Kuiper Focuses On People

December 26, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Local litigator Tom Kuiper said he didn’t have any special holiday plans this week. He even joked that he hoped he wouldn’t have to work on Christmas Day.

It’s not that Kuiper works for a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge or that anyone he works with has a bah-humbug attitude toward the holiday. His remark was his clever way of noting that his nearly three-year-old law firm, Kuiper Orlebeke PC, is growing, and all the attorneys and staffers there are very busy.

“Everything is going great. We started out with three lawyers; we’re up to seven. We added an additional paralegal and also added staff, so it’s been good,” he said.

Complex real estate issues, domestic disputes and personal injuries are the main areas in which Kuiper practices his craft, and he also does arbitration and mediation work. When asked what he considers his biggest career break, he quickly said it was the mentoring he has received from his partners, Jack Hoffman and Tim Orlebeke.

The trio worked together at Wheeler Upham PC for 13 years before starting their firm, and Kuiper credited Hoffman and Orlebeke with helping him learn a valuable and sometimes unrecognized distinction in the profession. It’s one that some clients might not understand at first, and some legal adversaries may never embrace.

“They taught me how to be a great lawyer and still be a great person while being a lawyer — how to be a gentleman, how to be civil and collegial, and yet be an advocate for your client at the same time and never give that up. Sometimes that’s hard to balance,” he said.

Kuiper said it’s counterproductive for clients on both sides of a dispute when the lawyers constantly squabble. Some clients, though, don’t consider that circumstance, because all they can see is red.

“Clients come to us, especially in litigation, because they’re angry. They’re angry at the other participant in the litigation. They’re in a fight, they’re in a dispute, and they often think that their lawyer has to be as angry and unkind as they feel,” he said.

“The job is tough enough when you get along with another lawyer; it’s that much worse when you can’t get along with your opposing counsel. We’re in this for 40 years, and if you can’t get along with the other lawyers, it’s going to be a long 40 years.”

One segment of the legal field that is unfolding — and will likely play a more active role in the profession over the next 40 years — is being driven by virtual criticism. More bloggers are freely making nasty, and often groundless, comments about companies and individuals, and Kuiper said his firm is slowly getting more work to go after some of these reckless Internet commentators.

“I was involved in a case where a business was involved with an Internet critic,” he said. “That’s kind of an expanding area of law: how businesses deal with people who express their opinion about them through the Internet, through blogs, and assisting clients through that. I’ve got another case just like that where a business has hired me because an individual has expressed an opinion of them negatively on the Internet.

“It’s getting bigger and bigger. It’s sort of the ultimate editorial page. That’s kind of a recent development in the law and litigation, and the law is having to catch up a little bit with the use of technology to the principles of law that didn’t exist before the Internet.”

Kuiper earned his undergraduate degree from Hope College and his juris doctorate from Wayne State University. But before he chose law school, he seriously considered becoming a social worker and then a minister.

“I’ve always wanted a job where I interacted with people — people in all sorts of situations, life situations, economic situations. I was always interested in service-oriented professions. When I was in college, my first thought I had for a major was in social work. I dropped that and thought for a while about the ministry. I ended up choosing law,” he said.

“But all of those jobs, as I look back, had that common theme of really being service oriented and of working with people and people in need. And really the law is that way; it’s helping people in need.”

Kuiper stays active in the community and in his profession. He served as president and as a board member of The Other Way Ministries for four years and the Garfield Park Neighborhood Association for eight. He also chaired the litigation section of the Grand Rapids Bar Association for four years and is an elder at Forest Hills Presbyterian Church, a position he accepted in 2004.

When he isn’t volunteering or working, Kuiper is likely to be found on a court or a field of some sort, as sports mean at least as much to him as the law does. He has coached the soccer, basketball, football, lacrosse and baseball teams that his sons — 10-year-old Max and 8-year-old Evan — have played on. As for his 5-year-old daughter, Anna, he said she is leaning toward tennis.

“I don’t have any tennis skills, though, so she might be on her own,” he said.

Kuiper also enjoys fishing for bass on Bear Lake, which is north of Manistee. So do his kids: “It’s honestly just a great time to spend with your kids — to be alone in a boat on a nice summer evening and catch some fish.”

As for his immediate future, continuing to build the firm’s business is at the top of his list. Look for Kuiper Orlebeke to strengthen its employment and estate-planning practices over the next year or two.

“We just hired two new lawyers who complement the firm’s practice in those areas. We’re at probably maximum capacity with lawyers for the amount of work we have, which is a blessing. We have more work than sometimes we feel we can handle,” he said.

“So we’ll continue to diversify the practice areas, I’d say, for the next year or so.”

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