Local Legal Legends: Four longtime attorneys and what they make of the profession today

Pat Wilson was the 22nd attorney to join the Grand Traverse-Leelanau-Antrim Bar Association when he started practicing law in Traverse City in 1963. John Blakeslee was the 25th in 1966. The roster was still low when Joe Fisher and George Bearup arrived in 1974. Today, there are close to 700 locally, while the number of Michigan attorneys has grown from about 13,000 in 1965 to 51,000.

Wilson, Blakeslee, Fisher and Bearup are among the attorneys who led the profession and shaped its growth locally for decades. All were drawn to the law in the spirit of service and have maintained that mindset during their long careers. As they look back, they share their observations on the profession’s evolution, their own experiences and a look to future.

Growth in the number of attorneys as well as women in the profession were among the most significant. John Blakeslee remembers when the only female attorney was Emelia Schaub in Leelanau County. Schaub was also notable as Michigan’s first female prosecuting attorney.

Pat Wilson remembers fewer courts and sometimes practicing before a justice of the peace in a home office or a municipal court judge in Traverse City before district courts were established. He also remembers when secretaries took shorthand for letters and pleadings, mimeograph machines made copies, typewriters did not correct and law library research relied on attorneys poring over books and journals in the stacks.
All agree that things have gotten more complex, compared to the early days.

“When I first came to Traverse City, most lawyers were generalists who attempted to handle any legal problem that walked into their office,” said George Bearup. “This was also the public’s expectation … a lawyer could handle all sorts of problems. Forty-plus years ago, a client expected the lawyer who drafted their will to also defend them in a drunk driving jury trial.”

Technology has been a significant driver with both positive and negative impacts. “In our circuit court [Antrim, Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties], all but the very first documents in a case are e-filed,” said Joe Fisher. “The e-filing system has worked well, made the court system more efficient and probably made the practitioners more efficient. Technology has also improved the ability to do quality legal research much quicker and more efficiently.”

Efficiencies have led to less patient clients, said Fisher. “The downside has led to client expectations of a much quicker response time to whatever is on their mind,” he said. “Too often, a first response can be knee-jerk and superficial. Good responses need time to percolate or be further researched before given to the client.”

Bearup reminisced about the slower days. “It is much quicker to find legal precedent to support a position or argument,” Bearup said, “but I am often wistful for the past when things were a bit slower. I fondly recall discovering a unique law or interpretation while grinding through law books … it was like discovering a lost item or stumbling across a hidden gem unexpectedly.”

Alternative dispute resolution in resolving civil cases was also cited as significant, with mediation taking over most court trials. While there are many benefits, one professional impact has been fewer opportunities for attorneys to gain trial experience outside of the criminal courts. “More trials make better lawyers,” Blakeslee said.

A common concern with changing times is diminished civility and collegiality among attorneys as well as lessening respect from the general public.

PATRICK J. WILSON
After receiving his undergraduate degree from Michigan State University and law degree from the University of Michigan, Pat Wilson was admitted to the State Bar of Michigan in 1963. He also served as a U.S. Army pilot for three years. His general legal practice included emphasis in estate planning, wills and trusts, probate, real estate, healthcare, labor and school law. An active community volunteer, Wilson was honored as the Distinguished Citizen of the Year by the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and Distinguished Alumni by MSU. He is currently semi-retired, and Of Counsel at Wilson Kester in Traverse City.

Getting started: Wilson was a pre-medical/pre-dentistry student when he began his studies at MSU, where he was also a varsity football and basketball player. He switched from the hard sciences to pre-law but didn’t settle on a legal career until returning from his tour of service and marrying his college sweetheart, Sharalee.

“I approached my MSU football coach, Duffy Daugherty, to help me find a coaching job while in law school. He volunteered to help at Notre Dame, Stanford and University of Pennsylvania but when I settled on U of M, he said it was just too much!” Wilson said.

Seeking to practice in a “place of beauty to raise a family,” away from big cities and large firms, he and his family moved to Traverse City in 1963 where he joined the Running Wise law firm. “We were in heaven … but the challenge to know how to be a ‘real lawyer’ and apply the law to everyday situations was ahead,” he said. “And, thank God for the legal secretaries and colleagues who took me by the hand …soon the law became ‘fun’ and a place where I knew I wanted to be.”

