Category Archives: Alumni Stories and News

Graduates share their success stories about attending law school and achieving their dreams.

Attorney Choi T. Portis Honored with the Barristers President’s Award from the Detroit Bar Association

WMU-Cooley Law School graduate Choi T. Portis has been selected by the Detroit Bar Association as this year’s winner of the Barristers President’s Award, which recognizes a young attorney whose early career has exhibited high standards of service to the profession, his or her clients and the public. Portis, associate general counsel for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, was presented the award during the Detroit Bar Association’s Summer Breeze event on July 19, 2017 at the Detroit Yacht Club.

Jim Robb and Choi Portis

WMU-Cooley Law School Associate Dean of External Affairs and General Counsel James Robb presents WMU-Cooley graduate Choi T. Portis with the Detroit Bar Association Barristers President’s Award. Portis was selected by the Detroit Bar Association as this year’s winner of the Barristers President’s Award.

“I was honored to present the Detroit Bar Association Barristers President’s Award to a woman who has made her law school proud by already distinguishing herself as a leader in our profession,” said James Robb, WMU-Cooley Law School associate dean of external affairs and general counsel. “In the legal community, leadership requires professional excellence, of course, but it also requires responsible participation in the organized bar and meaningful participation in service to our communities. Choi has exemplified each of these requirements. Through her outstanding work as Associate General Counsel of the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department and in her prior work representing abused children and handling corporate transactions, Choi demonstrates superb legal skills.”

In her position with the Water and Sewage Department, Portis handles in-house litigation, internal personal injury and property damage claims, damage claim appeals, billing disputes and contract review. She also serves as counsel to the department director regarding various legal issues, serves on the Damage Claims Appeals committee and supervises the department’s Environmental and Safety team.

In addition to her work with the city of Detroit, in February, Portis started Portis Legal, PLC, a small solo firm designed to provide low-cost, transactional legal services to clients. She primarily focuses on business entity formation, contract formation and review, but also offers copyright and trademark registration services as well.

Portis is an executive council member of the State Bar of Michigan Young Lawyers Section, and serves on the organization’s Diversity Committee. She is also the district representative for the state of Michigan, and a vice director of Diversity and Inclusion for the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division. Portis serves as a mentor to many, tutoring bar candidates through the Wolverine Bar Association Minority Bar Passage Program. She was recently honored as a member of the Michigan Chronicle’s “40 Under 40 Class of 2017.”

 Portis is admitted to practice in the State of Michigan and the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. She earned her J.D. from Western Michigan University Cooley Law School.

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WMU-Cooley ReNita Antoine Makes Law and Leadership Life Priority

The youngest of eight, and a first-generation college graduate and first lawyer in her family, ReNita Antoine has always had a desire to help those who cannot help themselves and be the change people want to see. In high school, she participated in the YMCA’s Youth and Government program, drafting a bill and competing against students in her hometown of Houston, then against students around Texas.

“It was then I realized I could make laws that would affect the entire state,” she says. “I knew getting a law degree would give me a better understanding of how the law works and a ticket to help those who have become victim to unfair, unequal, treatment.”

Antoine earned her undergrad degree in Criminal Justice from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. As a student, she was heavily involved on campus and in the community; she was initiated into the Eta Psi Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority; and interned at the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office.

“I wanted to get an understanding of how the criminal justice system works and why so many individuals fall victim to the luring nature of crime,” she says. “The misfortune that plagues individuals almost forces them to experience the system and in turn creates a cyclical effect on the generations to follow. Fortunately, with hard work and commitment, this generational chain can be broken.”

After working as a clerk/receptionist at a Houston firm, and as a co-producer for a local TV show, “Truth & Justice with Vivian King,” Antoine headed to the WMU-Cooley Law School campus in Lansing.

“WMU-Cooley has some of the most knowledgeable, experienced, and engaging professors, who have practical experience coupled with the theory of the law,” she says. “The professors have an open-door policy which allows students to have candid conversations about the law. They are truly there for students. I developed lasting relationships with some professors that will extend beyond law school.”

While in law school, Antoine competed in the National Black Law Student Association Thurgood Marshall Mock Trial Competition, that she believes prepared her for an 11-week internship with the Prosecutors Attorney Association of Michigan (PAAM) in southwest Michigan’s Berrien County.

