The Best Practice

DBusiness honors six young lawyers nominated by our readers and their peers in our first-ever tribute.

We asked more than 18,000 attorneys in metro Detroit to nominate up-and-coming barristers for our inaugural Top Young Lawyers feature. With thousands of businesses and organizations in the region — metro Detroit has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of businesses in the country — the following honorees have no shortage of work. From patent cases to logistics disputes to employment law, the honorees have helped guide their clients to successful dispositions.

Amanda J. Pontes

Member, Business Practice Group // Bodman, Detroit

Total Lawyers: 142

For Amanda J. Pontes, the route to corporate America was a circuitous one. Following graduation from Wayne State University Law School (No. 1 in her class) in 1999, she worked as a management consultant for two small firms. The first company had one client, but a very significant one: General Motors. Pontes spent two years looking at the automaker’s processes while making recommendations to promote efficiency.

Soon, her work for GM caught the eye of a competitor. “They had a little more diverse portfolio — which meant they had two clients — and one of them was the U.S. Army,” says Pontes, who was named a member of Bodman’s business practice group in January.

“I was open for anything at that point. They put me on site in Warren (in the procurement area of the U.S. Army TACOM Life Cycle Management Command), and I helped them switch over from tanks with tracks to tanks with wheels. There was a big push in those days to make tanks more mobile for use on roads in urban settings.”

The job came with attractive, big-league travel perks. “I went to Washington, D.C. quite a bit with the generals, helping them make presentations to the joint chiefs,” she says. “I traveled to California and watched the Army shoot off missiles and helped them pick out tanks, missiles, and all the systems that went on them. It was entertaining for a while, but I didn’t see it going much further than that.”

In addition to extended in-house assignments with Freudenberg-NOK in Plymouth Township and Pentastar Aviation at Oakland International Airport in Waterford Township, Pontes was asked to serve a two-year assignment as North American Divisional Counsel at Lear Corp. in Southfield, which operates more than 220 facilities in 36 countries. The latter job was the most challenging, given she had to hit the ground running as full-time in-house counsel at the auto supplier. “No sooner had I gotten there than I had a line of people outside my door,” she says.

While Pontes can’t talk specifically about her work, due to client confidentiality, she says her experience working inside large organizations prepped her for her latest assignment. “I really like the intricacies that an M&A transaction has,” she says. “All the different pieces of the puzzle have to fit together. There is a lot of problem-solving involved in trying to find a solution that works for everyone, and the problem-solving aspect really appeals to me.”

Bernard J. Fuhs

Shareholder // Butzel Long, Detroit

Total Lawyers: 131

Four years of playing Division I basketball at the University of Detroit Mercy prepared Bernard J. Fuhs for his career in law almost as much as his courses at the UDM Law School.

“When you are a full-time student athlete in college, being busy is an understatement,” he says. “You really have to learn to manage your time. You wake up at 6 a.m., you go into conditioning (a training session), then you go to class, eat lunch, practice that afternoon, another conditioning session, and then go to any night class you might have. And only after 8 p.m. or so do you have time to get homework done and all the other stuff.”

That regimen, which led to all-league academic honors at UDM, carried through to Fuhs’ law practice at Butzel Long in Detroit. “Both through law school — which is an intense undertaking in and of itself — and all through my career, (my background has helped me in) managing a caseload of 15 to 20 cases, having to schedule things, dealing with things, and allocating my time accordingly,” he says.

Fuhs practices business and commercial litigation and is regarded as a leading expert on noncompete, nondisclosure, and trade secret law, having litigated and counseled clients in all 50 states. In addition, he has appeared as an expert lecturer or panelist before numerous local and national business organizations.

His cases include the successful defense of a publicly traded electronics corporation over a $40-million breach of contract action initiated by a private equity firm in New York, and acting as the lead attorney in securing a settlement that saved a client more than $1 million in a logistics disagreement with a Tier 1 automotive supplier.

But the case that stands out the most for him is one where he helped save the startup business of one of his closest friends, who was on the verge of losing his office space in Bloomfield Hills. “My friend, who did not have a lot of money, came to me and I was able to guide him through the litigation process and brought him through to a very cost-efficient and effective resolution,” he says.

Meanwhile, Fuhs’ basketball background led him to another career move: moonlighting as a color commentator for high school and college basketball games. It started several years ago, when the Comcast local sports network asked him to be a last minute fill-in for former Piston Rick Mahorn.
“I said I’ve got no experience, I’ve never done it before, but I’m willing to try,” he says. “Well, I guess I did a decent job. Fast-forward five or six years, and I’ve continued on to do high school games and now I’ve been able to work games on ESPN.”

William W. Kregel

Member // Dykema Gossett, Bloomfield Hills

Total Lawyers: 154

If William W. Kregel is anything, he is persistent. Soon after joining Dykema Gossett in Bloomfield Hills in 2006, he represented Automotive Component Holdings, an affiliate of Ford Motor Co. that was selling seven automotive plants.

