Leading off: New OCBA president sees himself in a 'steward' role


 By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

Tom Howlett, in his first speech as the incoming president of the Oakland County Bar Association, took time to recount a bit of history of the OCBA, which marked its 80th anniversary at its Annual Meeting June 11 at Shenandoah Country Club. 

As a plaintiff attorney for The Googasian Firm in Bloomfield Hills, where he also holds the title of chief operating officer, Howlett said, “One aspect of my job is to manage the expectations of people who are not familiar with the civil justice system.”

He did not find himself in such a role when he was an award-winning reporter for The Los Angeles Times and The Dallas Morning News, two of the nation’s foremost dailies. There, as a journalist, he excelled as an information provider, relating real-life stories that often intersected with history.

Now, in his position as OCBA president for 2014-15, Howlett said, “I view my job this year primarily as a steward of our special community.” As a student of history, he “spent some time in recent weeks going through” the bar organization’s archives, where he learned “some very interesting and somewhat troubling things about the old days.”

Such as?

“I learned, for example, that we used to play horse shoes,” Howlett related to those gathered for the OCBA’s annual meeting, as vintage photos were shown during an accompanying slide show. “I learned that we gathered occasionally to review important documents . . . I discovered that back in the day, we seem to have had family-friendly keggers . . . I found out that when the budget allowed for it, we brought in major entertainment . . . And when time in our busy schedules permitted, we fought fiercely on the softball diamond.”

And, perhaps of most interest to those who strive to be accurate when recounting the journey of the OCBA, “We’re actually not 80 years old,” Howlett told the bar association’s membership. 

“In fact, we’re considerably older,” he proclaimed. “One treasure that we have is an old journal of OCBA minutes. And it actually dates back to 1930. Some of the minutes in this journal refer to how an Oakland County Bar has been around since at least the early 1900s.”

Yet, according to Howlett, it wasn’t until July of 1934, during the depths of the Great Depression, that “the OCBA formally became organized through articles of incorporation. Four attorneys – H. Russell Holland, David C. Pence, Clark J. Adams, and Lawrence Maloney – went over to the office of a fifth attorney to sign the articles,” said Howlett. 

“Now I learned just last month that the office of the fifth lawyer to which those four men went was that of my grandfather, Harold ‘Hap’ Howlett,” he indicated. “It turns out that Hap Howlett was the very first person to sign the articles of incorporation. This is a source of pride for me.”

As it should be, since his grandfather at the time was a 34-year-old solo practitioner “who had come to Pontiac just a decade before to start a law practice in a city completely new to him,” according to Howlett.

“He had not grown up here. He did not know many people here. He and his wife had their hands full with two small children. 

“The founders of the OCBA were all still finding their way,” he noted. “And they decided that the OCBA could help them and others. The sense of place and belonging that the OCBA has always provided to attorneys of all backgrounds and experience levels is perhaps our greatest hallmark.”

It is a sense of purpose that Howlett pledged to continue during his year in office, which begins officially July 1 when he takes over for outgoing President Jim Derian.

A litigation attorney with Delphi Automotive Systems, Derian spent much of his early energy as president promoting the importance of law-related education, helping launch new Constitution Day and Law Day programs for the Pontiac schools with the financial support of the Oakland County Bar Foundation. He also helped spearhead the successful search for a new executive director, Terri Ticknor Gilbert, who replaced the retiring Lisa Stadig Elliot. 

In addition, Derian, in his final monthly column as OCBA president, noted that the organization made “our voices heard in Lansing on legislation affecting the delivery of legal services, such as the Court of Claims bill, ‘dark money’ in judicial elections, and, most recently, the proposed Senate bill to convert the State Bar of Michigan into a voluntary bar association.”

Like Derian, a University of Michigan alum, Howlett has strong U-M ties, graduating from U-M Law School in 1990. It was there that he met his wife, Kim, an Ann Arbor Pioneer alum who received her bachelor’s degree from Michigan State. The couple has two teen-age daughters, Jemma, a rising sophomore at Vassar College in New York, and Tessa, a soon-to-be sophomore at Cranbrook.

Howlett attended Harvard University, where he was a four-year member of The Crimson newspaper staff, eventually serving as managing editor of the student-run daily that dates back to the post-Civil War era. At The Crimson, Howlett kept journalistic company with such colleagues as Jeff Zucker, the current president of CNN Worldwide, and Mike Miller, deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal.

His first job, following graduation from the Ivy League school, was as an intern with The Los Angeles Times, where early on he would get his “feet wet” in a big way by helping with the newspaper’s coverage of a story that would reverberate around the world – the slaughter of 22 patrons at a McDonald’s restaurant in a section of San Diego.

During his stint with The Dallas Morning News, Howlett would earn statewide recognition for his feature on the travails of a woman whose husband was killed when a jet crashed in 1985 on its final approach to the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Howlett’s report on the plight of the woman was part of the paper’s coverage of the aviation disaster that warranted Pulitzer Prize consideration the following year.

And yet despite that newspaper pedigree, Howlett in the late ‘80s decided that a legal career would be more to his liking, opting to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, Hap, and his father, Jim.

His father was among the principals in Beier Howlett, which at one time was the largest law firm in Oakland County. One of its star attorneys was George Googasian, who spent 17 years there before starting his own firm in 1981. Googasian, a past president of the State Bar of Michigan and the OCBA, has been a mentor to Howlett.

“In addition to being one of the true giants of the legal profession, George is as fine a person as you’ll ever meet,” Howlett said of Googasian.

In looking to the year ahead, Howlett can take pride in “data showing that the OCBA is better than ever” as it begins its ninth decade.

“I am proud that now in 2014, for the first time in its history, our Board of Directors has six women,” Howlett told those at the Annual Meeting last week. “I am proud that the OCBA’s pro bono mentor match program has received national attention and is now serving as a template at the American Bar Association.”

Additionally, Howlett noted that for the first time ever, “we have more than 300 sustaining members,” those who voluntarily choose to pay an additional $100 each year in dues. Just as impressive, the Oakland County Bar Foundation “continues to outdo itself each year in fund-raising for pro bono efforts and public education,” this year raising more than $260,000 at its Signature Event in April.

Still, more work remains in an effort to “enrich the lives of OCBA members at every stage of their careers,” said Howlett, who early in his legal career served as counsel to the president of the Republic of Palau, a tiny island nation in the western Pacific.

“We want to continue to provide members with an unmatched spirit of community,” he pledged. “We want to raise the OCBA’s role as the place for lawyers to go to proactively assist the underserved.”

It also will fulfill its public service role in a different way this year, helping coordinate and sponsor a televised public forum for Michigan Supreme Court candidates. Howlett credits U.S. District Judge David Lawson with helping spearhead the program, which will be broadcast by Detroit Public Television over a statewide network of stations.

“We’re excited about sponsoring this forum, which will be a rare opportunity for voters to see and hear the candidates for our state’s highest court,” said Howlett.