Military Grade: Attorney found opportunity and structure with the 82nd Airborne

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 By Jo Mathis

Legal News
 
Don Darnell has handled some difficult cases in his 17 years as an attorney.
A recent case, for instance, involved a LGBT divorce that he litigated in the context of a Chapter 11. By the time the complex case was settled in mediation, there were two Chapter 11s, three adversary proceedings, and nine filed motions.
But nothing quite matched the adrenalin rush the day his parachute malfunctioned on a combat jump at night that luckily landed in two feet of cushioning snow. Or those 10 long, miserable, sleep-deprived weeks in officers’ training school, where he and his buddy would have to take turns every day talking the other out of quitting.
Darnell, a litigation and bankruptcy sole practitioner who works out of his 149-year-old restored building in Dexter says he owes everything he has now to his career in the military.
“I would have no chance to have the life I have—the family, the career—if I hadn’t gone into the military,” he said. “I owe the military literally everything. They give you the tools to be successful. They tell you how to do it. They write it down. It’s in the field manuals, how to be a good leader and how to be a good person. It’s all there. You just have to read it.”
Darnell and his four siblings grew up very poor in western Jackson County. His father—who passed away a few weeks ago—was an auto mechanic turned farmer. But neither he nor his mother were equipped to pass on the lessons he would later learn in the military, Darnell said.
Nor did they mention higher education when Darnell was a student at Western Jackson High School. In fact, a guidance counselor told him he wasn’t college material because his grades were bad, his background was blue collar, and he “just wasn’t the type.”
So after graduation in 1983, Darnell got a job at a body shop. But it was all so dusty, and he began to consider a career in the military. It seemed exciting, especially when he saw footage of troops parachuting into Grenada.
“I thought, `That’s pretty cool! ... I want to be one of those guys.’”
He enlisted with the 82nd Airborne, and liked the structure of the military right away. He was mobilized twice—once to Italy—but is grateful he was not deployed. He got out after four years for one practical reason.
“There was nobody to date!” he said, referring to his life in the barracks in a small town.
While earning a degree in public law and government at Eastern Michigan University, a professor/local attorney encouraged him to consider a career in law.
At the same time, he decided to rejoin the Army.
So in the summer of 1993, he enrolled in—and hated every moment of—the United States Army's Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Georgia. A few days after he graduated and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, he got married. A few days after that, he began classes at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
“I showed up on the first day with a completely shaved head and a brand new wife,” he recalled with a smile.
After graduating, he worked at a Taylor firm, then ran his own firm in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town for about four years, then began working with Nik Lulgjuraj in downtown Chelsea until he bought a 149-year-old building in Dexter that he’s since refurbished.
Although they remain close friends, Lulgjuraj didn’t want to move.
“So I found myself on my own again,” said Darnell, who focuses on bankruptcy, and has acted as both debtor and creditor's counsel in adversary proceedings.
Lulgjuraj calls Darnell “fearless,” and says he loves to learn about virtually everything, not just the law.
“He’s very mechanical,” said Lulgjuraj. “He built his house, which is beautiful. He is restoring a t 1966 Porsche 911, a 60’s Alfa Romeo Guilietta, and an Airstream travel trailer. For a while, and he still might be, Don was working on getting a racing license. We went to track at Waterford Hills—13 turns out there— and spent hours driving Porsches at very high speeds requiring every bit of concentration. I found the experience terrifying and exhausted. Don was exhilarated and happy.” 
The friends have tried many cases in both federal and state court, including a patent case against a national firm in which they won a verdict for their client in which many of millions of dollars were at stake.
“Don’s ability to connect with a jury is exceptional,” said Lulgjuraj.
Darnell’s favorite part of the job is solving a new problem.
“I like digging in and trying to figure out what’s wrong, filing Chapter 11, and trying to ease that burden and save jobs,” he said. “I think sometimes I even save someone’s sanity, or their marriage. I think most lawyers would say the best part is opening a case, and closing a case. Chapter 11s don’t have the greatest success rates for small businesses, but when it works, it’s fantastic.”
In 2010, he left the National Guard when he realized he’d have to take time away from his practice to keep up with the continuing education requirements.
As much as he enjoys his work as an attorney, Darnell can imagine doing other things.
He’d like to be a farmer. He’d like to restore old cars for a living. And Darnell, a board member of the Village of Dexter Downtown Development Authority and the Dexter Township Zoning Board of Appeals, has given some thought to running for political office—although the lifelong Democrat can’t stand the partisan bickering.
He and his wife of 21 years, Kristin, a research analyst, live in Dexter Township with their sons, Thomas, 16, and Ben, 11.
Even if he switches careers at some point, Darnell won’t be leaving western Washtenaw County. 
“Dexter is the best place in the world to live,” he said. “I’m just happy to be an American. It’s probably the greatest privilege a person can know right now.”

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