Legal Eagles

For the third year, DBusiness honors six young lawyers as nominated by our readers and their peers.
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Photographs by Josh Scott

Ebony L. Duff

Shareholder | Garan Lucow Miller, Detroit 

Wayne State University Law School

Total Lawyers: 87

Ebony L. Duff spent most of her childhood in Oak Park, where she gradually developed an interest in law and urban affairs. Little did she know she would one day represent the city as a municipal attorney for Garan Lucow Miller in Detroit.

“I grew up in Oak Park going to the parks, the schools, and generally discovering life in that little city,” Duff says. “To have the City of Oak Park as a client, and to be working in the community where my parents still live, has been a very sentimental experience.” 

Following graduation from the University of Michigan in 1997, Duff took a full-time position as a legal secretary for a law firm in metro Detroit. “Before I put all that time and money toward law school, I wanted to see what it was that lawyers did all day,” she says. “I started as a legal secretary, absolutely loved it, and never looked back.” 

Before and after graduating from Wayne State University Law School, Duff temped at several law firms in the region. She says she used the time to get to know judges, clerks, lawyers, and fellow staff members, so she could gain as much perspective regarding the practice of law as possible. That same year, Duff was assigned to Garan Lucow Miller’s municipal liability practice group. She’s been with the firm ever since. 

“I started temping at Garan Lucow Miller while studying for the bar exam,” Duff says. “Working with the firm has allowed me to work with different cities and municipalities, and that’s where I received my entry to municipal law.” 

Besides serving as the city attorney for Oak Park, Duff also serves as counsel for Detroit Entertainment LLC, specifically MotorCity Casino. However, she considers her role as general counsel for the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority, which operates Cobo Center in downtown Detroit, to be the crown jewel of her career.

“The coming together of the regional authority board is the best progression in regional cooperation I have witnessed in metro Detroit,” Duff says. “Seeing the different Detroit area counties come together gives me hope that the city is moving forward in the right direction. I always knew I wanted to do something great for the city and the metro Detroit area. It has been such an honor being a part of that group.”

 

Brian Schwartz

Principal | Miller Canfield, Detroit 

University of Michigan Law School

Total Lawyers: 152

While most lawyers discover the secret to a successful career after winning their first case or reaching their first settlement, Brian Schwartz gained his confidence and learned about its role in success over a game of checkers with his grandfather. 

“I must have lost what felt like a dozen games in a row, but my grandfather wouldn’t let me stand up from the table until I had finally won a game,” Schwartz recalls. “That experience taught me the importance of focus, perseverance, and determination, and (I learned) that if I put my mind to it, what seems impossible will become possible.” 

His decision to pursue a career in law, however, wasn’t made until he attended Cornell University in New York, where he studied industrial and labor relations. After enrolling in an employment law class to fulfill his undergraduate degree, Schwartz knew he had found his calling.

“The idea that I could help solve problems involving individuals drew me toward employment law,” Schwartz says. “I find it immensely challenging addressing problems that employers have with employees. The human element always provides an element of surprise that can make any case interesting.”

Schwartz’s ambitions of becoming an employment lawyer brought the Long Island native to the University of Michigan Law School, where he met his wife and graduated cum laude in 2005. Four months after graduation, he joined Miller Canfield at its offices in Detroit.

As a litigator in employment disputes, Schwartz’s practice primarily focuses on defending class-action lawsuits involving retiree health benefit disputes and employment discrimination. He also defends race, gender, and disability discrimination claims, as well as FMLA, whistleblower, and First Amendment retaliation claims.

“I love the battles that are part of every lawsuit,” Schwartz says. “Nothing is ever the same, and it’s great being able to strategize with colleagues about how to best resolve problems, and then go about executing a plan to the satisfaction of the client.” 

After nearly 10 years as an attorney at Miller Canfield, Schwartz has acquired a number of notable victories, including successfully defending several retiree health benefit class actions brought by former union employees alleging that modifications to their health benefits violated the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. He has also defended Fortune 500 companies in lawsuits arising out of denials of claims for ERISA-covered disability, severance, and pension benefits. 

Most recently, Schwartz helped defend a case brought by a public employee alleging that he was wrongfully terminated in violation of the First Amendment and the Michigan Whistleblower Protection Act. 

“The case was hard-fought and involved numerous discovery disputes, but ultimately the court agreed that there was no evidence that the employer unlawfully retaliated against the employee,” Schwartz says. “It was very satisfying to deliver a successful result to the individual defendants, who acted in accordance with the law.”

As a principal attorney, Schwartz hopes to pass on lessons learned. “I look forward to providing top-quality legal work and delivering successful results for my clients for many years to come,” he says. “I especially look forward to being able to mentor younger attorneys the same way that several of the more senior attorneys have assisted me along the way.”

 

Jennifer Green

Member | Clark Hill, Detroit 

Wayne State University Law School

Total Lawyers: 147

Commercial litigation attorney Jennifer Green first discovered her interest in law as a young girl growing up in Gladwin, north of Midland. There, she and her best friend would spend time after school in the library of a local law firm playing lawyers in a pretend trial. “I kind of knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a lawyer,” she recalls.