“I believe this competition is one of the best mock trial competitions in the world,” she says. “It challenges you to think quickly on your feet, make sound arguments, and hone your public speaking skills.”

At PAAM, where her internship involved working as an assistant prosecutor, Antoine counseled with individuals to provide them with appropriate charges and negotiated with defense attorneys for plea deals.

“I received actual trial experience and was exposed to the daily workings of a prosecutor’s office,” she says.

In addition to her studies, she served as the head representative for the WMU-Cooley-Lansing campus for Barbri Inc., a bar preparation company that has been helping students for five decades. She also worked as a data specialist for the State Court Administrative Office Trial Court Services Division, traveling throughout Michigan to collect data for the Swift and Sure Sanctions Probation Program (SSSPP) — a program that targets high-risk felony offenders with a history of probation violations or failures.

“I saw first-hand how someone who would otherwise serve a lengthy prison sentence earns a second chance for a new life,” she says. “I found this position enlightening. I could see how this program worked. Sometimes, all one ever needs is a second chance and this program affords them that opportunity.”

Outside of school, Antoine volunteered with the Building Child and Family Initiatives – MAGIC of Reading Program (MOR), helping children in grades K – 6 hone their reading comprehension skills.

“I thoroughly enjoyed working with this program,” she says. “MOR allowed me to be an active participant in the Lansing community and work with the future generation of leaders.”

In her final semester at WMU-Cooley Law, Antoine externed with the Resolution Services Center of Central Michigan (RSCCM) in Lansing. She observed civil and domestic mediations, co-mediated small claims disputes, and conducted intake interviews.

“I believe mediation is one of the best ways to resolve a case, and it allows parties to come to an agreement on their own,” she says. “Equally important, mediation is more economically feasible than a trial, which is good for the judicial system.”

At WMU-Cooley’s honors convocation, Antoine was honored with the Leadership Achievement Award.

Associate Dean Michael McDaniel presents WMU-Cooley student ReNita Antoine with Leadership Award

Associate Dean Michael McDaniel presents WMU-Cooley student ReNita Antoine with Leadership Award

“It was unexpected, yet welcomed and appreciated,” she says. “I was just doing what I was supposed to do, leading. I was not expecting to be awarded for my passion of service. When I took on duties and responsibilities, I did what was right for the student body. So, to be honored with this achievement was a blessing.”

She received further kudos in being awarded the Otis M. Smith scholarship at the 20th Annual Davis-Dunnings Bar Association Otis M. Smith Scholarship Banquet.

Davis-Dunnings Bar Association President and WMU-Cooley graduate Takura Nyamfukudza presents WMU-Cooley student ReNita Antoine with Scholarship Award

Davis-Dunnings Bar Association President and WMU-Cooley graduate Takura Nyamfukudza presents WMU-Cooley student ReNita Antoine with Scholarship Award

The Houston native is taking the Texas bar exam this upcoming July and plans to return to her hometown. Interested in bankruptcy law, estate planning, negotiation/mediation, and politics, she plans to advocate for clients and her community on a local and national level.

This article about WMU-Cooley graduate ReNita Antoine was written by Legal News writer Sheila Pursglove originally published by the Legal News on June 28, 2017. It is reprinted here with permission of The Detroit Legal News. 

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WMU-Cooley graduate Maurice McDaniel: Parachute Accident Opens Up New Career in the Law

WMU-Cooley, as a military friendly and designated Yellow Ribbon School, talks to its military students, faculty and graduates about their journey from the military to law school and about their career goals. This month’s military feature is WMU-Cooley graduate Maurice McDaniel, a retired imagery and intelligence analyst working for the military’s Seven Special Forces Group. After a parachuting accident, Maurice decided it was time to fulfill his lifelong goal of becoming an attorney.

Military rank and title: Military Intelligence Attachment of the Seven Special Forces Group

Tell us about your military experience: I was an imagery and intelligence analyst working for the military’s Seven Special Forces Group. We worked on target packages in Central and South America doing a lot of work with the president’s war on drugs at the time. I was involved with the planning and execution phases of some large operations. I spent time in the Pentagon working with the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Drug Enforcement Administration, along with doing counter-insurgency activity in Peru.

