Thought Leader in Law Stephen Hilger: Building Business
Originally printed at Mlive.com
Firm: Hilger Hammond, Grand RapidsTitle: AttorneyEducation: University of Florida, bachelor’s degree in chemistry, 1979; Case Western Reserve University College of Law, J.D. 1982
Years in law: 28
Specialty: Construction law and complex commercial litigation
Stephen Hilger is dedicated to serving clients in construction — a hard-hit industry currently facing unique challenges.
Hilger is co-chair of the Legal Advisory Committee of the Michigan chapter of the Associated General Contractors and is an active board member of the Associated Subcontractors of America. In 2008, after 17 years with a large firm, he started his own firm, which specializes in construction law.
What made you want to practice law?
Before and during college, I was absolutely convinced that I was going to be a doctor. … After taking the MCATs and after getting past the first level of admissions procedures, I decided for a variety of reasons that I did not want to become a doctor.
I then rekindled an interest in the practice of law primarily because of a family lineage involving many very successful lawyers. My grandfather was a famous criminal defense lawyer in Germany whose claim to fame arose when he defeated the Third Reich in various war crime allegations against the defendants he represented, which rewarded him with a year-and-a-half stay in jail.
The law has always interested me, and it provides an opportunity for continuous academic stimulus.
Why did you choose your particular specialty?
Coming through law school, I first anticipated working in a combined area of law and medicine, and even entertained getting both degrees. However, as a law clerk in Cleveland, I had the opportunity to work on some tax litigation involving George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees. The whole process of commercial litigation fascinated me.
In 1982, within the first week of practicing law, the senior partner dropped a file on my desk that dealt with collecting an unpaid contract amount in the multiple millions for the construction of the Epcot Center in Orlando. I had the dubious honor of informing the client that his lien rights had expired and he no longer would be able to perfect the lien against Epcot.
The client appreciated the honesty and then gave me another large case involving a hospital renovation project in Winter Haven, Fla. I ended up taking that case through trial and prevailing. He then gave me a number of other cases, as did other clients. The construction practice then started to grow significantly.
What is the biggest challenge for your profession?
The biggest challenge I see for the legal profession is providing value to clients. It is important for a lawyer to understand, at least in a business context, that they are essentially a business consultant who really needs to provide advice to their clients that provides a value added result in the client’s business. Many lawyers lose sight of that fact.
Lawyers also need innovation; that is the ability to see things in a new or creative way. Many lawyers get stuck on solving problems the same way they have for many years, which prevents them from changing with the times. Lawyers also need to focus on becoming better communicators. …
Specifically with respect to construction law, the biggest challenge in today’s market is helping clients make the right decisions in order to stay in business in this down economy.
What is the biggest opportunity?
The biggest opportunity for lawyers is to become a major player in any given industry. There is a lot of opportunity to participate in the organizations of their choice and to give back to some degree to the community. Too many lawyers do not give back or only participate to a small degree. Becoming a player is about developing relationships, which can only occur if the lawyer is willing to make a commitment. …
Another opportunity is the flexibility to do other things in life besides the practice of law. The construction law and complex commercial litigation practice has provided personal satisfaction to me because it gives me the opportunity to meet many different people in many different walks of life, and it also provides me an outlet for the academic stimulus I need.
What is the best advice you have ever given a client?
It seems as though some of the best advice I have given is when a client should not file a lawsuit or not engage in certain activities that they are intending. I have spent a great deal of my professional life working on ADR and resolution procedures that may be slightly different than the norm in an effort to stave off the high cost of litigation.