Given the complexity of the real estate holdings — numerous structures and operations, transportation links, and massive parking lots — it took six years to sell each of them. “At one plant in Mexico we worked closely with Mexican legal counsel, and one plant was sold to a Canadian buyer, so there were these cross-border issues,” he says.

A Lansing native, Kregel says his love of sports attracted other clients. After a partner, Jin Koh, was casually quizzing Kregel about hockey facts, he was impressed enough to refer a sports client. Two days later, Kregel was on a plane to Tampa to do due diligence on the sale of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team by William Davidson, the late owner of both the hockey team and the Detroit Pistons.

The success of that deal opened the door for Kregel on other Davidson-related legal matters, including negotiating the television broadcasting rights of the Pistons and the sale of David son’s Class A minor league baseball team, the Asheville Tourists. “As a fan of all the Detroit sports teams, it was pretty exciting for me to be working with the Detroit Pistons and the Palace organization, who became one of my favorite clients,” he says.

Another hometown client is Compuware Ventures, the venture capital arm of Compuware Corp., a large technology firm in downtown Detroit. “They do smaller investments of $500,000 to $1 million in startup companies in and around Detroit,” Kregel says. “I worked on two of those deals, and it was very rewarding because I had a lot of responsibility in negotiating the agreements and getting them their first round of financing to make a go of it.”

He joined Dykema’s general corporate and securities practice after a stint as a law clerk for U.S. Federal Judge Robert Holmes Bell in the Western District of Michigan. “It was a great experience and probably led to a lot of my success,” he says. “Being thrown into the fire and working for a federal judge was a very formidable experience.”

He says he prefers corporate work and mergers and acquisitions because he likes the idea of “marking” his career by putting deals together. “Someone wants to buy something, or sell something, or a company needs to raise capital or raise money through securities offerings,” he says. “There might be tough negotiations in any transaction, but in the end everybody shakes hands and someone bought something, and someone sold something.”

His other clients include entrepreneurs, health care companies, and large regional and small banks. He says Dykema was a perfect opportunity for him because he came into the firm during a time of turnover. He and a law school friend — Kregel graduated from Wayne State University Law School — joined the firm at the same time and became the most senior and most junior associates.

“That gave us the opportunity to take on more responsibility than a normal young associate would, and we grew from it and were able to take on a lot of interesting transactions,” he says.

Jennifer L. Sabourin

Principal // Miller Canfield, Detroit

Total Lawyers: 200

Jennifer L. Sabourin finds that her specialty of defending management in employment law cases calls for a steady hand. “You have to find a good balance between being sympathetic to the employees who are adverse to your client, while also making sure you are vigorously representing the interests and defenses of your client,” she says.

After 14 years of practice, Sabourin occasionaly still comes across a case that surprises her. “Just when I think I’ve seen it all, a case comes through that reminds me I haven’t,” she says. “Employment law is personal; it’s interesting, but it also makes me fulfill that aspect of being a business partner with my clients in helping them develop the best practices for their particular industries.”

One of the cases that left an impression on her involved more than 250 supervisors who filed claims for overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Although it was a logistical challenge, she deposed every person. “A team was put together and I had a very large role in that team, because I had prior deposition experience,” she says. “For months on end, I did close to three depositions a week, getting their individual stories.”

The move paid off. Her team was able to get all the claims dismissed as the employees, in their own words, supported the client’s position that they were properly classified and not entitled to overtime compensation.

Like most lawyers, Sabourin says she is competitive and likes to win. “But one thing you learn as you practice in this area for a while is that winning does not always mean winning in the courtroom,” she says.

“Litigation is rarely any client’s first choice of legal action, so you have to find other ways of being relevant to your clients. What I find the most professionally rewarding are the occasions when I can be more of a business partner, (and) work with (a client) on compliance issues at a pre-litigation stage to prevent problems before they arise. I think that is when our clients are most appreciative.”

Still, she enjoys being in a courtroom and staying on top of employment-related news stories, personalities, and scenarios. “If you are going to specialize in a particular area of the law, you have to find an area that will hold your interest over the long run,” she says. “Employment law is never boring, as you are immersed in issues that are often very personal to the employees involved.”

Active in the American Bar Association’s Labor and Employment section as management vice chair for the national programs committee, Sabourin also serves as a planning committee member of an Equal Employment Opportunity subcommittee.

One piece of advice she gives to law students is that their network has already started with the people they are now interacting with personally and professionally in law school. These are the building blocks for the networks students will build throughout their professional career, she says.

Serving as a deputy practice leader of Miller Canfield’s employment group, Sabourin, a graduate of Wayne State University Law School, is also on the firm’s hiring committee and legal assistant review committee. “Internally, I have my finger on the pulse of our own employment-related issues,” she says.

Paul R. Hage

Partner // Jaffe Raitt Heuer and Weiss, Southfield

Total Lawyers: 102

Sometimes it takes one step back to move two steps ahead. For Paul R. Hage, a partner specializing in bankruptcy at Jaffe Raitt Heuer and Weiss in Southfield, the step back began inadvertently during a 2005 summer internship at a local insurance defense firm.