WMU-Cooley graduate Maurice McDaniel

Why did you decide to go to law school: I decided to go to law school after a military parachuting accident. I realized that I just wasn’t able to physically perform all my duties in my law enforcement job. I also realized I needed to change directions in my career. I knew I had always been interested in a legal career; ever since I remember. Now was the time to act on that goal. I looked into law schools and decided to attend Western Michigan University Cooley Law School for several reasons. One was the convenience. WMU-Cooley offered flexible schedule options, which included offering classes three times a day; plus weekend classes. I also liked that the campus was geographically close to where I lived. It made it that much easier to get to my classes. And once I started law school, I knew I had made the right decision. I really enjoyed the all staff and faculty of the law school.

Career Goals:  I currently enjoy working in my own private practice in High Springs, Florida, downtown Historic District. My goal is to see my firm expand and to hire more employees and associates into my successful practice.

Tell us a little about you: I am married, and we have five children between us. My wife is the county attorney for Alachua County, in Gainesville, which is also the county I practice in. Our children range from nine to 27 years of age. The 27-year-old is an engineer. Two others are attending college at the University of Florida. One child is a senior at Santa Fe High School, and our youngest is going into the fifth grade this fall. We enjoy living on a little mini ranch of around 56 acres, along with several horses, cows and other farm animals. We love being a part of this small rural community. My daughter is involved in horse riding and jumping. I enjoy watching her competitions, as well as the being involved in the other children’s sports activities.

WMU-Cooley graduate Maurice McDaniel with his wife, Michele Lieberman, County Attorney for the Alachua County Attorney's Office

WMU-Cooley graduate Maurice McDaniel with his wife, Michele Lieberman, County Attorney for the Alachua County Attorney’s Office

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Graduate Aaron Sohaski: WMU-Cooley Law School felt the most like home for me

My first year of law school, I actually didn’t spend at WMU-Cooley. I was at another law school out of state, and while I had a good experience there, it wasn’t the educational outcome that I had desired. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. It was disheartening because I usually consider myself a very wise consumer. After my first year there, I had to re-evaluate. This was the first time in my educational career that I had to look again at a school. I know that attending WMU-Cooley was ultimately the happiest decision I could have made. – WMU-Cooley 2016 graduate Aaron Sohaski

I started looking at law schools in the Detroit Metro region because I was offered and took a full-time job there. It was a wonderful opportunity to return to the area. I ultimately decided to transfer to WMU-Cooley Law School. It felt the most like home for me. It felt grounded. I could see that the professors really cared about the students. And the honors scholarship also made it the right economical decision for me.

WMU-Cooley graduate Aaron Sohaski, Lansing campus

Once classes started, and despite coming in a little scared as a transfer student, I felt ingratiated and part of my class right from the get go. As a non-traditional student, I appreciated that there were a lot of other students who also worked full time. It was a refreshing change from where I previously came from. Most of the students were enrolled full-time, just coming out of undergrad, and had no previous work experience. It was different at WMU-Cooley. While there are plenty of traditional students, there were also many students like me.  I especially admired those second career students who balanced work and family while going to law school. It was inspiring.

My time at WMU-Cooley was highly punctuated by strong relationships with my professors. If I ever had a question after class, I knew that I could contact a professor at any time. They were dedicated about their career and their tenure as a professor. What really set them apart from any other professor I had was the fact that many of the professors were working professionals, with many years of practice experience. I knew going into a Contracts II class, for instance, I would hear war stories about something that was going on now and was relevant to the class. That’s how I personally learn the law best – through those examples. I would take a professor’s teachable moment in the classroom and apply them to my life – learning how not to make the same mistakes.

WMU-Cooley graduate Aaron Sohaski, Lansing campus

The professors also understood that people had lives and believed in the law school’s mission of giving students practical skills and experience. Despite my work and law school schedule, I was able to still participate in the estate planning clinic for two semesters. What a wonderful experience. The professors encouraged me to try different things and to ask questions –  to reach outside the box. Professors supported you every step of the way.

I’ve always been somebody who wants to take on forms of leadership in my life, so I immediately became involved during law school. There are so many different organizations, plus tons of opportunities to be involved in your local or state bar associations. The law school really encourages that kind of involvement. And I am still very involved as first-year attorney, including being a member of the Detroit Bar Association, Inns of Court, New Lawyer’s Council for the Oakland County Bar Association, and the State Bar of Michigan Young Lawyers Section Executive Council.

