In The News

In The News

Monday, October 8, 2018

A Word About the Leo A. Farhat Award and Frank Harrison Reynolds and Carrying the Legacy of Legends

By Michael Nichols
Categories: Michael J. Nichols

On October 8th, we will commemorate the retirement of a legend in Michigan law, Frank Harrison Reynolds (FHR to those of us who worked for him). So, it is a good opportunity for me to blend my appreciation for an award that I am about to receive from the Ingham County Bar Association, the Leo A. Farhat Outstanding Attorney Award, with my appreciation for the generation of lawyers who came before me.

In the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, Lansing was a place that is much different than it is now. It was home to a combination of university professors, civil servants and government employees, and a booming General Motors presence. The legal profession was a different animal than it is now, too. There were not nearly as many lawyers and the upstart law school “for the people” called Cooley was just getting off the ground.

Frank graduated from Cooley and started practicing law downtown in a building right down the street from Lansing City Hall as the 70’s faded to the 80’s. City Hall was where all the circuit courts – yes all of them – used to be other than a circuit courtroom in Mason. He practiced with George Zulakis and Laura Baird. Frank decided that he would accept court appointed cases to represent people charged with criminal offenses but could not afford to hire a lawyer. This was how he would start making his name. That was exactly why he took those cases.

Frank had some doozies. A retired Lansing Police Detective by the name of Bruce Behrman would tell me that he once thought he had this guy who brutally stabbed someone multiple times “dead to right.” I will never forget the recognition in Bruce’s face when he told me the story “Frank worked his butt off and I’ll be damned if he didn’t get that son-bitch off.” (Bruce was a farm boy from Niles who later became Frank’s on-staff investigator and his cubicle was right outside my office a great way to get great stories even when I didn’t want to hear them)

Then came the Messenger case. In Christmas, 1992, Greg and Traci Messenger were thrust into the news when Traci delivered a child prematurely; very, very prematurely. Greg, a prominent dermatologist, was charged with murder after he removed the child from life support in the ICU. The Ingham County Prosecutor, Don Martin, charged Dr. Messenger with the death of the child. The Messenger’s trusted literally their lives with Frank and hired him to represent Greg.

Frank busted his butt – just like Bruce described. I covered this case when I was a news reporter. It was one of the reasons that I went to law school. The different mental states required to differentiate 1st degree from 2nd degree murder and 2nd degree from manslaughter, for example. Fascinating stuff (even though I could not seem to articulate it well enough in my blue book to get an A in criminal law).

Frank won this case, too. Later, he would tell me that he wrote 3 different closing arguments and all 3 were when he was first retained on the case. A lot of lawyers and even some staff are bewildered by why I take so long to do an initial consult. The initial consult of course is before you are even formally retained on the case. Frank is where I learned that. “You will never know the case as well as your client and your client will never know it any better than when they first come in. Of course, this is also your first opportunity to gauge your client’s level of B.S. and you get a pretty good grip on whether they can testify, too. That hour to 2 hours is your first trial prep session. Go through the jury instructions to the extent you know what the charges are and start thinking about the closing right then and there.”

For 20 years I cannot think of better advice. Frank would let me pick his brain at any time of the day or night. I admired his Rolex watch once and asked him about it. A gift that he wore for years from Dr. Messenger with a personal inscription. He said “you know it’s good to make the money and have the stuff and all that but you gotta’ find time to enjoy life. The person who figures out how to balance the personal and the professional is the one who needs to bottle that secret formula and sell it because I sure haven’t figured it out.” All you can do is keep trying.

But the real reason why we work hard: we want to be good at it. We want to succeed. We came from impoverished backgrounds where life was always a struggle. Success is the ultimate – it is a drug that gives no better high.

Then there was the Fred Abood case. A prominent Michigan attorney who probably overshadowed Frank in some respects but admired him in other respects and the 2 men were friends – even though they were different personalities. Fred was wrongfully charged with CSC and the case garnered about as much profile as the Messenger case. This was another case that I covered and there were things about it that really bothered me about the prosecutor. In comes Frank. Talk about pressure. I knew the case was intense when I walked into the courtroom at 54a District Court to cover the preliminary exam and sitting there was my favorite law professor, Otto Stockmeyer.