Leading up to her admission to Wayne State University Law School, Green worked to gain as much knowledge and experience in the profession as she could during her time as an undergraduate, where she was a member of the Western Michigan University Mock Trial program and an intern with the late Justice Elizabeth Weaver of the Michigan Supreme Court. She also had the opportunity to work for Clark Hill in Detroit, as a legal assistant.

“There was no such thing as a (large) law firm in the small town I grew up in, so I never really saw myself working for one,” Green says. “But once I started working at the firm, I immediately felt comfortable and could see myself making a career there. I saw myself staying there for the long haul.”

Green continued to work at Clark Hill as a legal assistant, as well as a summer associate, while attending law school. After graduating from Wayne State in 2005, she was hired as an associate attorney. 

Now, as a member of Clark Hill’s litigation practice group, Green focuses her practice in the area of commercial litigation, including contract disputes, business torts, employment-related disputes, lender liability, and a broad array of banking and financial institution disputes.

“To me, the best part about being a lawyer is getting a really challenging set of facts and finding a way to make them work in your client’s favor,” she says. “It’s about finding a way to argue your client’s position even when the facts, upon first glance, appear to present an unfavorable outcome. There’s always something challenging that you get to learn in the course of a case.”

So far, Green’s greatest challenge as a litigator has been her involvement in Detroit’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy proceeding, when Clark Hill represented the city’s retirement system — the largest creditor in the case. Green gave the initial opening statement on behalf of all the creditors at the eligibility hearing in October 2013. She says it was also her first time being involved in a case with such intense media coverage. 

“Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t have time to fully appreciate how much media coverage this case would generate,” Green says. “Had I known that a sentence I would say from the opening statement would be in The New York Times or the Chicago Tribune, there would have been even more pressure.” 

Green, who has three children, considers her involvement with the case a major triumph not only in her professional life, but in her personal life, as well.

“It definitely goes down as one of the biggest cases that I’ve ever worked,” Green says. “I’m proud of the fact that I was able to do it with two kids at home and (while) being pregnant. I’m proud I was able to balance those personal circumstances through the case.” 

 

Ryan Plecha

Partner | Lippitt O’Keefe Gornbein, Birmingham 

Thomas M. Cooley Law School

Total Lawyers: 9

Before commercial litigator Ryan Plecha joined the firm of Lippitt O’Keefe Gornbein (formerly Hyman Lippitt) as an associate in 2010, he opened his own firm. The Redford Township native graduated from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 2008, and wasted no time opening his own general practice firm, Plecha Legal.

There, he represented an array of clients in small probate, estate,  as well as contractual and landlord/tenant matters. At the same time, he was looking to join a law firm that would allow him to stretch his legal wings.

“Client interaction has always been my main concern,” he says, “so I wanted to find a law firm that was collegial rather than competitive — somewhere that was more of a cooperative environment than the hierarchy you (can) find with the larger, more traditional firms.”

Plecha was recommended by a classmate for a document review position at Hyman Lippitt in 2009, and was hired as an associate nine months later. In January, nearly five years after joining the firm, Plecha was named the youngest partner at Lippitt O’Keefe Gornbein (established in 2011).

“As a law student, I definitely wouldn’t have seen myself as a partner in such a short period of time,” Plecha says. “Maybe an associate with less responsibility. But I do thrive on the challenge and responsibility given to me as partner at the firm in all respects. That gives me a lot of pride to be able to do that at such an early (stage) in my career.” 

Plecha credits his psychology degree from Kalamazoo College as the best preparation for his career as a commercial litigator.

“Being able to understand the human element of cases and to try and work out the best solutions within the structure provided by the law is something I pride myself on,” he says. “I think sometimes attorneys get too laser-focused on the law, which is obviously a critical and hugely important aspect of it, but there’s always a business and human element to every case, which I try to understand along with the legal aspects of a particular case.”

Plecha’s background in psychology proved particularly useful during his 20-month-long involvement in Detroit’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy. He represented the Detroit Retired City Employees Association and the Retired Detroit Police and Firefighters Association, and led his clients to the first major settlement with the city, preserving much of their existing pensions and benefits. 

“I had the opportunity to work with some very talented attorneys, and I also (had) the opportunity to work with some amazing clients,” Plecha says. “It was something I never expected to do at my age (33) — or never even saw potentially doing something that large throughout my career — but it’s definitely something that I’m very proud to have been a part of.”

For Plecha, the media and public relations aspect of the bankruptcy case presented a considerable challenge. He describes the experience as “both exciting and heartbreaking at times.

“It’s important to keep things in perspective — not get too high and not get too low as the case proceeds — and have firm goals in mind (as) to where you want to be,” he says. “Being creative with mediation and litigation, as well as public opinion, to advance the interest of your client is something that I think is very important in a high-profile case.”

