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An Interview with Our Friend, Sheldon J. Stark, Esquire

Sheldon J. Stark

By Michael S. Leib and Robert Wright

Shel Stark recently retired—for the fourth time. Not many of us have four professional careers. Yet Shel did, each marked by passion, excellence, and sharing. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Shel about his life and careers. Here is a short (necessarily so given space requirements) look at Shel’s fascinating professional journey.

Born in Detroit, his early life journey included stops in Chicago, Flint, and Port Huron. He graduated from Port Huron High School in 1962, the University of Michigan in 1966, and the University of Detroit School of Law in 1973. While in law school, Shel worked full-time during the day for the Goodman Eden Millender and Bedrosian firm- then walked to the Jefferson Avenue law school at night. Being a passionate, astute, and socially active person, he discovered the law could be an instrument for social change and engineering. The Goodman Eden firm was largely a products liability firm but also was deeply involved in social justice cases representing labor, civil rights, and anti-Vietnam War activists. The firm defended the Black Panthers in Detroit; and sued Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger for illegally spying on anti-war movement people.

In 1973, after the passage of No-Fault Automobile Insurance “reforms”, Shel went to Kelman, Loria, Downing, Schneider, & Simpson where he developed an employment law practice. Though offered a partnership there, he left to start his own firm in 1977, eventually partnering with Deborah Gordon to form Stark and Gordon, the premier plaintiff’s employment law firm.

As Deborah Gordon, a highly successful and well-known plaintiff’s employment lawyer, reminds us, Shel was on the ground floor of employment law development in Michigan. He fought and won many cases which remain good law today. Moreover, Shel was an excellent trial lawyer. He had a gift for talking with clients and defense counsel, many of whom became his good friends. He was (and is) a raconteur and a well-known master of puns.

As a beneficiary of, and witness to Shel’s passion, excellence, and sharing, Deb Gordon says: “He showed me how to be a trial lawyer. Every case, no matter the ultimate value was very thoroughly worked up; every brief was extremely well done. His trial prep was extraordinary. He was great in the courtroom and knew how to get the attention of everyone in it. He relished the battles.”

Shel was not content to just be an outstanding plaintiff’s employment lawyer. While building his sterling reputation as a trial attorney, he was advancing Michigan’s employment law practice generally. For example, Shel was instrumental in drafting model civil jury instructions for employment cases which are still in use today. A popular speaker and planner for ICLE, the Institute for Continuing Legal Education, he also planned Michigan Association of Justice seminars-a skill he would broaden in later years. His simultaneous development of his career and sharing of his extensive gifts with the Bar is a life-pattern.

In 1999, he decided to leave private practice to join the staff of ICLE, becoming its Education Director. In 2005, he was named “Specialty Programs Director.” In that role, his group earned numerous international CLE awards, planning hundreds of educational seminars and events and created or managed long-running ICLE events including Business Boot Camp, Litigation Bootcamp, the Family Law Institute, the Advanced Negotiation & Dispute Resolution Institute, The Mediators Forum, Deposition Skills, and ICLE’s acclaimed Trial Advocacy Skills Workshop held annually in Ann Arbor.

When the Michigan Court Rules were amended to adopt mediation, Attorney Richard Soble suggested to Shel that ICLE take the lead in educating the Bar. Shel didn’t hesitate and the prestigious and award-winning 40-hour Mediator Training Program was born in 2001.

Shel left ICLE in 2010, after 11 years. Still not ready to fully retire, he became a Distinguished Visiting Professor for two years at University of Detroit Law School, his alma mater, where he taught the Mediation Clinic, Pre-Trial Litigation, and Advanced Pre-Trial Litigation.

Shel has served as a mediator and arbitrator since 1985,and participated in the professional development of mediators by sharing his skills in ICLE’s 40-Hour Mediator Training Program along with Anne Bachle Fifer and Tracy Allen. After leaving ICLE, he became active on the State Bar of Michigan Alternative Dispute Resolution Section Council and helped to develop the Skills Action Team. He has served as the Chairperson of the Section and as Chair of the Skills Action Team, developing programs to help Michigan arbitrators and mediators develop their skills as advocates and professional mediators and arbitrators. That description hardly does justice to his significant contribution to the Section. The authors have had a front row seat witnessing Shel’s continuing importance to the Section and sharing of skills and practice tips to Michigan’s ADR professionals.

We have watched his many live presentations; Section leadership; and we have read his many written articles. ADR advocates and practitioners would do well to visit Shel’s website and download the articles, links, and forms he selflessly offers to all of us at no charge beyond recognition of their source. See, The availability of significant information to educate the lawyers and parties who engaged his services to get the most out of the mediation process is part of Shel’s DNA, sharing and teaching. While there, take a look at his resume, including Memberships and Publications. Then look at the Honors and Awards. Listed among others is his receipt of the Michael Franck Award- “…given annually to an attorney who has made an outstanding contribution to the improvement of the profession.” That is an understatement.

