Hoffman Walks Alternative Path

June 14, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Jack Hoffman is likely to be the attorney who has worn out more shoe leather than any other in the city. Not because he frantically paces back and forth before every court appearance, but because he walks to work, and back home, every day.

Granted, it’s not like he is trekking to Jenison or some other faraway exotic destination. Still, the round trip from his Heritage Hill home to his office at Wheeler Upham PC in the Trust Building is a mile-and-a-half, and he makes it whether the sun shines or the rain, sleet and snow fall — and around here, all four could happen on the same trip.

“When I walk, I’m not just going somewhere like when I’m in a car, I’m having all these experiences. I’m meeting people. I’m out in the weather. I’m looking at the architecture and observing things happening,” he said. “Plus, walking is the ideal exercise for persons at my stage in life.

“Walking also ties in with my alternative lifestyle, getting away from the automobile. I find it so rewarding to choose that alternate lifestyle. As my daughter said, it becomes part of your life and not just something that you do on the way from one thing to another.”

Hoffman has been walking to and practicing law at Wheeler Upham since 1982, marking his 20th anniversary with the firm this year. Before he joined Wheeler Upham, he had his own law firm for three years.

Prior to that solo effort, he practiced with West Michigan Legal Aid for a few years right after graduating from the University of Michigan Law School. Hoffman headed the landlord-tenant unit at Legal Aid.

“It was very educational,” he said of his Legal Aid years. “I came up from college in the mid-1970s and the idea then of having an activist career and giving something back was appealing and something that I wanted to do.”

He litigated his first case as a Legal Aid attorney at a trial in Rockford for a client who felt that he had been sold a defective auto. Unfortunately, the jury didn’t agree and he wasn’t able to turn his client’s lemon into lemonade.

“I thought we had a good case, but I ended up losing the case. Judge (Steven) Servaas told me later that it was a miscarriage of justice,” he said, smiling. “But that’s the way it goes. You win some, you lose some, and you learn something from every one.”

Today, Hoffman practices in a number of areas, but mostly in real estate and insurance law. He said he likes both because neither overlaps and because of that he is able to balance his work and have some freedom to choose which clients to service and which causes to support.

On the insurance side, Hoffman represents the insurer and many of his cases have dealt with coverage issues. He is working on a class-action suit now and has a few cases pending before the state Supreme Court on interpretations of the no-fault statute.

“I like insurance. It gets a certain amount of negative press, but I’ve found it to be an honorable field. I enjoy and respect the practitioners and insurance people that I interact with, and I’ve always felt good about what we are doing,” he said.

“I enjoy the intellectual aspect of it, too. We do a lot of no-fault litigation and it’s an issue of how do you pay for health care. There are not unlimited dollars. How do you apportion those dollars?”

When asked what he liked best about being a trial lawyer, Hoffman quickly said it was the freedom the profession affords him, the variety of issues that it presents him with, and the insights it has given him on how to get things done politically and legally.

“It’s great for me because earning a livelihood as a lawyer combined with my activist impulse kind of reinforce each other, both strengthen each other,” he said.

“I still find it very exciting and challenging, sometimes to the extreme,” he said, laughing. “It’s always interesting, never routine.”

If there was one thing that Hoffman could wave a legal brief over and change about his profession, it would be to have more attorneys become more involved with the community.

“We may be concentrating more on our careers than what, as professionals, we can contribute to the community. We all have to strike a balance,” he said. “In the 1990s, maybe we all got a little sidetracked with our 401(k) plans and our retirement plans and maybe we lost sight of some of the larger issues that are facing the community.

“I think the mayor (John Logie) is an excellent example of an attorney whose skill is respected by all and who has major clients, but who also devotes a large part of his time to community.”

When Hoffman isn’t at the law office he is usually doing something with the city, as he chairs both the Parking Commission and the Master Plan Committee. When he isn’t at the city, he is probably home composting, while Rebecca, his wife, does the gardening.

“She is teaching me more about organic gardening. I find it fascinating. If you do the compost right, you get some darn healthy plants. I like that and the cycle of it.”

As for his immediate future, Hoffman will continue to wear out the shoe leather and argue on behalf of his clients. But December holds a special expectation for him, as that is when the two-year effort to create the city’s new master plan ends and his selling job begins.

“Then we are going to have to start work on actually implementing it. I’m looking forward to the challenges of presenting it, persuading the commissioners and planning commissioners that this is indeed the direction our citizens want to go,” he said.

“It’s always evolving. It’s always something new and interesting. I feel very hopeful that we are moving in the right direction and have a lot of support. I’m looking forward to working out the issues.”           

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