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Inside Track: Judo inspires Grand Rapids lawyer in and out of court
Eric Richards went to law school by default after being unable to get a job with a history degree.
Whether he’s defending a client inside a courtroom or slamming an opponent on a judo mat, one thing about Eric Richards remains consistent.
He’s a fighter.
Richards, a lawyer at Grand Rapids-based law firm Mika Meyers Beckett and Jones PLC, has earned a reputation in town as a talented, formidable jack-of-all-trades. The Grand Rapids native, who was recently named by Best Lawyers of America as Grand Rapids’ 2014 Securities Regulation Lawyer of the Year, is an attorney, a pilot and a nonprofit founder, and has a black belt in judo. Taken altogether, these titles seem to form the core identity of a man who doesn’t give up.
But he wasn’t always that man.
“I was the first lawyer in my family. I did not grow up wanting to be a lawyer — not at all. I was the designated class-skipper in 1979 (at Creston High School). … I was not a motivated student,” Richards said.
“Because of my poor attendance, my father insisted that I go to junior college rather than straight off to college, which proved to be a great blessing to me.”
At Grand Rapids Junior College — now Grand Rapids Community College — Richards said he began applying himself after finding “wonderful professors” who inspired him to study history. He eventually went on to study history at Michigan State University, but found that, like many students are finding today, jobs for someone with his major just weren’t there.
“With a history degree in 1983, the economy was bad. There weren’t many job prospects for history majors, so I went to law school at Wayne State University by default but ended up loving it,” he said.
“In fact, in law school I was known as “Helium Hand Richards” because I (raised my hand so much in class). I found the (legal) method of asking questions to be incredibly intellectually stimulating.”
After finishing law school in 1986 and passing the bar, Richards’ first legal job was a two-year clerkship in Detroit and later in Ann Arbor with Ralph Guy, a federal court of appeals judge.
That experience, which honed his research and writing skills, enabled him to get a job with a large law firm in Washington, D.C. — Wilmer Cutler and Pickering, now Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLC. He said he had scored so highly on his Michigan bar exam that he didn’t need to retake it in Washington.
Richards handled securities cases and even assisted in some of the cases involving the notorious inside trader Ivan Boesky, whom Richards successfully defended in various civil matters, he said.
“It was exciting but grueling. I worked very long hours. At one point I did three consecutive all-nighters,” he said. “But it was rewarding because you got to work on interesting cases, which you would see in the headlines of The Wall Street Journal.”
After two years of working in D.C., however, Richards found himself getting homesick. When he did have time off, he would return to Grand Rapids to see his family. In 1990, he finally returned permanently and got a job with Warner Norcross and Judd’s Grand Rapids office. He worked there for six years, calling it a “great experience, where there were a lot of wonderful attorneys that are still good friends and colleagues.”
Richards also got his pilot’s license, for both business and pleasure use. It especially came in handy after his 10-year high school reunion, when he became reacquainted with a girl he’d known since nursery school, who would soon become his wife.
“Business-wise, I’d fly to visit with clients or go to hearings in other states. Pleasure-wise, I proposed to my wife at 8,000 feet over Lake Michigan … and then, a few months later, we rented a plane and eloped up to Mackinac Island where we were married,” he said. “For our honeymoon we flew around the U.P., and we’ve had some great trips with our kids to Chicago.”
In 1996, Richards went to work for Bankruptcy Court Judge James Gregg, while also teaching business law classes at Grand Valley State, Western Michigan and Davenport universities and at GRCC.
He returned to private practice in 1998 when he joined Mika Meyers Beckett and Jones PLC.
“The attorneys in Grand Rapids tend to be much more collegial — much more friendly and in some respects much more trustworthy than attorneys in other cities. I think that’s in part because we still have a smaller group of attorneys here and we like and respect each other, and we’re more likely to encounter each other,” he said.
“When I first started, all the major firms were located downtown and you pretty much knew everybody. Now there’s a lot of new faces, but I still think we have a lot of great attorneys in Grand Rapids and it’s still a great place to practice law.”
Richards first got into judo about 12 years ago, after lifelong friend Jim Murray invited him to join him in studying under sensei instructor Stan Sochanek, who Richards said had fled communist Poland when he was young and then joined the U.S. army and studied judo in Japan.
“It’s been a wonderful experience for both my son and I. It was a nice release from the pressures of work because when you’re out on the mat and there’s some 19-year-old kid trying to throw you, it’s hard to think about work,” he said.
“I got my black belt three years ago. It took me eight years. It was a great sense of accomplishment. It actually took me longer to get that belt than it did to get through college and law school.”
Certain kinds of discipline required in judo found their way into Richards’ courtroom mindset, he said.
“There’s a lot of lessons from judo I’ve been able to apply in my legal practice, including using your opponents’ momentum against them, but also judo emphasizes maximum efficiency.
“In the courtroom, I think some of the discipline and, frankly, courage required from judo has had a positive effect on my legal practice. … I think there’s a lot of people looking for the meanest junkyard dog lawyer, and I think that’s just counterproductive. It adds cost and anxiety and stress to the press without achieving a better result.”
Judo also fueled a desire in Richards to give back. About two years ago, he and Murray founded Godai Judo, a nonprofit judo club for urban youth that meets at the Kroc Center at 2500 S. Division Ave. in Grand Rapids.
“The goal is to help at-risk youth in the inner city, especially underprivileged children that face financial challenges or difficult home situations,” he said.
“We get an interesting mix of both children and adults from the immediate area — the inner city, but we also have people coming in from miles around, from the Muskegon area and even farther, to come and study judo. We’ve helped over 50 children, and it’s been a wonderful experience.”
Richards has done a lot of travelling over the course of his career, but said he hasn’t found anywhere else he wants to call home.
“(Grand Rapids) is a great place. I’m here to stay. I really consider myself very fortunate to have the privilege of growing up in Grand Rapids, practicing law in Grand Rapids and raising my family in Grand Rapids,” he said.
“It’s a great community, and I’ve seen so many positive changes in the community here that I really consider myself very fortunate.”