My sense is that WMU-Cooley students have a confidence, and they aren’t afraid to venture into anything. And do it at 110 percent, as do all the professors. WMU-Cooley imparted in me to be a lifelong learner. I use my law degree every single day.

It amazes me how many WMU-Cooley grads are involved in organizations and pro bono work.  And it’s not just in Michigan. I’ve met fellow graduates in New York, Florida, California,  just about everywhere. We touch all corners of the United States. It makes me proud to be a part of the WMU-Cooley network.

WMU-Cooley graduate Aaron Sohaski

Aaron Sohaski is a January 2016 graduate of WMU-Cooley Law School. He works for the Henry Ford Health System as an attorney focusing on regulatory compliance and regulatory affairs within the health system. He enjoys learning the ever-changing new healthcare laws and regulations, and focuses on contracts and business association agreements, third party payer agreements, and works directly with others across the healthcare system. Henry Ford is the fifth largest employer in the city of Detroit with over 28,000 employees.

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Rafael Diaz combines his love for the criminal justice system and the law

Rafael Diaz, a lieutenant with the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety and a 2010 WMU-Cooley Law School graduate, knew from an early age that he wanted to go to law school. Every decision, from high school through college, was made to position himself for a career in the law.

But, as he was coming to the end of his time in college, he looked at law school again. Married, and with a young daughter, Diaz decided it was not the right time to make a commitment to law school.

“Life kind of creeps up on you,” he remembered. “I had to look at other things. I was volunteering for the Holland Police Department as a reserve police officer and wondered about what to do for work. I reasoned that, since I planned to be a prosecutor in the criminal justice system, what better way to learn about its inner workings than from that vantage point. Well, lo and behold, I really enjoyed it! I loved the police-citizen interactions and I loved the law at that level. So I thought to myself, well, I love law; I love law enforcement; I think I would like to be a police officer. So that’s exactly what I did.”

After five years at the Holland Police Department, Diaz joined Kalamazoo Public Safety in 2005, giving himself more time for family and the opportunity to dream about law school again.

Diaz learned that WMU-Cooley’s many scheduling options could make pursuing his dream possible. In 2007, he started law school at WMU-Cooley’s Lansing campus taking classes during the day, knowing that if his work schedule changed, he could continue by taking advantage of other scheduling options the law school offered.

WMU-Cooley graduate Rafael Diaz

“For a person who was on the streets doing night patrol, the fact that WMU-Cooley offered classes in the morning, afternoon, evening, and even on weekends, was fantastic,” said Diaz. “So many doors opened for me. I don’t really know of another way I could have really done it, but for WMU-Cooley’s scheduling options. As you can imagine, it was hard working nights as a patrol officer and balancing everything else, but the flexibility I was afforded in Public Safety and the opportunity to teach through a joint relationship between Public Safety and a local educational association, gave me the lift I needed to start law school.”

He continued to work with area high school students, teaching them what it might be like to be a police officer. He enjoyed working with the students, plus he found that this work schedule allowed him to attend evening classes and more time to study.

“The department really stood by me while I was in law school,” said Diaz. “The flexibility I received from work and law school, along with my family’s support and understanding, is how I got to where I am today.”WMU-Cooley graduate Rafael Diaz

Law school was tough, but all Diaz’ memories are positive. “My experience at WMU-Cooley was one of the best times of my life,” Diaz recalled. “Not only was I busy at work, I was busy in law school. I loved being challenged. I also met a lot of great people. I had a tremendous amount of interaction with people and have stayed in contact with many over the years and built lasting friendships.

“It might not have been the traditional approach,” smiled Diaz, “but it worked for me, and everything seemed to fall into place.”

For Diaz, the professors at WMU-Cooley stood out as exceptional teachers. They also made themselves available to help students.

“I have really grown an appreciation for their work and their care of the students,” said Diaz. “Coupled with the friendships and the relationships that I developed, law school was one of the best times ever. Even now I find time to stop by the law school just to say hello. I really loved my time at WMU-Cooley.”

How has a law degree helped in a career in law enforcement?

Diaz explained that his training and legal education have made him a better person, both personally and professionally.