When reflecting on his many accomplishments, Shel says he has lived a fulfilled life, beginning with his relationship with Rita, his wife of over 54 years. Like Shel, she was and is a social activist and a true life partner with the brilliance to match Shel’s— “and then some!” adds Shel. Rita was a past president of Oakland County National Organization for Women and spent a decade volunteering at the Washtenaw County Jail in a program assisting inmates in identifying and reading great children’s literature to their kids.

Shel and Rita have two children and four grandchildren with whom they enjoy spending significant time. Shel says he is relishing a second chance to sharpen his parenting skills with his children and grandchildren and is retiring from mediating and arbitrating in part to spend more time with them. At 78, he also wanted to retire from his near 40-year ADR practice before losing a step.

His careers are marked by giving back. He tells of well-known lawyers who sent him cases early in his career. He is grateful and believes it is his duty to continue to give back. No one who knows Shel’s careers and involvement with the Bar including various committees and sections, can doubt he has more than satisfied any duty to give back.

Gratitude continues to be front and center with Shel. He believes gratitude is the secret to a satisfying life. To that end, he keeps a gratitude diary and makes entries every day.

Shel’s contributions to the ADR world are enormous. He has published many articles, presented many times, and shared his immense knowledge of mediation and human nature with so many. The authors asked Shel why, given his many publications and insight, he hadn’t written a book on mediation practice for mediators and advocates? His answer? Rather than dismiss the idea, he said “I’ll think about it”. We hope he will do so as a gift to mediators and advocates and it would be required reading. He’s now started looking to sign up for a creative writing course.

Those who know Shel, know that he has a wicked sense of humor, and is a master of puns. He is a student of the use of humor, having experienced and observed its use in many years on the board of the Michigan ACLU and as modeled by Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln. Shel advocates the use of humor in mediation, at appropriate times, to lighten tension and illustrate important points. He has collected numerous quotes, clips, and cartoons he can produce at the drop of a hat.

Although allegedly retiring from an active ADR practice, most of us are certain he will continue to participate in the ADR Section, particularly the Skills Action Team. Like the E.F. Hutton advertisement of recent past, when Shel speaks, everyone listens. But Shel, with his sharp wit, would respond, “When I listen, people talk.”

When asked what mediation advocates could do better, Shel has much to say. After all, he is the master teacher. And he knows of what he speaks. Perhaps, his best-practice bullet points are concisely summarized: investing adequate time in preparation, recognizing and weighing the magnitude of risk, developing an offer/concession strategy, understanding the role of the advocate in mediation, assessing needs and interests that drive party positions, appreciating the exchange of information as a “learning opportunity”, using joint meetings tactically, understanding the flow of mediation and the mediation process by taking the long view, respecting adversaries, listening, and making full use of the mediator. There is plenty of detail on these subjects in Shel’s writings.

No doubt Shel and Rita will be fast walking into the future. After all, they love long hikes. Very long hikes. Such as 96 miles on West Highland Way in Scotland, 200 miles on the Wainwright Coast-to-Coast Trail in England through the Lake District, and 186 miles in Wales along the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. Next up: Ireland and the Dingle Way; followed by hiking in Switzerland after a mediator conference in Zurich. One thing is for sure, Rita and Shel will not be sitting still.

Hail Shel and thanks for being such a mensch to those of us fortunate enough to call you our friend.

Michael S. Leib

About the Authors

Michael S. Leib is a mediator and arbitrator with Leib ADR LLC in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and specializes in the mediation and arbitration of complex business disputes including bankruptcy disputes, real estate disputes, professional liability disputes, employment disputes, and participated on the Alternative Dispute Resolution Council of the State Bar of Michigan, as well as on the Debtor Creditor Committee of the Business Law Section. He is the chair of the State Bar of Michigan Professionalism and Civility Committee. Mr. Leib is on the Commercial Panel of the American Arbitration Association and member of PREMi, an organization of attorney dispute resolution experts who have numerous years of experience in both conflict resolution processes and subject matter knowledge in many industries and disciplines. He is listed in The Best Lawyers in America and is AV-rated by Martindale-Hubbell. He received his B.A. from Kalamazoo College, his M.M. from the University of Montana, and his J.D. from Wayne State University Law School.

Robert “Bob” Wright is a Michigan ADR pioneer. A perennial Best LawyerTM and Super LawyerTM, Bob has spent over 40 years serving as a neutral arbitrator, mediator, and representing clients in judicial, arbitration and mediation settings. In 2011, after a quarter century as a commercial litigator with a large Michigan law firm, he left to develop a boutique arbitration and mediation practice, The Peace Talks, PLC, and now serves exclusively as a third-party neutral arbitrator, mediator and mediation trainer.