Rewards and challenges: “What was most fulfilling for me was working alongside many good and bright people in several sectors of the law,” he said, also noting the opportunity to work with Traverse City Area Public Schools, Northwestern Michigan College, Munson Medical Center, Traverse City Osteopathic Hospital and Rotary Charities, among others. A highlight, Wilson said, was starting Rotary Charities after the discovery of oil and gas resources on land owned by Rotary Camps for use by Scenic Trails Boy Scouts as well as defining its goals and purposes to assure the fund would be there to serve the region’s charitable needs in perpetuity.

“Working with those who have the responsibility to manage, preserve and distribute funds for worthy charitable causes has been fulfilling,” he said, noting his work alongside Rotary boards and staff to also incubate Rotary Camps and Services, the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation, the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy and the Discovery Center. He also serves as trustee for the Art and Mary Schmuckal Family Foundation.

Words of wisdom: “There are many opportunities … but enter the law with a spirit of service and not simply to make it big,” Wilson said. “The law is difficult and time-consuming, but how you live your life and care for your family are more important.”

For those starting out or considering a legal career, he recommended seeking out internships and considering the full range of professional options, including government positions and in-house legal staffs in healthcare or business as well as traditional firms.

Kudos: “I’ve been blessed to observe and work with many gifted lawyers over the past 50-plus years,” he said, noting Robert Murchie, who helped secure Grandview Parkway, and Harry T. Running, who helped write the first Community College Act with Representative Arnell Engstrom which paved the way for Northwestern Michigan College. He also shared kudos with local lawyers who became legislators and judges, including Mike Dively, Thomas Power, William Brown, Mort Forster, Phillip Rodgers, Jim McCormick and Thomas J. Phillips.

Compliments from colleagues: “Dad embodies the best of what it means to be a lawyer. He is compassionate, wise, a good listener, creative, able to find resolutions which serve varied interests, he is a leader. He is simply the finest man I know.” – Shelley A. (Wilson) Kester, attorney and owner, Wilson Kester.

JOHN BLAKESLEE
John Blakeslee graduated from Western Michigan University in 1960 and went on to get his J.D. from the University of Detroit Law school in 1965, after which he was admitted to the bar. He spent several years as a teacher. His career specialized in estate planning, succession planning, business and corporate law and real estate law.

He is a certified mediator for civil, domestic and probate cases, receiving the first Mediator of the Year Award by the 13th Circuit Court judges in 2018. Blakeslee served the community as a prosecuting attorney, on the Traverse City Housing Commission and by founding the local Estate Planning Council in addition to serving on the State Bar of Michigan’s Representative Assembly and Ethics Committee. He has been noted as a “Michigan Super Lawyer” in estate planning, probate and mediation. He is currently Of Counsel at Parker Harvey in Traverse City.

Getting started: “I wanted a life’s work in a respected profession where I could be challenged and help people,” Blakeslee said. “I’ve never regretted being a lawyer … I know in my heart that I’ve been lucky to have become an attorney and practice all these years.”

He began his career at a boutique tax firm in Detroit where his interest in estate planning began. He moved to Traverse City in 1966, joining Stuart Hubbell in private practice as well as assistant prosecuting attorney. At the time, dual duties were common. Hubbell was serving as prosecuting attorney while also maintaining his practice. Blakeslee later succeeded him as prosecuting attorney while also serving clients throughout northwest Michigan.

Rewards and challenges: “The practice of law is very demanding and ever-consuming,” Blakeslee said, noting most attorneys work very hard with little time off.

But the work is creative and satisfying, he said. “It gives me great satisfaction when I get to help people and the creative thinking that is part of the process,” he said.

He also noted appreciation from clients as high points as well as developing longstanding relationships and loyalty with some who have worked with him for as long as 45 years.

Words of wisdom: Blakeslee stresses the importance of a mentor to help guide young attorneys.
“I believe you gain wisdom with age … and a good mentor is invaluable,” he said.

He also stressed the need to continually increase skills, build relationships, give back to community and deepen professional experience. “Law school does not teach specialties … it teaches you to find the law and to think legally and critically,” he said. “People learn the law by talking about it … so get as much knowledge as possible by talking back and forth with your colleagues.”

