March Is Legal Wizard

April 18, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS – Jon March’s interest in law was sparked in middle school while researching and writing a paper on a career in law for a social studies class.

As providence would have it, today he’s managing member of Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey and ranks in the 2001-2002 edition of “The Best Lawyers in America” as among the top attorneys in the areas of business litigation and labor and employment law.

March earned a B.A. degree from the University of Michigan in 1966 and a juris doctorate degree from Harvard Law School in 1969. Early on in his career, he gained a lot of experience in trial work during a stint in the U.S. Air Force, so he gravitated naturally to litigation, he said. A member of both the Illinois and Michigan state bars, he worked briefly for a Chicago firm before joining Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey in Grand Rapids in 1972.

During Miller Johnson’s 41 years, it has grown into one of the largest law firms in West Michigan, with some 80 attorneys working from its Grand Rapids headquarters and 15 more from its Kalamazoo office. The firm’s civil practice is divided into three major practice areas: business and corporate law; employment and labor relations; and litigation. Litigation is March’s primary area of practice. Along the way, education has become one of his litigation sub-specialties.

“I’ve enjoyed that because the legal issues that are presented in school districts are very interesting,” March observed. “A lot of society’s problems tend to end up at the school room door.”

Among his other specialties are employment discrimination, employment practices litigation, workplace harassment, professional liability and alternative dispute resolution.

In the area of dispute resolution, facilitative mediation now accounts for about 15 percent of his practice. March, in fact, was one of the original 25 attorneys selected and trained as a mediator by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan when the court initiated the state’s first broad scale, voluntary facilitated mediation program in 1995. In 1996 it became the first federal court in the state to offer facilitated mediation in general civil cases. March continues to serve on the federal court’s mediation and arbitration panels, as well as on the State Bar of Michigan’s arbitration panel and Kent County Circuit Court’s mediation panel.

In addition to his litigation practice, he has overseen administration of Miller Johnson as its managing member for the past year. That means working with all the firm’s non-lawyers who assist in servicing clients, as well as working with 95 “independent minded” lawyers, and making sure everyone in the firm is treated and compensated fairly. Add to that, of course, the firm’s ultimate goal, which is “to be absolutely 100 percent devoted to our clients and to provide the best service that we possibly can,” he said.

Among the most significant changes in the profession March has seen in 31 years as an attorney has been the commercialization of the practice of law with the advent of advertising for legal services, which has greatly increased competition for clients. Merger and acquisition activity has given rise to huge national and international firms of several hundred lawyers, and that also has factored into the competition, but it hasn’t had the impact that commercialization has had on the practice, he said.

The profession now faces multi-disciplinary practices, as many of the large accounting firms abroad are retaining law firms for specialized legal services. There are a lot of questions about whether that practice will be permitted in the United States, and when and under what conditions it might be permitted, he noted.

“I think the whole question of how we provide services – the issue of multi-disciplinary practices maturing and the issue of being part of other groups, such as accountants and environmental engineers – will be an area that unfolds in the future,” he remarked. “That’s something that could change the future of the profession.”

Just as e-commerce has changed the way businesses conduct business, it has had an impact on how the law affects business transactions, and that area of law will continue to grow, as will the need for legal expertise in that arena. Intellectual property law is another growing area that is spiking demand for legal eagles, particularly in areas like West Michigan, where firms have to compete nationwide for attorneys specializing in that area, March said.

The emergence of biotech, which March believes is destined to become a significant part of the Grand Rapids community as a result of the Van Andel Institute and the various spin-off businesses it will likely create, also will bring new legal issues into focus in Grand Rapids, as elsewhere.

“To some extent the established legal principles will apply to those areas but there will be some other aspects of biotech where the established legal principles don’t precisely fit and new principles will have to be created,” he said. “It’s very important that lawyers stay abreast of that and on the forefront of that changing area.”

But it’s not all work and no play for March. He believes in the importance of balance in life. He’s an amateur actor who strives to do at least one play every year. His interest in acting dates back to roles in both high school and college stage productions, and he’s been actively involved in local theater since the early 1990s. He most recently appeared as the wizard in Grand Rapids Civic Theatre’s production of “Wizard of Oz,” and is the current president of Civic’s board of directors.

What March has found in more than three decades of practicing law is that the work is always interesting, primarily because every case involves different personalities and issues.

“One of the things that I’ve enjoyed about litigation is that you get to learn about other areas of life – whether it’s medicine or a particular business. So it’s the constantly changing scope not only of the legal issues, but the fact issues and the people involved that makes it fun and challenging professionally.”

He not only enjoys his work, he’s received plenty of accolades for it. The American Bar Foundation, the American College of Trial Lawyers, the International Society of Barristers and the State Bar of Michigan Foundation have honored him as a Fellow. In 1994, he received the Professionalism and Community Service Award from the Grand Rapids Bar Association Young Lawyers Section. That’s in addition to his ranking among “The Best Lawyers in America.”

“There have been some great victories along the way and some defeats,” he recalls. “Anyone involved in trial law has tasted both victory and defeat. But the victories have outnumbered the defeats. I think, over time, people have become confident in how I handle their matters.”

The legal community in Grand Rapids may be one of the reasons March is good at what he does.

“This legal community is an excellent one,” he observed. “There are very good lawyers here and that’s a big plus. It keeps you on your toes when the people on the other side are good lawyers, and that is uniformly the case here.”           

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