 

Kevin Stoops

Senior Shareholder | Sommers Schwartz, Southfield

Thomas M. Cooley Law School

Total Lawyers: 28

When Kevin Stoops attended Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 2001, he worked full time to support his family. From the outset, he had two goals: “To make enough money to feed my three kids and have a job the day I graduated.”

Three years of commuting between Detroit and Lansing eventually paid off.  By the time he graduated in 2004, Stoops had secured an associate position at Sommers Schwartz in Southfield, where he continues to practice today. 

Since then, Stoops has represented clients in business, commercial, and employment disputes, as well as complex class action matters including minimum wage and overtime cases under the Fair Labor Standards Act. He’s particularly passionate about helping individuals overcome difficult economic and professional obstacles often associated with employment matters.

“I really enjoy helping people who have been wronged,” Stoops says. “When you’re helping someone who has been unfairly paid or has been unfairly terminated — which is lot of our clients — there’s something vindicating knowing that you helped them right that wrong.”

Unlike his cases involving large businesses and corporations, Stoop takes a more sensitive and empathetic approach with the individual clients he represents. “You have to remember that this case is impacting their household and impacting their family, both on a stress level and an economic level. There’s a lot of personal counseling involved,” he says.

Despite his passion for his practice, Stoops says he never saw himself working as a trial attorney and practicing business litigation as a law student. Stoops says he was shy, so he avoided public speaking whenever possible. Fortunately, a number of trial attorneys at Sommers Schwartz helped him overcome his fear of speaking in court.

“They taught me that preparation is the key,” he says. “When you walk into a courtroom, no one is going to know your case as well as you. If you’re prepared, there’s no reason to be nervous or shy about it. Nobody knows what you’re talking about to the level that you do.”

Stoops was asked to join the firm’s board of directors in 2012, which was unusual since he was not yet a partner. Later that year was named the youngest senior shareholder in Sommers Schwartz’s history.

“One thing I have learned is to not only focus on your practice, but also run the business,” he says. “You can take care of all your litigation, but you also have to run the shop, have good relationships with your staff, and always be looking for strategic ways to move the firm forward. I think that I have picked that up on the job just by working here.”

Stoops also attributes his success as a trial attorney to a number of mentors at Sommers Schwartz, and he shares one piece of advice that has proved particularly useful for him:

“You have to litigate every case like you’re going to trial,” he says. “Even though we know that 99 percent of the cases settle, you have to assume you’re going to trial, which means working the case up completely, being ready for everything, and pushing it to the end.”

 

Michael S. Ben

Partner | Honigman Miller, Detroit

Harvard Law School

Total Lawyers: 225

Michael S. Ben was a first-year law student working as a clerk for the international law firm Latham & Watkins in New York when he discovered the type of law he wanted to practice.

“My dad was a general litigator and sole practitioner, and (I thought I) wanted to follow in his footsteps,” Ben says. “But after my first semester of law school, I realized I didn’t enjoy the core litigation classes, and I gravitated toward business. I was very fortunate to end up at Latham & Watkins, where I met great mentors who allowed me to shadow a number of significant capital market transactions. It was there that the light came on for my career path.”

Following his clerkship, Ben, of West Bloomfield, spent the rest of his time at Harvard Law School taking as many core business and securities law classes as possible. The self-described “businessperson at heart” graduated cum laude in 2000, and returned to Latham & Watkins as a corporate associate. He spent the next five years dividing his time among the different corporate practice groups, in an effort to gain the broadest knowledge in securities and corporate governance.

“I also had the opportunity to work with a number of lawyers, clients, and third-party consultants early on in my career, (and they) mentored me on the art of serving as a legal adviser,” Ben says. “After all, we’re in a service industry.”

In 2005, Ben and his wife decided to return to West Bloomfield so they could raise their children near their families. It wasn’t long after he returned that he was able to find another law firm that would allow him to incorporate his legal ambitions with his passion for business.

“Honigman gave me the best opportunity to build on the expertise I had developed at Latham,” Ben says. “I was sold on the firm’s strategic vision to grow its private equity and public company practices.” 

After joining Honigman’s Detroit office as an associate in the corporate department, Ben spent the majority of his practice representing publicly listed corporations. Today, he advises an array of executives and boards of directors on equity and debt offerings, mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, executive and director compensation, investor relations, and other operational issues. In January 2007, Ben was named partner and then leader of Honigman’s corporate and securities practice group.

“Public company legal representation historically has been dominated by large, international law firms, and it’s a challenge to compete as a regional, smaller law firm,” Ben says. “The fact that the firm’s leadership believed I was capable of leading the strategic growth of our practice — to be recognized by your peers who you work with every day — is the highest honor.”

In addition, Ben serves as lead relationship partner for numerous clients, and is deeply involved in strategic business decisions regarding general corporate matters, human resources, intellectual property, real estate, litigation, and environmental matters. 

“Every day presents challenges big and small, predictable and unexpected, and all with sophisticated investors and regulators serving as your watchdog,” Ben says. “I enjoy being in the middle of the action.” db

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