He would advise young attorneys to look closely at the ethics of a firm. “You also want to be with a firm that is ethical … and teaches you how to run a business and your practice,” he said, noting the importance of paying attention to practice management or run the risk of letting down clients, staff and family.

Kudos: Blakeslee complimented judges and colleagues he’s interacted with over the years, including attorneys Steve Chambers, Joe Fisher and Peter Boyles, and judges Bill Porter in Gaylord, William Peterson in Cadillac, and Phil Rodgers, Tom Powers and Kevin Elsenheimer in Traverse City.

Compliments from colleagues: “John Blakeslee is an amazing attorney, mentor, and a great friend. I have been fortunate to work with John on many mutual client matters over the past 30 years. His experience, knowledge of the law, artful mediation skills, and his close connection to his clients are unparalleled in northern Michigan.” – John F. Welch, senior vice president and northern Michigan director, Greenleaf Trust.

JOSEPH C. FISHER
After receiving his undergraduate degree from Michigan State University in 1966 and his law degree from Detroit College of Law in 1974, Joe Fisher was admitted to the Michigan Bar in 1974. He also served for a while in the U.S. Army. His career has focused on civil litigation, criminal defense and family law. Fisher’s community work includes serving as president and board member of Traverse Bay Intermediate School District and chair of the Elk Rapids Harbor Commission. He is currently a shareholder at Alward, Fisher, Rice, Rowe & Graf in Traverse City.

Getting started: “I grew up as a middle-class kid in a middle-class neighborhood in Flint where most, if not all, of my neighbors were GM auto plant workers,” Fisher said. “At an early age, I became aware that life was not always fair.”

Growing up in those times primed him for his career. “So, those discussions coupled with some elementary teachers who made me aware of social injustice at an early age were the primary motivating factors. I also loved to argue,” he said. “By age 10, I had decided that I was going to be a lawyer and, most of all, I was going to live in northern Michigan.”

Fisher built his Elk Rapids-based civil practice by getting known in the Bellaire and Elk Rapids communities, attending many public meetings and seeking as many court appointed cases he could get.

“The first jury trial I ever had was defending a young man who had stolen a package of chewing gum from a party store,” Fisher said. “We ran out of jurors, so Probate Judge Harry Cook sent the bailiff to the local Dingeman’s Supermarket and instructed him to bring the first 10 people out of the checkout line to potentially serve as jurors.”

He lost that first jury trial. “[B]ut it was the beginning of a 10-year relationship as a defense attorney with Jim Young as the prosecuting attorney,” he said. “He made me a much better lawyer than I think I would ever have become without him. My respect and friendship with Jim Young continue to this day.”

Rewards and challenges: “One of the reasons I entered the profession was the belief that I could help people and make a decent living doing so,” Fisher said. “I still enjoy helping my clients achieve a just and fair result.” His hope is that the advice will not only stick, but perhaps change a life. “You hope that you can give advice that will stay with a client and help them avoid legal problems,” he said, “or maybe alter their lifestyle to avoid making bad decisions that brought them into contact with the legal system.” He notes concerns over current costs in the legal system and the challenge for attorneys to help while avoiding bankruptcy for their clients.

Words of wisdom: “There are two quotes from law school professors that have always stayed with me,” Fisher said. “’Love all, trust few, always paddle your own canoe’ and, ‘You’ll find that when you begin your law practice, you are ignorant … but when you conclude your law practice years later, you are ignorant in depth.’ The second quote literally points out that I have far more questions today than I do answers. It was fun starting out because I was a lot smarter than I am now.” He urges those starting out to remember the pursuit of law is challenging, time consuming and stressful, and to follow a healthy lifestyle, get involved in your community and to work with clients prudently by doing your homework and not overselling a case or making promises that can’t be kept.

Kudos: “I have been privileged to work with many great people,” Fisher said. “The court staffs have been kind, courteous and informative and, in the early days, helped me to understand much that was never taught in law school. The judges in this circuit and neighboring circuits have been top-notch. And, there are many fine attorneys in our local bar association who prepare their cases well, fight hard for their clients and demonstrate the kind of integrity that our profession deserves.”