“The law degree is what has broadened my eyes, my perspective, and my approach to so many different issues,” he stated. “I have gone up the ranks, and am now a lieutenant and I got there in a relatively short period of time. I believe it is because the work that I have done and the work that I can do is appreciated. By setting myself apart from other candidates, I have been allowed to progress quickly. It really is a wonderful intersection of my love of law enforcement and my love of law, and the practice of it as an attorney.

“WMU-Cooley set me up for success. They taught me how to look at a problem, any problem really, then apply specific set of skills to analyze the problem and come up with solutions, looking at many sides of an issue. Sometimes in law enforcement we get stuck in only seeing it from one side. That can lead to a lot of frustration when we only want certain outcomes.

“What law school has taught me to do is to examine things from all sides in different ways because people have different points of view. That’s very, very helpful. It gives you a greater understanding and compassion for different views. We may agree to disagree at the end, and that’s OK, but in examining it from all different angles we are able to really see those points and then mesh it in with what the law says about how we have to behave ourselves in society. Really, it is an academic exercise in understanding different folks. For me, that has been huge.”

Family Makes Perfect

Diaz knows that he owes much to the unconditional support and love of his family.

“I can go back to when I was registering for WMU-Cooley Law School,” recalled Diaz. “At the time, I was working as a patrol officer, assigned a night shift. I sat down with my wife and we talked about it. We knew that it was going to be a life-changing, life-altering event for several years. It basically came down to this, my wife said, ‘If you’re willing to do it and put the work in, I am willing to do everything else, and we will get it done.’ I knew right then that I had the support of my wife.”

But Diaz also had two children to factor into the equation.

“I asked my daughter Alana, who is now 20 and a junior at Western Michigan University, and my son, who is going to be 14, ‘How do you think or feel about me taking this on?’  I said, ‘I am going to need a lot of time to study.’ They both looked at me and said, ‘Dad, if that’s what you want to do, let’s do it!’ ”

Even with the full support of his family, Diaz knew there would times where his family would suffer.

“What I tried to do was balance life as much as I could,” suggested Diaz. “Anything that I had outside of school, work, and family was gone, and I still haven’t picked up the game of golf since, but that’s OK. I want dinner time with my family. I encourage anybody who is looking at law school to carve out time for your family, regardless of how busy you are at work or school. In my mind, if it doesn’t work with family, then it’s all wasted.

“During family time, you put the books to the side, sit down, eat dinner, or watch a show, then when they go to bed, get back at it. I tell you what, I got a lot of strength from my family. Even during those years, I coached my daughter in softball and soccer and my son in baseball and soccer, because I love coaching. You can really tackle anything when you have that family support.

“I was truly blessed because my wife, my daughter, my son have always stood behind me and given me pushes, like, ‘Hey dad shouldn’t you be studying? Why don’t you get after it?’ I am thankful every day for the tremendous support of my family, and at some level I believe it was good for them, modeling good study habits, punctuality, and dedication.

“So, it is a two-way street, and we have both benefited tremendously.”

A Day in the Life of Rafael Diaz

With Public Safety, Diaz believes he has one of the most exciting and rewarding careers in the world.

“In 2008, I had a great opportunity to take a class in crisis intervention and learn how to help mentally ill subjects in crisis,” said Diaz. “The concept was that you can de-escalate a situation and seek positive outcomes by having relationships in the community. We now have a crisis intervention team here in Kalamazoo where we link all the necessary resources. We regularly train large classes, 40 officers at a time, and have built a crisis intervention team trained in mental health issues, coupled with de-escalation training, which reduces the probability for violence.”

The efforts have, over the years, improved the treatment and care of the individuals in crisis.

“Those are really the hallmarks of a successful program,” stated Diaz. “We have even been taking our training methods across the state, including a jail diversion program. The overarching principle is, ‘What is the right thing to do?’ We can work on all the other things that go along with that, so long as we have an eye towards getting a good outcome. This model of policing is not only catching fire statewide, but nationally. We are touching lives and that’s really exciting work.”

Diaz may have taken the road less traveled to get him to where he is today, but he has succeeded at every turn, proving to one and all that there is more than one pathway to success.

This story is also published in the Summer 2017 Benchmark. CLICK HERE to see the story and to read about other interesting WMU-Cooley Law School graduates. 

