A Lesson in Rap From Schwartz Law Firm's Founder

Burton H. Schwartz

Much like the man with whom I was about to meet, I found the office of Burton H. Schwartz to be both unassuming and elegant. Two comfortable leather chairs sat in front of a modest, yet beautiful wooden desk. His credenza was lined with photographs of his children and grandchildren. His wall was peppered with awards and accolades he had received over the past 40 years. The founder of Schwartz Law Firm was clearly a man of success and rich life experience, and he was about to give me a lesson on the importance of RAP: Reputation, Appearance and Practice.

Shortly after graduating from law school at the Detroit College Of Law in 1965 (and after a stint with the IRS as a revenue agent, and in the tax department of a large CPA firm), Burton Schwartz ("Schwartz") joined the law firm of Sugar, Schwartz, Silver, Schwartz and Tyler. It was there that he learned the value of building a good reputation.

Schwartz's first clients were doctors, for whom he did a variety of work — he formed PCs, did their taxes, helped with estate planning and retirement plans. "The physicians took a liking to me and told me that if I ever opened my own firm, they would help build my practice with physician referrals," recalls Schwartz. In July 1972, Schwartz opened his first office on 10 Mile Road in Southfield.

Schwartz's reputation followed him. He had a steady stream of physician clients and eventually became affiliated with Hutzel Hospital. He was appointed to the Board of Trustees in 1983. He continued to receive physician referrals and his practice grew. Schwartz's seeming serendipitous foray into health care has developed into a reputation as a specialist in this area. He still gets physician referrals.

"Reputation is what distinguishes Schwartz Law Firm from other law firms. We don't really advertise. We've always attracted our client base from clients or other referrals," notes Schwartz. Although Schwartz Law Firm ("the Firm") does have a Webpage and does some Internet advertising today, most of the Firm's business is still referral-based. Reputation remains part of Schwartz Law Firm's philosophy today.

"We hire only attorneys who we feel are honest and willing to do good work. You can make all the money in the world but if you don't have a good reputation you have nothing," says Schwartz.

Schwartz believes that appearance is another important quality that is oft-overlooked by society today, even among professionals. "Things are so much more informal now. In my day you always showed up at work in a suit and a tie. And I loved that," says Schwartz, who attributes the lesson to a client who was an internist in New York City and moved to Detroit to practice medicine. "He said that he was taught in medical school to observe. Your appearance is important because everybody is looking at you all of the time." Like it or not, says Schwartz, appearance does impact opinion. The old adage "Don't judge a book by its cover" is rarely heeded. "I think people are more comfortable with someone who appears well-groomed and professional. It instills more confidence that the person knows what they're doing." Thus the attorneys at the Firm always maintain a professional appearance.

When asked if he had developed a philosophy for practicing law, Schwartz reflected: "Practice honestly, ethically, be prepared, put in time and hours and you will do well. You will be tempted to take short cuts, but don't do it." Schwartz's work ethic was passed down to his children, Julie and Jay, who are both successful lawyers. While Julie has suspended her practice to be a fulltime mother, Jay has helped to grow the Firm.

"Jay went straight into litigation [out of law school] and is all self-taught. He worked hard and has been very successful." Schwartz recalls that although Jay lost his very first trial, the lawyer on the other side (who was with Miller Canfield) asked him if he wanted a job. Jay, too, has followed his father's footsteps in building a strong reputation for solid, successful work. "Jay gets referrals from other clients, judges in front of whom he has appeared, and other lawyers," Schwartz proudly notes.

For Schwartz, the practice of law is not just a means to an end, but a way to "meet interesting people and help them solve their problems." He still recalls his first day of law school more than 46 years ago. "Our criminal law professor got us so excited about the law that day, I remember coming home and telling my wife ''This is it. I love it." After more than 44 years of practice, he still loves it.