Compliment from colleagues: “My son and daughter summed Joe up best when they told me ‘Mom, Joe is one hip dude.’ Joe’s love of people and his [life] experiences have given him the insight and ability to connect with clients from baby boomers to Gen Zs. He has the experience to quickly determine the best course of action and is a fierce advocate. A person couldn’t ask for a better business partner. He may not always tell you what you want to hear but he is brutally honest, fair and doesn’t ‘hustle’ for anyone’s approval. I have tremendous respect for him as a result.” – Nicole Graf, partner, Alward, Fisher, Rice, Rowe & Graf

GEORGE F. BEARUP

George Bearup graduated from the University of Michigan in 1971 and received his J.D. from Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law in 1974, after which he was admitted to the bar. His career has specialized in the field of trusts, divorce law and estate and retirement planning, with recognition as one of the “Best Lawyers in America” in trusts and estates and a “Michigan Super Lawyer” in estate planning and probate. A fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, Bearup practiced law in Traverse City for more than 40 years, including serving as founding member of the Traverse City office of Smith, Haughey, Rice and Roegge. His community service includes the Munson Medical Center board of directors, TART Trails and the Traverse Community Health Clinic, among others. In 2016, he joined Greenleaf Trust as a senior trust advisor where he provides legal guidance to clients, other attorneys and CPAs.

Getting started: “I always thought that I wanted to be a lawyer,” Bearup said, noting inspiration from his father whose own law school dreams were disrupted by WWII. “I recall writing a report in the sixth grade about what I wanted to do with my life, writing that I wanted to go to Northwestern University and become a lawyer. I never waivered from that goal,” he said, noting his parents’ expectations encouraged him as did the respect that attorneys and the legal profession received at the time he was growing up.

“There have been many changes since I obtained my law license,” Bearup said. “Technology has clearly changed how lawyers practice law, as with most professions. From carbon paper to software systems, from dial telephones to cell phones, to thinking with a pencil and paper in front of you to staring at a computer screen in the courtroom.”

Bearup says all the changes are “probably good” because the lawyers are more efficient. “Despite the efficiencies, though,” he added, “it seems there is less time to think, to reflect, to apply my judgement to solve a problem for which I’m more responsible.”

Rewards and challenges: “I found what was most fulfilling was assisting clients gain some peace of mind,” Bearup said, noting this was probably why he gravitated to estate planning as he was able to listen closely to clients, understand their concerns and draft an estate plan that achieved their objectives.

“There is an old adage in the law that I’ve come to believe,” Bearup said. “You start out your professional career as a lawyer who is somewhat knowledgeable about the law but, as the years pass by, you become a counselor where you listen and give advice, often much more than just the law.” He notes the greatest challenges to lawyers today are heightened expectations for immediate answers and unrealistic expectations about the amount of work to produce documents or, in litigation, to guarantee successful results. “Clients can forget that attorneys do not create facts,” Bearup said. “We just have to work with the facts that we are given, and hiring an attorney is no assurance that the client will win.”

Words of wisdom: Bearup advises young attorneys to find a mentor early in their careers.
“When you graduate from law school, you know a little law, but not how to practice law, how to manage client expectations or the business side of running a law practice,” he said. “Listen first, then speak.”
Other advice includes never guaranteeing a result to a client, to address fee expectations in the initial meeting, to discuss legal ethics with clients and to know it may be necessary, occasionally, to fire a client to protect professional standards and reputation.

Kudos: Bearup acknowledged the quality of the region’s circuit court judges, noting judges William Brown, Mort Forster, Phil Rodgers and Tom Power. “The public doesn’t realize just how smart, compassionate and hardworking these judges were, or in Tom’s case are, in carrying out their elected duties,” he said. “Coming up with a fair decision is not for the faint of heart when lives hang in the balance. Nor is it easy to ‘herd cats’ as judges must control and respond to hundreds of lawyers who appear in their courtrooms each year.”

Compliments from colleagues: “George is the acknowledged ‘dean’ of the northern Michigan estate planning bar and for many years he was also considered one of the region’s go-to divorce attorneys. In fact, gossip of marital discord was often initiated if you were seen having lunch with him. However, what few really appreciate is the level of his community involvement. His commitments have included long stints with Rotary Charities, the Women’s Resource Center, Munson’s corporate board and many years ago the State Hospital task force, which laid the ground work for the community’s acquisition of the Commons and eventually the creation of Grand Traverse Commons. He’s left his imprint on our community in a very positive way.” – Robert Parker, partner, Parker Harvey

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