The True Believer
Love him or hate him. Grant Parsons doesn’t really care. He takes the cases nobody wants or can win. He fights for the families of prisoners who hung themselves and fights against companies of any size. Heck, he’ll sue his own city or go against friends in a public battle over the principal of the thing.
One of northern Michigan’s most accomplished civil rights and personal injury attorneys, Grant Parsons actually grew up in a conservative family, the son of Traverse City’s largest employer. Parsons’ father, John Parsons, owned Parsons Corporation, a manufacturing powerhouse that innovated and assembled helicopter rotor blades. But a series of unexpected events and tragedies left the younger Parsons looking for more.
The Traverse City Business News sat down with Parsons for a rare interview about life, law, and living like a True Believer.
TCBN: Tell us how this all began.
PARSONS: I was pretty indifferent about life in high school, but yes, my dad was the biggest employer in town and of course a Republican. All of our friends were Republican and very civic-minded here around town. I traveled around the world and didn’t want to go to college. Eventually I went to Albion. Fall 1968 I started, got kicked out in the spring of 1969. On a scale of 4.0, I had a 0.8 grade average, having majored in pinochle.
I stuck around [Traverse City] until the spring of 1971 … basically was in Europe for two years out of the 3-year period of 1971-1973.
In 1975, I was married, my dad went broke and closed the shop, so I got work as a construction laborer. In the spring of 1976, I was working on a construction crew framing houses, and a skill saw went through my left knee cap and my thigh. It was at that point I realized I was never going to be discovered, so decided to get a college degree and go in the Peace Corps or to law school. I was in Honors English at Michigan and studied under the first black Poet Laureate in the United States. Halfway through the term, he said to me, “You should quit writing until you’re serious enough to have something to say.” And that stuck.
TCBN: And then more change?
PARSONS: Right. My mother had quit the Republican party, and my brother had died of AIDS. That will radicalize you; it makes you take stock of things.
I clerked for a liberal judge, one known for his strong Constitutional values … and then basically I came home with my wife and started practicing law. Everyone back here knew me as a Republican, but now I was practicing civil rights law.
TCBN: And your first case wasn’t a quiet, timid one…
PARSONS: It was 1985, and a group had proposed the Bayview Mall, a big retail mall right downtown in the parking lot where the farmers market is now. Bob Russell and a few hippies joined together, and the city was prepared to give the property away. You know, it was very controversial. People wanted the jobs downtown. But I saw it as a bellwether case. The disposition of parkland requires a vote of the people. So Russell found a deed restriction, and the city charter says you must have a vote. We won the lawsuit to have a vote, and it was a critical turning point, I think, for self definition. We had a special election in 1986.
TCBN: And what did the public think? Was your cause favored to win?
PARSONS: Hell no. There was no way we could win. It was parkland or a mall with all those jobs. It’s always jobs. Downtown was dying. The city was saying, “Do you want the mall downtown or out of town?” But can you imagine what would’ve happened to this town with a four-story mall from Union to Cass [streets]?
I couldn’t walk downtown. People looked the other way. A great friend of the family took ten years after that to speak to me. But yes, we won.
TCBN: And fast-forward to today … you’re taking many of the most controversial cases around.
PARSONS: Sure, we’ve sued a sheriff … we protect those inmates who hang themselves … we’ve sued over proper land use. I find the one guiding principle is when the government acts secretly or abusively; it pisses me off.
TCBN: Are you anti-business?
PARSONS: No, there are lots of companies I admire. Yes, I am cynical about what business says its truth is. Corporations are disavowing any moral weight, and I try to put that back into it. In most cases, of course, it’s the insurance company I’m going after. I’m not in the business of teaching a poor, uninsured, un-collectible person a lesson; God already has. I want to correct what I see as social inequity.
We worked on a product liability case where a man was blinded in one eye. In a case like that we want to prove why things happened and learn something from one person for the diffuse benefit of others. You pay the victim as an economic analysis. It makes it expensive for a company to hurt people, and I think it should.
You know, some things in life you pick, and some things pick you. You sort of do the first one and have some success or notoriety, and then people start picking you.
TCBN: What about the practice of law? What do you think makes you successful amdist all that competition?
PARSONS: You know, out of 100 lawyers, 95 of them are trying to be the “aw shucks,” easy to get along with types, and five are wearing fancy clothes, sort of a uniform that separates people. So I just look them [prospective clients] in the eye, and I say, ‘Think of me as a car mechanic. Tell me the problem, and I’ll tell you as mechanically as I can what law can do for you.’ You’re finding the crack that another lawyer missed. Inevitably, a person didn’t really listen to them; they didn’t see the story. Think of a good reporter or doctor … they listen. If I listen, I will hear a part of the case that other lawyers miss.
TCBN: What sorts of cases keep you going these days?
PARSONS: They’re based on what I believe and a purely competitive instinct, but more than often they have to be interesting at this stage in my career. I do love the land use and public cases, because how a society handles land use very much shapes a society.
TCBN: What about 10-15 years from now?
PARSONS: You’re a fool if you retire from law, really. It’s too damn interesting. Hopefully by the time you die, you know what you’re doing; they call it a ‘practice’ for a reason!
TCBN: People call you a ‘true believer.’ An idealist. Are you?
PARSONS: I think everyone enters law with a great deal of idealism. It makes me think of Lincoln … someone was trying to bribe him, and he threw the man out, saying, ‘He was getting to close to my price.’ I’ve heard it said that if you quit fighting, you never get it back. I believe that.