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Arthrex Sr. Vice President John W. Schmieding: Our Mission Drives Everything We Do

Naples, Florida is well-known as a great resort destination, with miles of white sandy beaches, calm waters, fishing, high-end shopping, golf courses, and even dolphin-watching. What’s less well-known is that Naples is a premier global research and training destination for orthopedic surgeons. John W. Schmieding (Moore Class, 1993) is the senior vice president and general counsel for Arthrex, Inc., a world leader in orthopedic surgical device design, research, manufacturing and medical education. Its mission is helping surgeons treat their patients better.

Since 1981, when Arthrex was founded by Schmieding’s brother, Reinhold, Arthrex has experienced tremendous growth and demand for its products. Its global headquarters in Naples is nothing short of impressive. The vibrant atmosphere of rapid product innovation, medical research and surgeon collaboration is noticeable on its sprawling campus. Surgeons come from around the world to learn about new products and techniques through hands-on surgical skills training programs at this premier medical education facility.

For the past 15 years, with his educational experiences and leadership acumen, Schmieding has been a steward of the legal framework which has facilitated Arthrex’s incredible growth and economic success in the Naples community and around the world.

Did you always know you wanted to be a lawyer?

I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a lawyer. My earliest memory, and one of my favorite stories, is when I was a young boy sitting in the backseat of our car looking out the window and a bus passed. It wasn’t the bus so much, but something else. I remember turning to my mother and cleverly saying, “Mom, the school bus probably had wooden seats back in your day!” She quickly smiled at me and told me, “Absolutely, John. That’s very deductive of you. You should be a lawyer when you grow up!”

That was the moment I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, not because of the law but because of the analysis. Even today I encourage my own children to be inquisitive about history and to think about how things are developed and where things belong. Inquisitiveness is an invaluable quality.

How was your time at Western Michigan University? What was your undergrad focus?

I was focused at Western to find a degree that would give me a leg up in law school. I entered WMU’s Criminal Justice program, in addition to a Courts minor – which resembled prelaw courses. I finished the requirements within two years and my advisor told me I should pursue another major. I always loved writing, so I chose English and Creative Writing. Learning how to creatively think and express those thoughts in writing has helped me tremendously throughout my career. It is one of the skills that I find lawyers are often lacking – the ability to cogently write creatively to convince. The law has many opportunities for creative insight.

By my junior year, I was ready to apply to law school. It happened that my uncle knew Cooley Law School founder, Justice (Thomas) Brennan. He worked with him and went to University of Detroit Law School with him. He advocated for me to go to Cooley. I loved the idea of a practical legal education. My creative mindset loved the idea. I wasn’t looking for theoretical insight or theoretical application of the law. I wanted to practice law. I wanted to be of service to people. My father always inspired me to be of service. Growing up, I watched him help others and I wanted to do the same. I gravitated to Cooley and enjoyed it from the first moment I got there. 

Tell us about your WMU-Cooley experience.

Once I began law school at Cooley, I could tell it was going to be a drastic change from my undergraduate program. The intensity of real world operations and learning about how the world works was immediate. There are many moments that stick out in my mind. My first memory was standing in front of the class with a microphone, being grilled on our previous night’s assignments. You learned quickly to be prepared for class and never, ever come unprepared. That lesson has helped me throughout my career.

Law school was a tremendous challenge. I admit I was never an A+ student. That didn’t stop me though from embracing classes I wasn’t comfortable with or actually feared – like Tax Law. I remember making the conscious decision to dive into classes that challenged me. Surprisingly, I did well in those classes and even got an A in my Tax classes. It all gave me great confidence.

Receiving the blue book award for Constitutional Law II was the highlight of my law school career. Up to that point, I had never been very close to the top of the class, but I applied myself diligently to that class and wrote a wonderful blue book. I was honored to receive that award and it hangs in my office to this day.

One experience during law school is forever etched on my mind. I was hurrying to take an exam. I was walking too fast down those large marble stairs in the Temple Building. Justice Brennan was walking up just as I was hurrying down. I literally fell down the stairs in front of Justice Brennan! I’ll never forget that. I was so embarrassed. Yet, Judge Brennan helped me up and was very gracious. I’m sure he remembered what it was like to be a student taking exams. I appreciated him and respected him highly. Oddly, this was one of my fondest memories of my time at Cooley.

How did WMU-Cooley prepare you for a legal career?

