The ride of a lifetime

September 8, 2009
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Charles E. Chamberlain Jr. recounted how he spent his time after receiving his undergraduate degree from Duke University in 1976.

"I did a lot of different things. I worked for the President Ford committee as a grunt when he was running against Carter. Then I worked on Capitol Hill as a glorified gopher," he said. Then, he said, as if talking about the weather: "I rode my (bicycle) across country, sailed the Bermuda and bicycled through Europe."

A friend of his family was sitting for the Oregon bar and needed someone to drive his car to Oregon from the Washington, D.C., area where Chamberlain was living.

"I said, 'Hey, great,' so I threw my bike in his Beemer, drove across country and rode (my bike) back," he said.

The trip took about four months. Chamberlain started out riding with a group, but as the trip went along, the group dwindled. By the time he hit Kansas, Chamberlain was the sole rider. Later, he said, he had saved enough money to go on an adventure with a friend sailing the Bermuda islands.

Eventually, Chamberlain started law school at the College of William & Mary, Marshall-Wythe School of Law, in Williamsburg, Va., and graduated in 1981.

"I was thinking of business school, but leaning more towards law school," said Chamberlain, whose undergraduate degree was in history — "so I had to go to graduate school," he joked.

Chamberlain was born in Lansing, but grew up in Washington, D.C., his father having moved the family there after becoming the U.S. Representative for the 6th Congressional District of Michigan. By the time he graduated law school, Chamberlain's father had retired and his parents had moved back to Michigan.

"My dad was in congress when I was a child. Some families stayed behind in the district; our dad moved us all there," he said. "When I graduated from law school, Michigan was the home where I'd never spent that much time, so I decided to come back and check out Michigan."

His interest lay primarily in federal law, and Michigan only had two federal courts, one in Detroit and one in Grand Rapids. Chamberlain was offered a two-year clerkship under the Honorable Wendell A. Miles, who was Chief Judge, U.S. District Court, Western District of Michigan, at the time.

"I would have gone back to Lansing, but I had this great opportunity with Judge Miles," said Chamberlain. During his clerkship, Chamberlain helped with research and writing.

"It was a great opportunity, because Judge Miles is a great judge. It wasn't a long-term commitment, so I got to see what Michigan was all about," he said.

Although the job was short-term, Chamberlain made a long-term commitment to his wife, whom he met during his clerkship. "She was from Grand Rapids, and we stayed put."

Judge Miles was a big influence in his life.

"I was young and he's the one who was really good to me, spent time with me, was interested in me and litigation and the law," said Chamberlain. "He had been U.S. Attorney for eight years, appointed under Eisenhower. Without a doubt, he's been the most influential, and that was my luckiest break, so to speak. But I've been lucky; everybody's been good to me over the years."

After his clerkship, Chamberlain took a job at the U.S. Attorney's office as an assistant U.S. attorney in 1983. He worked there for four years, taking a position with a small litigation firm, Farr & Oosterhouse, in 1987. In 1996, Chamberlain and Larry Willey formed Willey & Chamberlain LLP.

"We do exclusively criminal defense. That's all we do," said Chamberlain. "We do cases with state court, federal court, within the state, out of the state, and it's a wide range. We tend to emphasize what people commonly call 'white collar crime,' but we also do everything else."

For Chamberlain, his practice is about helping those in need.

"I can honestly say there isn't a client I've represented that didn't need some kind of help," he said. "A lot of people think it's like T.V., where an innocent person gets charged all the time.

"It's rare that a completely innocent person gets charged, but even the completely guilty person deserves rigorous representation, because you never know when the government is going to run over them with a truck. If they don't go through the system with competent council, you can get some really bad and unjust outcomes."

When not in the courtroom, Chamberlain tries to spend time outdoors. He still enjoys biking and sailing, and dabbles in photography, as well. Looking into retirement, however, he sees woodworking taking up most of his time.

"The No. 1 thing I like to do is build furniture. I've done a lot around the house in terms of basic carpentry, but furniture building has been my preferred thing," he said. "That will be my retirement project: building furniture for the kids."

Chamberlain became president of the Grand Rapids Bar Association July 1, 2009.

"It's good to be active in the Bar," he said. "I like lawyers."

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