Tom Kirvan: Tennis keeps attorney vital

 He is a columnist’s dream—engaging, smart, interesting, successful, and quotable.

He dispenses juicy nuggets seemingly at will, waxing poetic about such worldly matters as the state of the law, health, religion, race, and tennis.
Perhaps tennis should have topped the list, after all he is the reigning No. 1 ranked player in the over 75 men’s age group in Southeast Michigan, the region where most of the state’s top players are assembled. For 40 consecutive years, he has been perched atop the rankings in his respective age groups as he has made peace with Father Time.
James Elsman, of the Birmingham law firm that sports his name, has no plans to quit tennis or the law at the tender age of 77.
On the other hand, says Elsman, the sport where “love” is more than just a fanciful notion still holds a lifelong grip on him.
“Tennis keeps your legs going, and that is cheaper than having a personal trainer,” he says. “If I retired, I might turn to ‘wine, women, and song,’ and then I would have to attend some bar addiction program and go out 12-stepping.” 
Elsman began his legal career with Chrysler in 1962, earning the tidy sum of $7,500 a year, some $300 more than Wall Street was paying first year lawyers at the time. He joined the giant automaker at its corporate offices in Highland Park following law school at the University of Michigan and Divinity School at Harvard. He earned his bachelor’s degree from U-M, where he studied Chinese and Russian for a possible career with the CIA. 
During his college days, Elsman served as editor of The Michigan Daily. In the fall of 1957, after President Dwight Eisenhower had sent the U.S. Airborne to guard Little Rock (Ark.) High School from violence upon the first “forced integration,” Elsman snuck into the school for The Daily. There he snapped a prized picture of Jefferson Thomas, one of nine black students who were attempting to integrate the all-white school. Elsman sold the photo to Time/Life, using the proceeds to start a scholarship fund at the school. His story documented that “the black and white children got along fine – it was the rednecks outside who were the problem.”
The following year, Elsman used his spring vacation to travel to Cuba in an attempt to interview Fidel Castro, a young revolutionary who was attempting to lead an overthrow of the Batista regime. Elsman was arrested by Batista troops before he could get to the mountains where Castro was holed up. He was imprisoned in the infamous “Moncado Barracks,” where Castro, himself, was once jailed.
Like then, Elsman is an eager learner and figures there are many more legal mountains to climb before calling it a career, even if the law “is not as much fun as when I started” in the profession.
“We have bad lawyers, bad judges, bad insurance companies, and stupid delays in the process of getting people justice, e.g. case evaluation and exhaustive discovery,” Elsman says. “I do not recommend a career in law to any grandchild, and I have six of them.”
His career has been spiced with a series of “big cases,” including two appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court in which he “handled all the briefing” and details himself.
While lawyers can be prone to lead a sedentary lifestyle, Elsman says staying in shape is vital to long-term success.
“Hey, you can only serve clients as long as your heart, lungs, body, and mind work well,” he contends.
As for his tennis game, Elsman regularly holds court with such lawyers as Mel Saperstein, Don Pierce, and Ven Johnson. 
Still, as a man with Harvard Divinity in his background, Elsman realizes there is a bigger picture to life in the spirit world.
“It’s the whole ballgame indeed, if someday our lives will be judged by our God,” Elsman says. “As lawyers, it could be a harsh judgment. By nature, we play with truth and ethics – ultimate questions, but are we prepared for such?”Te

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