Former executive enjoys 'encore career' in law

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IBM executive chooses law school over gold watch

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

For nearly 30 years, Henry Bergmans enjoyed a fast-paced career with IBM at an exciting time in the company's history. Straight out of the University of Michigan's Business School in 1980, he stepped into the corporation at the start of the information systems industry, mostly in sales and marketing. Within 10 years, he was running the IBM software business for the central U.S.

"Everything was new," he said, recalling the excitement of walking in a room where people were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the computer-talking IBM guy. "We had the opportunity over the 30 years to see just an enormous move in terms of the technologies and capabilities, so that was exciting. Every day was a new day. Something was always happening."

When Bergmans was approaching his 50th birthday, however, he decided it was time for a change.

"After 30 years at IBM, which was approaching pretty quickly, I wanted more than a gold watch and a 10:30 tee time," said Bergmans, a west Michigan native who lives with his wife, Cindy, in Brighton. "I decided I wanted to do something to serve people--either some type of public service or something that was focused more on personal service. I thought that law would be an interesting way to fulfill--if you will--my encore career."

And that's how he became the oldest student--and probably the hardest working, considering the challenging fulltime career he maintained--in every one of his classes at Cooley Law School in Lansing.

Monday through Friday, he was based out of a White Plains, N.Y. office, responsible for critical situation teams at IBM dispute resolution centers around the world.

So every Friday evening, he flew from New York City to Detroit, then drove home to Brighton.

On Saturday, Bergmans drove to Lansing for classes.

"When you try to do something like that, it's easy to get an 80- to 90-hour week," he said. "People thought I was crazy. `What are you, nuts?' I suppose to some extent, you have to be."

"Literally for four years, I did nothing but work and read law books. No football games. I didn't have a Saturday. I didn't have a Sunday. You committed yourself to doing just that."

The scariest part was the first two semesters.

"When you think about not being in school for--at that time --25 years and going back and starting to study again ... I was just in a panic trying to pick up old study habits and skills I maybe didn't even have back then at U-M. My first semester, I thought I was going to die because everything took so much longer."

Eventually he learned how to read law books, and he got into a groove.

"You knew how to read it, you knew how to pull cases apart, you knew how to draw out the law you needed to learn for the course," he said. "But the first two semesters were terrifying. It was also interesting going to class and being the senior in the room."

Looking back, Bergmans can say he enjoyed it.

"At 50, going to law school was a real pleasure," he said. "It was a wonderful time. But it was also really hard to do. What a great opportunity for somebody."

He graduated in 2010, at a time when the job market for new law school graduates wasn't good. But he knew a lot of people, and with his background and experience in business, knew he could always do a lot of other things.

But his heart was set on practicing law.

"I'm the business lawyer I alway--somebody who really understood the executive's perspective, how they make decisions, what their values are, how they'd view certain circumstances, the ethic and code of how the businesses operate," he said. "I don't think there are a lot of lawyers who feel comfortable in the boardroom. I do."

He's known Ann Arbor attorney Marian Faupel for about 15 years, and had talked to her and several others when he was considering law school. His plan all along was to practice business law and Internet and technology law, advising small businesses, corporate general counsels, and entrepreneurs.

Faupel sponsored him into the Washtenaw County Bar, and when James Fraser and Paul Fessler left Faupel's firm in October of 2012, she invited Bergmans to join her.

Faupel says the two work together harmoniously and clearly share the same values as attorneys. She recalled that she was she was thrilled to learn that Bergmans was going to law school, and that he shadowed her for many months after graduation.

"During that time, our clients were very impressed with Henry's attention to detail, his wisdom, and his strong organizational skills," she said. "When there was an opening at our firm, I did not hesitate to call Henry."

So far, he's mostly been helping Faupel with family law cases while he building business litigation and business law.

"A lot of the skills and experiences I had in dissolving disputes have been helpful in pulling apart some fairly complex relationships and problems, and trying to help people come to some resolution in the disputes they have," Bergmans said. "Divorce can be a very difficult thing for people. Frankly, having attorneys who understand how to help the client reach a goal--a win-win--is helpful."

At the same time, he's letting people know about his business experience.

"Obviously with my ties to the technology industry and the people there, hopefully over time, we'll build a good healthy business," he said. When you look at our firm, we're really focused primarily on family law on one side, and business litigation and technology law on the other. It's an interesting combination, but one both Marian and I have some unique skills we bring to the bar."

"I like it here. It's obviously a big change moving from a big organization with 400,000 people in it to a firm with two attorneys. But I enjoy it, and the thing I enjoy most is helping people solve their disputes."

The biggest difference between the professions?

"This is a lot more personal," Bergmans said. "Working with people and trying to help them with their issues and disputes is a little different than big corporations and working in that arena."

He doesn't miss the pace of going to law school while working fulltime.

"I can actually watch a real U-M football game now," said Bergmans, who also loves fly-fishing and boating. "That was a long, long four-year commitment to make. And it probably goes without saying that my wife deserves a lot of kudos, because frankly, she didn't see me for four years."

He and his wife, Cindy, a marketing professional, have two grown sons, a lieutenant with the U.S. Air Force and an engineer at the Pentagon. Their daughter works in health care research in Ann Arbor.

Bergmans said that in a small way, his story is about living out his dreams, changing direction in life and succeeding through hard work.

Choosing the law as a new career was the right choice, he said.

"Just like IBM, every day brings a new and different challenge," he said, "and I still can't wait to get to work in the morning."

Published: Thu, Feb 21, 2013

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