The tedious, dry work he encountered made for long days, and his discomfort was readily apparent to his mentor, who suggested he take on consumer bankruptcy work.

“I thought (bankruptcy) was fascinating,” Hage recalls. “It was all one bankruptcy code, on both the consumer and business sides. Many of the concepts are the same. You are trying to maximize value, especially in business cases where you’re trying to preserve jobs while helping to reorganize companies.”

When he went back for his last year at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, he took the lone bankruptcy course, along with nine other students.

When his professor suggested he study for a exceptional master’s degree in bankruptcy law at St. John’s University School of Law, in New York, Hage followed through. He now holds the distinction of being the only bankruptcy lawyer in Michigan to hold with such a credential.

“In 2006, the writing was on the wall,” he says. “The housing bubble had already started to burst here in metro Detroit. You knew, or heard rumors, that the automotive industry was going to be in trouble. From reading the papers you knew that legacy costs for the automotive industry and other types of businesses, as well as municipalities, were going to become a huge issue in the future.”

Hage started at Jaffe in June 2007, just as the wave of big bankruptcy filings — primarily automotive — began hitting the courts.

“It was good timing for me, (because) as firms were looking for bankruptcy attorneys and I was looking to do that work, particularly on the business side,” he says.

“There was lots of work, and interesting work, in corporate restructuring that was going on here in Michigan. It gave me an opportunity, primarily on the creditor side, to represent our firm’s clients.”

He says the most rewarding work is defending creditor clients. “A debtor chooses to be in bankruptcy, a creditor does not,” he says. “Creditors are unprepared, in many cases, for bankruptcy filings. It is unexpected, and they are usually faced with a large receivable that they need to get paid so they can pay their own employees.”

He says that on the occasions he has been on the debtor side of a case, he strives to help a company maximize value and restructure to save the business and preserve jobs. While his practice is nationwide, some of his more notable local clients have included General Motors, Chrysler Group, Visteon, Cooper-Standard, Plastech, and Metaldyne.

An avid writer, Hage has spent numerous weekends authoring some 25 published articles on bankruptcy law. In addition, he was recently elected president of the 400-member Michigan chapter of the Turnaround Management Association, which has 9,000 members worldwide.

He is also active as a national presenter at industry conferences, and for the past five semesters he has taught a class at Cooley Law School’s Oakland Campus. Hage also holds several high-level leadership positions with the American Bankruptcy Institute and the American Bar Association.

Bradley J. Wyatt

Member // Dickinson Wright, Ann Arbor

Total Lawyers: 183

Before he began his law practice at Dickinson Wright’s Ann Arbor office, Bradley J. Wyatt made two life-changing decisions. First, choosing to attend Brigham Young University in Utah led to meeting his wife, Corie, a Michigan native who grew up on a 100-year-old cattle farm in Harrison, north of Mount Pleasant.

Then, after Wyatt attended William and Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Va., he moved to Texas, passed the bar, but didn’t stay long. In 2009, the couple moved to Michigan with their growing family to be closer to relatives and the historic farm.

Today, Wyatt, a member of the firm’s corporate practice group, advises companies in mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures, corporate governance matters, and general contracting.

“We are part of a new economy for Michigan where we help companies, especially younger-generation companies, get the capital they need to grow,” says Wyatt, who was named a partner earlier this year. “I love seeing that come together successfully — jobs are created, and people go on to make productive enterprises. I get a charge when I see a deal come together.”

In addition to helping public and private clients in corporate finance and securities matters, Wyatt is an expert on compliance with federal regulations such as the Dodd-Frank Act, the Investment Advisors Act, and Securities and Exchange Commission rules.

“Some people might think a regulatory practice is boring, but to me it’s exciting to get in there and understand the complex regulatory regime and then be able to work with a team of attorneys and businesspeople to ensure good, principled, common-sense compliance with those regulations,” he says.

In one case, Wyatt and his team helped secure financing for a restaurant group. “We helped them complete an underwritten public offering of their common stock and raised $36 million,” he says of the seven-month effort. “That allowed them to continue to grow and open restaurants throughout Michigan.”

His experience delving into the intricacies of regulator and legislative language serves him well in his role as an adjunct professor teaching a class on private equity at the University of Michigan Law School.

“One of the things I find in my practice, and the key piece of advice I give my students, is when there is a new regulatory development in the law, that is something you can leverage in your practice if you can get out there first, learn it, and develop that expertise,” he says. “People will come to rely on you for that expertise.”

Wyatt’s interest in teaching was kindled at law school. “Going to William and Mary was a tremendous opportunity to attend the oldest law school in the country. Thomas Jefferson went to law school there,” he says.

“It was (inspiring) to walk over to Colonial Williamsburg and sit there on the steps of the home of George Wythe, who was credited with being one of the first professors of law in America, and think about the fact that I was sitting in the same place that some of our nation’s founding fathers sat when they studied law.”

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