Next chapter: Professor caps full time teaching career


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

He may have retired from teaching, but don’t expect Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Professor Gerald Fisher to remain idle for long.

First, there is the matter of approximately 30 final exams to grade before he officially caps his 14-year career as a full time property law professor, who also has taught classes in constitutional law as well as secured transactions.

Then there is his role as chairman of the Parks and Recreation Commission, a 10-member panel that governs the 13 (and soon to be 14) parks in Oakland County and oversees a $25 million annual budget.

His retirement from teaching also figures to allow more time for his law practice, where over the years he has helped a steady stream of municipal clients navigate the oftentime choppy waters surrounding property law.

For good measure, Fisher is hip deep in a book project, working daily on a handy guidebook to help local public officials and “those doing business with them” become well versed in the basics of governmental law.

But perhaps of utmost importance, Fisher and his wife Julie now will have greater freedom to travel abroad, where their daughter, Jessica, and her family live in Brussels as part of a three-year assignment with NATO overseas.

“That was a driving force in the decision to retire,” Fisher said of the desire to periodically visit his daughter, son-in-law, and their two boys, ages 2 and 5. “My teaching schedule has inhibited our ability to travel, but now that roadblock will be lifted.”

Before joining the WMU-Cooley faculty full time in 2004, Fisher was an attorney with Secrest Wardle, where he teamed with Bill Hampton, a former judge and state legislator, to help build the firm’s Municipal Practice Group. He managed the Municipal Practice Group for 10 years, serving as general counsel for a number of cities, villages, and townships, and as a special counsel for various governmental entities throughout the state.

Hampton, a former Oakland County Circuit Court judge who also served as House majority leader during a three-term stay in the State Legislature, is fond of relating a story about Fisher that speaks volumes about his former colleague’s command of the law.

“One day, many years ago, Jerry and I were arguing a case before the Michigan Supreme Court on behalf of one of our municipal clients,” said Hampton, who in 2014 was honored with the Distinguished Career Achievement Award from the Oakland County Bar Association. “Near the end of oral arguments, Jerry was standing at the podium when all seven of the justices started asking him questions about various land use and zoning matters. Their questions had nothing to do with the case we were arguing. It became clear that they valued his opinion so much on land use and zoning matters that they were picking his brain as it related to other cases that they were probably considering. It was pretty amazing.”

Joan Vestrand, associate dean of the Auburn Hills Campus at WMU-Cooley, has been a longtime admirer of Fisher and his teaching talents.

“Jerry will be sorely missed,” said Vestrand. “He is a lawyer's lawyer and one of the finest municipal law specialists anywhere. For all the years he was with us, countless students received the privilege of learning at his knee, and the benefit of his incredible knowledge and expertise. They also had the benefit of his example.  Anyone and everyone who has worked or interacted with Jerry would agree that he is the epitome of professionalism – a true gentleman, with unassailable character. 

“Jerry is not only an outstanding professor, but also a role model for lawyers everywhere,” Vestrand noted. “In my four decades of practice, I know very few people who give so much back to the profession and the community as Jerry does. Quietly, and without fanfare, he humbly gives of his time – numerous hours every week, week-after-week, month-after-month, year-after-year, to multiple causes, engaging in pro bono and community service at a level rarely seen. I dare say that hundreds, if not thousands of people have unknowingly benefited from his incredible sharing of talents and time.

“Although Jerry is leaving our ranks in part, to even further deepen the work he does for others, we are counting on a continued relationship and look forward to his future service as an adjunct professor. We cannot go long absent his wit, charm, and sincerity, and while he certainly deserves time for travel and family, we will relish any ongoing share of this remarkable lawyer and human being.  Jerry has our very best wishes along with our undying gratitude for his service, friendship, and countless contributions to the school and our students.”

Fisher, a 1967 Michigan State University grad who earned his juris doctor from the former Detroit College of Law and Master of Laws from Wayne State University Law School, has taught property, secured transactions, zoning and land use, and constitutional law courses at WMU-Cooley. He also is a trustee emeritus of the Oakland County Bar Foundation, a nonprofit organization that he served as president in 2008-09.

A 1963 graduate of Mumford High School in Detroit, Fisher was the 1978 recipient of the Roberts P. Hudson Award, the highest honor conferred by the State Bar of Michigan. The award signifies “unusual and extraordinary help and assistance to the Bar and the legal profession, which has been given generously, ungrudgingly, and in the spirit of self-sacrifice.” In 2001, Fisher was honored as a “Lawyer of the Year” by Michigan Lawyers Weekly.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time in the classroom,” Fisher acknowledged. “It’s been especially heartening to see students progress over the course of law school, to see that they understand the legal concepts and the legal responsibilities that we teach.”

Over the course of his career, Fisher has imparted such knowledge and wisdom on thousands of WMU-Cooley students, including his son, Martin, who periodically assists his father in his law practice.
“He has been a tremendous help at times, especially for research, writing, and editing,” Fisher said of his 38-year-old son.

Such skills will come in handy when Fisher ramps up the work on his book project, which is framed under the title, “Local Government: A Practical Guidebook of Law to Inform and Empower Local Public Officials and Those Doing Business with Them.”

“My target audience is anyone serving in local government, along with developers, contractors, and realtors,” Fisher said. “I’ve submitted proposals to several publishers and I’m hoping that it can be expanded beyond Michigan to reach a national audience.

“There are 1,200 towns and 500 cities in Michigan alone, so to me the need for such a guidebook is clear,” Fisher added. “I intend to keep it to around 11 chapters and 150 pages. Otherwise, if it’s too long, nobody will read it.”

Candor is a character trait of Fisher’s and may well have been honed while he played goalie for Michigan State during the mid-‘60s. As a net-minder for the Spartans, Fisher shared goalie duties on the 1966 national championship squad.

“It was literally a once-in-a-lifetime sort of experience,” Fisher said of the championship season. “I have the scars to prove it,” he added with a wink.