Finding joy in helping others

October 20, 2008
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When asked what his biggest career break was, Bill Heritage Jr. had a hard time deciding on just one.

“I guess the most decisive one was being recruited out of law school to come to Grand Rapids by Warner Norcross and Judd,” said Heritage.

But moving to West Michigan wasn’t only a career break for Heritage and his wife. The couple, who had mostly lived in the East, were used to big city life, but fell in love with Grand Rapids.

“I had grown up in the Washington, D.C., area; my wife had grown up in Pittsburgh. So neither one of us had a big exposure to a medium-sized city. We were just taken (with Grand Rapids). You can have all the career opportunities you want (in Grand Rapids) that you might find in a big city, and yet (also) a wonderful place to live and raise a family.”

After receiving his undergraduate degree at Duke University in North Carolina in 1966, Heritage went on to earn a master’s degree in foreign affairs in 1969 and his J.D. in 1970, both from the University of Virginia.

He spent his first three to four years at Warner getting his feet wet in many different facets of law.

“A typical track for a young attorney is you do a lot of everything,” said Heritage. “It’s kind of like an intern at a hospital. You’re supposed to be a specialist all at one time in dermatology and heart surgery, because you’re circulating around helping in different areas. But eventually you tend to focus, and I tended to focus in the corporate area.”

Heritage honed his corporate law skills when he joined what was then Rapistan, now Dematic, which develops, designs, manufactures and installs material handling systems.


Company: Wheeler Upham P.C.

Position: Shareholder and member of the board

Age: 64

Birthplace: Greensboro, N.C.

Residence: Grand Rapids

Family/Personal: Married, with three adult children and five grandchildren.

Community/Business Involvement: Has worked with many organizations including the American Immigration Lawyers Association, River Valley Credit Union, the Grand Rapids Press Club, and Gospel Communications International Inc. He is a published author as well as editor of the Michigan International Lawyer.

Biggest Career Break: Being recruited out of law school by Warner Norcross and Judd to come to Grand Rapids.

“I had some wonderful opportunities to do some true international travel. At that time, we had 17 foreign affiliates,” said Heritage. “I was traveling a lot to look after the legal problems of those foreign affiliates, as well as the stuff going on here in the U.S.”

International business and transaction became the main focus of Heritage’s work at Rapistan.

“At that time, there weren’t that many people doing international transactions,” he said. “When I was at Rapistan, it was mainly business contracts. They did major projects, so I had to assist in negotiating and tracking for these major projects — installing warehouses for conveyors, multibillion dollar contracts.”

He left the company in 1976 to join a law firm that is no longer in existence.

“The firm had some internal conflicts and everybody went to other firms,” said Heritage. “I went to Mika, Meyers.”

From 1984 to 1995 Heritage practiced at Mika, Meyers, before settling into his current practice at Wheeler Upham PC, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. At Wheeler Upham, Heritage focuses on three areas of law: nonprofit, immigration and small business.

Looking forward, he feels all three areas face unique challenges and prospects, especially immigration law.

“I’m expecting a pretty big boom of some kind, particularly in the family immigration area — no matter who is elected president,” he said.

“If the past is prologue, that’s happened a couple of other times in my career, and when that has happened, there is a pretty good flood of people who come forward and want assistance in getting documented properly.

“Nonprofit, their biggest challenge right now is, of course, finance. … The way they’re communicating to their donor base is changing,” Heritage said.

“In terms of business, it’s a macro problem that’s become a micro problem. Clearly, the macro economics of the U.S. are distressed and challenged right now, and that stuff all cascades down to small businesses just trying to remain operable. Capital is hard to get and just like money is the mother’s milk of politics, money is the mother’s milk of businesses, too.”

The diversity found within the profession of law and the ability to choose a few aspects to specialize in is part of what keeps his career intriguing.

“That’s what I find exciting about the practice of law,” said Heritage. “I would not want to be a jack of all trades and a master of none, but if you confine it to two or three areas like that, I would think you’d be surprised how many experts here in town have segments of their practice where they’re doing something else. It just makes it more interesting.”

His desire to help others is what originally attracted him to the profession.

“I liked understanding what the structure was, what the rules were, and then how you worked within those rules to accomplish the goals. I think the legal process is such a benefit to our nation. A lot of people kind of take it for granted, but it provides us ways to resolve disputes and accomplish goals without violence, and I want to promote that during my tenure and keep it going. It’s a wonderful gift we received from the English.”

Although he is nearing retirement age, Heritage finds so much joy in his work he has no plans to retire in the foreseeable future.

“I get a lot of joy from what I do,” said Heritage. “In the immigration area … it’s rewarding to see people reunited or help people who are worried because they overstayed their visa and don’t think there’s anything they can do about it. I like helping the individual, much like a doctor likes to help a sick person get well.

“Most of us can relate to small businessmen. We know that they’re honest folks trying to make their way and support themselves, with lots of challenges. If I can help them remove some of those challenges and succeed, I find that personally rewarding.

“With nonprofits, I think the very missions of most of these nonprofits are very admirable, and so if you feel like you’re helping them do things for which the government has already given them a tax exemption … then I have to feel I’m using the skills I’ve been given to help do a good thing”

But law is not the only area in Heritage’s life where he finds joy. He also loves spending time with his family — traveling and fishing.

“My youngest son in particular is an avid fly-fisherman, so we try to get out and wade some rivers,” he said.

Taking trips has always been a part of life for the Heritages. He and his wife recently took a trip in the South along the Blue Ridge Parkway to see some of the fall colors.

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