My law school experience enriched me with confidence and the practical skills necessary in the professional world. The skills I gained in my research and writing classes were immediately applicable in my work after graduation. I worked for a small accounting firm in downtown Detroit before I started my legal career. I did a lot of research regarding bond fund accounting and arbitrage and really enjoyed it. I applied things I learned in law school directly to that job.

Then I hung out my own shingle, and then worked for a small firm, then a large firm, and now I am in-house at a large multinational corporation.

When I first practiced for myself, I was doing minor litigation matters. Yet within weeks, I had my first small district court trial. The opposing counsel walked into the courtroom and I handed him his trial book, tabulated and organized, just as I had learned in law school. He looked at me dismayed and said, “You are way too organized.” I ended up winning that matter, which was pretty gratifying. It was a thrill to actually apply all I had learned so quickly, and I didn’t even have a mentor at the time. I knew I would succeed as an attorney.

In early practice, I did a lot of civil procedure cases, and leaned on all I learned during Civ Pro. I represented a client who had a real estate matter go south. They hired me to try to iron out the deal. It ended up in litigation where we had to file suit against the sellers of the property. The sellers hired a very famous, well-respected, University of Detroit Civil Procedure professor. Here I am, out of law school only a couple years, and I am going up against someone known to be an expert in this area of law. Well, I ended up winning. The claims were based on a failure-to-disclose matter where the seller failed to inform the purchasers of some water damage to the residence. We ended up going through motion practice, and I survived all the complex procedural attacks seeking dismissal on procedural grounds from this professor. I won every motion, and before trial, the judge tacitly recommended both counsels to settle. The sellers ended up paying us for the undisclosed damage. What a great challenge and confidence builder!

Tell us about your path to Arthrex?

As my career progressed, I started working for larger firms, including a regional firm based out of Pittsburgh called Doepken, Keevican and Weiss. We did everything from commercial litigation to mergers and acquisitions. I was exposed to a wide variety of topics, but Cooley prepared me for that, too. By now I had a wealth of experience and could apply the depth and breadth of my experience anywhere, including as general counsel for Arthrex.

Since the 1990’s Arthrex was growing at a tremendous pace and the foundational legal frameworks needed to be established. Fifteen years ago, my brother asked me to join the team as his legal counsel. We had nearly 100 employees at the time. We now have over 4,800 worldwide, 2,800 in Southwest Florida. When I joined, it was a legal blank slate. It was an honor to have the opportunity to help foster and prepare this company for growth and to help with the great medical vision my brother created. We are a very unique organization. We make medical devices for orthopedics and are the largest sports medicine manufacturer of medical devices in the world. We are committed to doing things in a way that public companies simply don’t. We are on a medical mission, not a shareholder value mission, in everything we do.

It was a rewarding challenge to build ethical and legal frameworks responsive to the needs of our mission. I had to apply an entire range of legal thought and experience to make sure our business foundation was legally sound. I worked to assist in patent prosecution, handle product liability matters, oversee insurance issues, advise on FDA regulations, advise on compliance regulations, and handle all corporate governance, contracts and a variety of other things. I now have 10 attorneys who work for me globally.

The open canvas of the position has been a continual painting. Every day I assist in the growth of our worldwide expansion. What a tremendous experience and privilege it has been! I get to work with some of the best lawyers in the world, and it’s very humbling. What’s important for any attorney is to be open to learning new methods and creative ways of doing things, no matter how long we have practiced. I am excited to see what the future holds.

What is it about your career that makes it the perfect fit for you?

I believe my practice reflects my personality. I have had a wide variety of experiences and have never allowed myself to be type-cast into one role. I love that I am able to sit with a design team of engineers and help develop solutions to medical problems. I am actually an inventor on several patents. The diversity in my work allows me to explore new areas and challenge myself and others. A lawyer’s mind is essential in any problem solving group. Never underestimate your ability to enter a business discussion, a mechanical discussion, a failure or risk mode discussion, because it informs the conversation in a different way due to our legal training and experience. We are able to solve problems, critically look at things and apply knowledge in ways others cannot.

My personal life is also varied. While I spend most of my time with my four beautiful children and my wife, I am also involved with Leadership Florida where I am in “Class 35.” It is a wonderful program where we learn about issues the state is facing in order to help serve our local community better. I also sit on the board of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce, and am active in leveraging Arthrex’s needs for the betterment of our community. My current focus is on workforce training and housing.

