respect for them as dedicated jurists and I appreciate the exceedingly difficult nature of their job—they are constantly faced with decisions where there will be a winner and a loser. There will never be anything easy about matters like that.”

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