Frank won that case, too but in a much different way: marshalling resources to uncover evidence that showed the woman had sexual relations with a completely different guy than the one who she claimed. In an ironic twist, the new Ingham County Prosecutor, Stuart Dunnings, III dismissed the case a few months after taking office. Dunnings unseated Martin with significant help from the Messengers. Traci was featured in a TV commercial that discussed how Martin’s charging decision affected her family so terribly. Another great result for Frank. Talking with him about it years later he reflected on the pressure: a lot of people loved Fred and when things initially did not go well, some of the “insiders” who were in their mutual circle of attorney friends would ask Frank if he felt like he was up to the task. After all was said and done – Frank gave credit where credit was due – the private investigator (P.I.) who tracked down the information and then confronted the other guy and got his statement. That P.I. was later brought on staff.

Shortly after I started working for Frank he was conferred with the Leo A. Farhat award in 2001. I really frankly did not know a lot about Leo so I started asking around. Leo was an amazing attorney and one of the founders of what became Farhat, Story and Kraus for many years and is now Farhat/Story. I looked at the list of former winners and some incredible names are on the roll call. I remember Frank’s speech – it was right after 9/11 and he talked about his trip to New York. He talked about the time it takes to invest in representing someone. He talked about the great people who were on the list before him. He thanked Patti, his wife. He told her “I love you.” Patti has been his real partner and anchor for a long time through a lot of hours at the office physically and at the office figuratively when one is sitting there at home, at the movies or at a restaurant immersed in someone else’s problems.

I have been regaled with some great stories about how Leo looked at cases and presented arguments to juries. I get to sit down or talk with one of Leo’s former partners, Richard Kraus and talk about cases and every now and then he punctuates the discussion with a Leo story. I will avoid sharing the details at the risk of giving away some of the strategies that I’ve stolen from Leo by virtue of learning them indirectly. I never got to see him practice.

I read the award’s statement of purpose of recognizing an ICBA member “who distinguished himself or herself by manifesting exemplary character, integrity, judgment and legal scholarship, while adhering to and advancing the highest principles and traditions of the legal profession.” It also talks about “…maintaining a life that balances a passion for professional excellence with the joy of family and friends.”

I really cannot genuinely claim the foregoing – the later part in particular. I sure try and especially now that I’m 50 and watching my youngest daughter turn 9 and evolve from a little girl into nearly a teenager I actually sometimes carry out my good intentions to balance life more. All I know is that the price is too high to quit and quitting is not an option. I will honor Leo and Frank and Fred (who passed too soon in 2004) by trying harder every day to be a better person, a better father, husband and yes, a better lawyer. I failed a lot in my life. The only way to press on is to forgive myself for those failures, straighten out my blue collar, dust off my jeans and get right back to it.

On October 8, 2018, we will honor Frank H. Reynolds with a retirement Happy Hour at the Sidebar from 5-7. 246 E. Saginaw, East Lansing, MI 48823. You don’t have to be a lawyer to come thank and raise a glass to a Lansing legend.

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Peer Recognition

Mike Nichols is a national leader in drunk driving defense. He is a member of the Forensic Committee and Michigan delegate to the National College for DUI Defense. He is also a Sustaining Member of the College. Nichols is also a founding member of the Michigan Association of OWI Attorneys; a member of the American Chemical Society; an associate member of he American Academy of Forensic Science, Adjunct Professor of Forensic Evidence in Criminal Law and OWI Law and Practice at Cooley Law School. He is also author of the West OWI Practice book and several chapters in other books on science and the law.

Mike Nichols is recognized by his peers in Michigan as a “SuperLawyer” in DUI/Criminal Defense. Nichols has also been asked to speak at conferences by groups such as the NCDD; Various Bar Associations in other states.