Spotlight On: Barry F. Poulson

You came rather late to the law?

 I did; I was 58 when I graduated. I took the bar exam that summer and was sworn in before Judge Michael R. Smith at 1st Circuit in Hillsdale in November of 2005.

What was your background before law?

 A “computer guy,” I learned to program when I was 16 at a National Science Foundation summer program at Northern Michigan University. I finished my Bachelors at U of Wyoming, and earned later a Masters of Engineering in Software Engineering at Widener University; I worked nearly 40 years in computing.

Did you quit work to go back to school?

 I wish—no, I worked full time for the U of Wyo’s data processing department and took up to 15 credit hours in my heaviest term. I was a single parent then, and money was tight, so I taught skiing on the weekends, so my son could ski for free.  He hates cheese to this day because we lived on toasted cheese sandwiches.

 After graduation, I took a job with a consulting company that ran data centers for colleges, nationwide.  I still designed systems, but I was a programming manager, later data center director. I also started teaching as an adjunct, which I still do.  Then I taught computing, but more recently business and business law at Jackson Community College.

 I get great feedback from teaching as to community values. When we are before juries, we teach, and teaching the same population my juries are drawn from allows me to tune language and pace to local expectations.  One Prosecutor said that juries love me, but that is because I love the people here in my home county.  I trust our juries.

Do you have a solo law practice?

 I do, but Lissa and I work together to deliver a “Client Centered” practice model. Our goal is the complete rehabilitation of the client.  Lissa is a Registered Nurse, with 20 years in psychiatric care and substance abuse. I once said she had been in rehab for 20 years, but she corrected me.  She completed the program at Kaplan University and is a Legal Nurse Consultant.  She also is our jury consultant, advising me as to jury member perception—in other words, who hates me, who doesn’t.

Why did you change careers?

 The Y2K project was a turning point. I was teaching COBOL as a volunteer when an instructor at Olivet College quit.  I was Vice President of Technology.  My students were bringing in ads at $95 an hour for Journeymen COBOL programmers.  I contacted my old firm and headed the Y2K project at Walsh College.  I finished in time to do another Y2K at Cranbrook.  It wasn’t rocket science to figure out that now that everything had been rebuilt, they wouldn’t need us.  I applied to Thomas M. Cooley Law School, but the day I received my tuition bill I received a letter from Ave Maria. I knew they were very expensive, but they said they had scholarship money available. We were reading the letter on the way to Lansing, called Dean Kinney, and headed for Ann Arbor, instead.

 Lissa is Jewish and I am a Midwestern farm boy. In fact, that was the crux of the interview: did they really want someone like me at their law school? They assured me that they did, I said, “we’ll see,” and they countered with a full scholarship.  My job was to sharpen their skills.  As it turned out, we all learned from the exchanges.

How did you get along with the Ave Maria students?

 It was difficult for them at first.  I made an ironic response to a question in 1L, and the students chastised me, “this is serious business, this is the LAW!” By 2nd year, humor was tolerated, and in 3rd year, recognized for the lifeline that it is.

Did you always plan to open your own firm?

 Not at first, but Lissa and I went to a holiday get-together for 1L’s at a very prestigious Grand Rapids firm.  A young Ave 1L was there.  They had run out of Associates to tour us around, so a Partner took us.  He looked at me very strangely when I asked some questions about litigation and databases. I finally realized he thought Lissa and I were the parents of the hapless 1L! When I explained that I, too, was a 1L he did not take it very well.  I realized right there that I did not want to work for him, not for a big firm, and that if I had been the Partner, I could have turned that loss into a win.  I hired me.

 I opened an office in Hillsdale -- my home town -- as soon as I got my bar card. We rented from my family’s attorney, and officially hung out our shingle January 1, 2006. We could not have made it without the patient mentorship of Gene Welper.  The opening days of solo practice are terrifying.

You practice criminal law?

 Primarily. I am one of the three contract Public Defenders for Hillsdale County.  We also do family law, are appointed in neglect cases, and retained in criminal defense.  It was difficult in the beginning, and the caseload every 3rd week is heavy. But that was the point: if you are going to have a 30-year career in the law in 15 years, you have to do twice as many cases.

How did you deal with expectations, given your age?

 I knew Judge William Bledsoe and his wife, Wilma Rae, from Olivet College. When I told him I was reading the law, he said that based on my age, courts would expect me to know what I was doing, and I could not possibly know.  He told be to put a sign on my door saying, “You Don’t Know Doodly Squat;” and let that guide me to a humble approach to the bench.

Did you start with the misdemeanor docket?

 No such thing in rural practice. Do the job. In fact, six months into my first year on contract, on a day where I had 12 felony PE’s, the 12th case of the day was a CSC1 life sentence. There was negotiation, and as you know, some 95% of cases have to plead out for the system to work at all.  Here, there was no middle ground. The case went to trial that December, with a hung jury. We retried it again in February and our client was acquitted.

Did law school prepare you for your practice?

 I had some great instructors and the opportunity to volunteer as a T/A in Trial Advocacy for Prof. Richard Convertino. I learned a lot from him, but you have too little context to plug all the new ideas into.  So, you learn, and relearn, as you build experience.  I rebuilt the Criminal Justice Society, wrote on to Law Review, and won the trial competition.  I was a 2L and my opponent, a 3L, did not take the drubbing very well. But, he had this habit of saying, “I’ll tell you what I think; I think…” and I waited for it.  He said it in his closing and my “speaking objection” resulted in a severe jury instruction and a win.  It was a good lesson for me. I never say, “I think!”  But law school is not enough. In fact, the first I heard of sentencing guidelines was in court.  We signed up for ICLE, attended its seminars, I attended CDAM Trial College twice, Posner & Dodd, and of course participate in the SADO forum. My method has been to train, retrain, study, and train again.

You only have 3 judges in rural counties?

 In Hillsdale: one District, one Circuit, and one Probate. What you say, you live with. But every case has to be its own case, its own universe. The Judges do a remarkable job of isolating each case. My job is zealous representation, but that can be done with respect. There are 3 prosecutors and 3 defense attorneys. We do not have the antagonism between prosecution and defense bar that I read about in the papers. Advocacy is best served by a clear rendering of the facts of the case from the two perspectives.  That may sound corny, but it works if there is respect and accuracy.

Any trouble getting discovery?

 Not really. I brought a suppression hearing on a statement, and the Circuit Judge has ordered that all future interviews be taped.  What I need shows up in my box. We cross-check and call where a report is missing or went to the first attorney appointed. FOIA from 911 arrives the next day.  The forensic centers upstate are less reliable.

Is funding a problem?

 The report on defense funding has been in the news, how Michigan spends $7.34 per capita where the national average is $11.86. But Hillsdale spends one third of the state average, less even than Mississippi. The state passes the laws, but the counties have to pay to defend those accused. The counties cannot afford it. If you think $7.34 is hard, try practice in a rural county.

Do you think the legislature will pass reforms?

 I doubt it. Michigan’s number one funding priority is locking human beings in cages.  Our system of unfunded state mandates—with the counties left to pay—results in a blatant disparity—an unconstitutional disparity. Our courts will have to rule—or SCOTUS will.

What would you say to newcomers?

 There is no better underpinning than having lived life—no matter what the endeavor.  Go to law school. As to sole practice?  A great life, but very difficult.  Love your clients. Get the money up front.

by Neil Leithauser,
Associate Editor