My family is important to me and I spend a lot of time with my son in the outdoors and enjoying Florida’s natural beauty with my daughters. We also spend time in northern Michigan enjoying the beauty of the Great Lakes. Both states have so much to offer. I am also an avid reader and love intellectual pursuits.

Do you have advice for others?

Let me tell you a story about how I applied my education. I was at a charity event many years ago when I was just beginning my practice. There was a well-known attorney at the table who had been very successful in the Detroit area and I wondered about his story, so I asked, “I am just starting out, any words of advice for me?”

His advice for me was to find a corporation and obtain an equity interest in the company.

I sat back and thought that is not what I want to do. My goals have nothing to do with finance. My belief is that your passion should drive your pursuits, and my passion was our profession; serving as a pillar of democracy.

This is why the Arthrex mission is such a great fit. Focusing on passion drives innovation and creativity, not on a financial outcome of the matter. It turned out to be a wonderful business model for Arthrex, and we are extremely successful because we are focused on our goal of helping surgeons treat their patients better. But the success came after the mission. In that commitment, unlike many of our competitors, we are committed to building and manufacturing our products in the United States. Ninety five percent of our products are made here in the United States – 70 percent of those are made right here in Southwest Florida.

This is a purposeful commitment. Our mission drives everything we do.

Arthrex also continues to reinvest in expansion. We just built another 200,000-square-foot manufacturing facility here in Southwest Florida and we are building a 300,000-square-foot facility on the main campus in Naples, which will employ another 1,000 people over the next five years. We are building for growth, and we are committed to keeping that manufacturing here in the United States.

Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates our business model and success. Some competitors have lost in the market to our innovation and creativity, and rather than working to better their business they have attempted to challenge us in court.

Patent law was not something I was very involved with in my private practice. I was only slightly involved in certain patent reviews and due diligence on patents. Yet when I arrived here, I was immediately aware of how industries in our field utilized patents to gain an advantage – an advantage not intended by the system.

Having the ability to overcome difficult situations is a necessary life skill. It is something I first learned in law school during Professor Roger Needham’s Civil Procedure class. There was no question in anyone’s mind that he was an extremely intelligent man, but he was extremely demanding and his classroom demeanor was nothing short of scary. It was a challenge to live up to his expectations. While I found it frightful, it was such a wonderful experience.

After a very tough term in Civ Pro, where half the students failed, I ended up with the second highest grade in his class – an accomplishment I never expected. Ultimately, what Professor Needham did for me, and for all of us, is teach us a world lesson – how to deal with difficult people. It was a wake-up call for many students. That classroom lesson has been practically applied throughout my career.

If you are looking for one last piece of advice, I suggest you strive to understand how to communicate and collaborate with others, and use your passion to understand your client’s mission and join them as a partner, not as simply a service provider. If you do, you will find great success in your career, and in life.

This story is also published in the Summer 2017 Benchmark. CLICK HERE to see the story and to read about other interesting WMU-Cooley Law School graduates. 

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Ross Berlin: Passion, Core Values and Principles Set the Standard

Ross Berlin, WMU-Cooley (Kavanagh Class, 1981), is the cover feature story in the Summer 2017 issue of Benchmark Alumni Magazine. Berlin was a gifted athlete, playing football, basketball, and baseball in college. After obtaining his juris doctor from WMU-Cooley Law School, he began a remarkable career encompassing wide-ranging experiences, beginning as an associate at a Los Angeles sports and entertainment law firm, advancing to general counsel of a public works/environmental systems enterprise; then to Senior Vice President of Venues, 1994 World Cup USA; followed by work as a consultant for the 1997 Ryder Cup in Valderrama, Spain.

He then became PGA TOUR Vice President for Sales and Marketing for the World Golf Championships and then a William Morris sports agent for LPGA phenom Michelle Wie. Ultimately he returned to the PGA TOUR as Senior Vice President, Player Relations.

CLICK HERE to read Ross Berlin’s cover feature story in its entirety. It published in the Summer 2017 Benchmark alumni magazine, along with other interesting WMU-Cooley Law School graduate stories.

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Filed under Achievements, Alumni Stories and News, The Value of a Legal Education, Uncategorized