For the Love of the Law

Lou Smith on 50 years practicing law, his nickname “Loophole Louie” and how he envisions his legacy.

Lou Smith has been practicing law for 50 years and his enthusiasm for everything legal hasn’t waned. “You have to be wild about it to do well,” he said.

These days, Smith splits his year between Traverse City and Florida but isn’t retired, or even semi-retired. “In Florida, I receive a Federal Express box every morning before 10:30 and return every call every day. I’m gainfully employed.”

Smith’s practice, Smith & Johnson, Attorneys, P.C., is in a large building near the bay. But his beginnings were modest.

BN: Where did you first practice law?
LS: I started practicing law in my hometown, Lansing, in 1965. I had an office in downtown Lansing, two blocks from where I went to high school (St. Mary’s Cathedral High School, a block north of the Capitol).

BN: What kind of law?
LS: It was a general practice, but in order to survive I became the favorite court appointment for indigents in the criminal area. That allowed me to mature quickly. My nickname became “Loophole Louie.”

BN: Did you have interesting cases in Traverse City, too?
LS: Oh, sure. For example, I negotiated the sale of a company that had already signed an agreement for sale and was able to increase the price, even though there was an existing agreement in place.

I’ve negotiated divorce settlements that far exceeded Princess Diana’s.

And I represented two brothers that were struck on a motorcycle, rendering them paraplegic from the chest line down. After a multimillion-dollar settlement was reached, the city (defendant) said, “We don’t have that kind of money.” I told them, “Well, then, we’ll take the library.” The boys’ mother was sitting next to me in the courtroom. She got the biggest kick out of that. That was the highlight of that day. But the most rewarding case was helping a family escape from civil war-torn Ethiopia and immigrate to the U.S. with the help of President Ford.

Those are some of the enjoyable ones.

BN: What brought you up to Traverse City? (Smith moved here in 1974.)
LS: We had purchased a home on Glen Lake and I really never got a chance to go there. I was working. We decided we were either going to have to sell it or use it.

BN: Did your wife Karen (a classically trained singer who performed at Interlochen) inspire your affiliation with Interlochen? (Smith was on the board for 19 years.)
LS: Roger Jacobi came to visit me when Karen was performing at Interlochen on a regular basis and asked if I’d be willing to give Interlochen some time, but the two were unrelated.

BN: What were some of the changes you saw when you were on the Interlochen board?
LS: I saw an increased dedication to recruiting and fundraising and facilities improvement.

BN: You said you only knew one family when you moved up here.
LS: Right. Our neighbors on Glen Lake were the Jay Dutmers family, of Empire Bank. I ended up on that board for 25 years.

BN: When Empire Bank was acquired by Huntington, there must have been a financial windfall for you…
LS: I was a shareholder, where I had put savings into their stock, and it was a nice return, but it wasn’t a windfall.

BN: Where was your first office in Traverse City?
LS: In Old Town on Union Street.

BN: How do you start a law practice from scratch? How do you find clients?
LS: My major clients in Lansing didn’t leave me. I was already serving clients throughout Michigan. I’ve always had a strong work ethic. Good results created referrals. It just took off.

BN: How did you know Justice (Thomas) Brennan? (Brennan and Smith were co-founders of Cooley Law School.)
LS: We met at a church golf outing in East Lansing. Having dinner afterwards, we discussed how each of us had long thought that a law school education had to be more accessible. We filed the articles of incorporation within a couple days of meeting each other.

BN: You served on the Board of Law Examiners. What do they do?
LS: That’s a wonderful part of my life. In this profession, you’ve got to keep pulling on the oars because the commitment to your colleagues is an easy thing to drop. The State Board of Law Examiners drafts and grades the bar exam. They also handle appeals and requests from out-of-state lawyers who want reciprocity to practice in Michigan. It’s the only gatekeeper so you felt like you could help people who needed help and you could pause on those who didn’t meet qualifications.

BN: What would you like to be remembered for?
LS: Participating.

BN: How has practicing law changed over the last 50 years?
LS: It became populated! … If I had a chance to touch all the levers and pull all the ropes, I think I would concentrate on stressing – in law school – ethics and moral responsibility. One of my greatest joys from this profession is having served 25 years on the Notre Dame University Law Advisory Council at the invitation of Father Ted Hesburgh. Ethics and moral responsibility are hallmarks of a Notre Dame legal education. Serving upright in the law is an important piece of our democracy.

BN: Did you ever think about going into politics?
LS: Yes, but I took an aspirin right away and the feeling left me immediately. I had a chance but I never regretted saying no.