Stoffan Leads Muskegon

May 29, 2002
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MUSKEGON – Phil Stoffan knew that to advance in the health care business, he needed to either wait for the right opportunity to come along within an organization, or be prepared to move on every few years. Never a patient person, he had always chosen the latter route to further his career.

But facing yet another job change, his fourth in 11 years, Stoffan was growing wary of pulling up stakes again.

Sitting in a restaurant along the Maryland seashore, eating fresh crabs with his family and tired of moving every few years, Stoffan began weighing the biggest move of his life. At 42 years old and with a young family, Stoffan wanted to pursue a law career.

“I said ‘we can’t do this anymore. There has to be a career that makes sense,’” Stoffan recalls. “One thing kind of led to another.”

A decade later, Stoffan has a sensible and successful practice in health and corporate law with the firm of Parmenter O’Toole in Muskegon. He also has a new role in the legal community – president of the Muskegon County Bar Association.

Stoffan, 53, hopes to use the position to break down stereotypes and promote a better understanding of the legal profession, as well as have the 220-member association build ties with colleagues in surrounding communities.

Business clients don’t worry about geographic boundaries, Stoffan said, and there’s no reason their lawyers should either. Lawyers, much like any other business people, need to respond to the growing regionalization and globalization of the business world and cooperate more with each other to better serve their clients.

“Business ignores county lines. It goes where the market is,” Stoffan said. “We’re recognizing our clients aren’t always in the market and it’s a good idea to link up.”

Stoffan began his one-year term as president of the Muskegon County Bar Association on June 1.

His path to the legal profession started in health-care administration.

A native of the Cleveland, Ohio area, Stoffan attended Michigan State University on a scholarship and earned a degree in English literature. One of his early jobs was public relations director and journal editor for the Michigan office of the American College of Emergency Physicians in Lansing. He later moved to Dayton, Ohio, to become director of communications for The Children’s Medical Center.

Stoffan returned to Michigan in 1983 when he accepted a position as community relations director at Sisters of Mercy Health Corp. in suburban Detroit. A year later he was promoted to vice president of advancement, developing and maintaining the health system’s marketing, public relations and fund-development programs. Along the way, he earned an MBA in 1986 from Eastern Michigan University.

He left Sisters of Mercy in 1987 for Baltimore, Maryland, where he became director of marketing for the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. That was followed in 1988 by a one-year stint as director of marketing and advertising for Record Newspapers in Havre de Grance, Maryland, and then three years as vice president at The Barton-Gillet Co., a consulting firm in Baltimore.

At Barton-Gillet, Stoffan helped to form and run a subsidiary, InforMed Physician Services, which collected and analyzed data and offered feedback to physicians.

In 1993, while working as chief operating officer at InforMed and deciding whether he wanted to relocate yet again, Stoffan had had enough – and not just with the nature of the health care business.

Over the years, Stoffan had hired and dealt with plenty of lawyers and had grown tired of being told what he couldn’t do and why he couldn’t do it. That frustration, in turn, helped to spur his decision to become a lawyer himself.

“I thought there was a better way to provide service to the client then to provide the document,” Stoffan said. “I got frustrated with lawyers who kept telling me ‘you can’t do that.’ That’s not what I thought lawyers ought to do. It’s our job to help (clients) find a way.”

“It’s not our job to become part of the problem. It’s out job to become part of the solution,” he said.

After weighing his career-changing decision, and passing the law school entrance test, Stoffan enrolled in the University of Maryland School of Law. As part of the arrangement for returning to school to study law, Stoffan agreed that when he graduated he would look for work in West Michigan. His wife, Eileen, is an East Grand Rapids native.

After interviewing with firms in Grand Rapids, a friend referred Stoffan to the Muskegon firm of Lague, Newman and Irish, which had just landed a new client in the health care industry and needed somebody with knowledge of health law.

After five years at Lague, Newman and Irish, Stoffan joined Parmenter O’Toole, where he is a now a partner and shareholder.

As a practicing attorney, Stoffan views his role as that of an “advocate, counselor and advisor” who puts their knowledge of the community, the business world and the law to work to help clients spot an issue and then resolve it.

“They (lawyers) shouldn’t be obstacles. They should be a resource,” Stoffan said. “Most of what we do has nothing to do with the law. It has to do with the way the world works, and then we use the constraints of the law and regulations to make that happen.”

While he wants to promote that role and the need to build links with colleagues in neighboring counties, Stoffan sees “the most important aspect” of his leadership position with the Bar Association as working to fill the newly created position of community law education coordinator. The position reflects the association’s goal of promoting a better awareness and understanding of the legal profession, as well as becoming more involved in the community through art and essay contests and school events.

Today, looking back at his life-changing decision to enroll in law school and pursue a legal career, Stoffan says he is “absolutely thrilled” to have ended up with his present situation. With four children, two of whom are in college, Stoffan said he doesn’t plan to move again soon, if at all, especially at a time when Muskegon’s economic fortunes are on the upswing, making it a great market to practice corporate law.

“This is a cool time for lawyers in Muskegon. It’s a time of change,” he said. “I don’t ever see myself moving from West Michigan.”

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