The Grand Plan

To Richard Victor, nothing can take the place of a grandparent        

Published in 2008 Michigan Super Lawyers — September 2008

The black-and-white photo on the wall of Richard S. Victor's spacious second-floor office in Bloomfield Hills is easy to miss, surrounded as it is by dozens of framed articles and photos (Victor with Oprah, Victor with Katie Couric, Victor with his family), not to mention awards and plaques too numerous to count.

The image—of Victor's father holding Daniel, Victor's then-18-month-old son—is directly opposite his desk, right where it's been for the three decades Victor has practiced law, even when he worked in a dinky office in Oak Park.

That photo inspired Victor, now 59 and a father of three, to take a case that changed the course of his career—and of family law across the country.

Just three years out of law school, he was working in a small personal injury practice when a newspaper story caught his eye. A grandmother had been denied the chance to see her 7-year-old grandchild after his mother—her daughter—died of cancer. Her remarried ex-son-in-law, Victor says, didn't see much reason for the grandmother to stick around.

"I thought, ‘Wow! That's terrible. Who is talking for the child?'" says Victor, who looked at the photo of his father with Daniel and thought: "If anything ever happened to me, Danny wouldn't be able to see his Papa?"

Victor called the attorney named in the paper and found out he wasn't appealing the case, because the grandmother had no money. Victor took the case for free. He also decided it was time to go out on his own and move into family law.

 

Activist in the making

That case, and other grandparent-visitation cases that followed, garnered him plenty of national attention, including an appearance on The Today Show. But it was a story in Better Homes and Gardens magazine in 1983 that woke him up to the magnitude of the issue. "I got 1,700 letters in two weeks from all over country," he says. "I realized this is a lot bigger than my cases I was taking for free."

With that first case in 1978, Victor founded Grandparents Rights Organization (GRO)—a national nonprofit umbrella group that offers support and advocacy to grandparents. GRO was officially incorporated in 1983, and by 1985, Victor had worked on getting laws passed in all 50 states. Today, grandparent-visitation laws have been passed or updated in every state except Washington and Florida.

The group's logo is that very photo of his father, Simon, who died in 1981, holding Daniel, now 32 and a partner in the family law practice of Victor & Victor.

When Daniel's son Davis was born in December 2006, Victor experienced firsthand what he'd spent all those years fighting for. Picking up a picture of himself with Davis, "the love of my life," he says: "If someone were to tell me I couldn't see that little guy? Are you kidding me?"

 

Experience counts

Beyond the work he's done as executive director of GRO, Victor got together in 1989 with Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Edward Sosnick (formerly chief judge of the family division) to co-found SMILE (Start Making It Livable for Everyone), a state and national nonprofit program for divorcing parents with minor children, designed to teach parents what to expect during divorce. Victor knows from experience the challenges of going through a divorce, having been through one of his own shortly after Daniel was born. Rather than battle it out in court, he and his ex-wife reached a joint-custody agreement. "I learned early that a man could be a nurturing parent, just as a woman," he says.

Victor also gained national attention in 1993 when he represented "Baby Jessica" DeBoer in a high-profile custody battle between the 2½-year-old Michigan child's adoptive and biological parents. His position, which he took all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, was that children should have the right to hearings to determine what is in their best interest, as opposed to letting biology or current residency determine a child's fate. "I still can't believe we lost," says Victor. He thinks Jessica should not have been taken from the only parents she knew without considering how this would affect her.

His most recent thrill? The release of You and Me Make Three, a children's book inspired by SMILE, which he co-authored to help kids cope with divorce. Victor donates all proceeds to the Victor SMILE Foundation, which will use the money to give the book to schools and libraries around the country. He's also doing charity events to promote the award-winning project.

When it comes to awards, Victor, past chairperson of the State Bar of Michigan's family law section, has won more than a few, including the 2006 Fellow of the Year award by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the 1999 Lifetime Achievement Award from the state Bar's family law section, and the 2004 Champion Of Justice Award from the state Bar. But when it comes down to it, he says, "That's all gravy."

The meat? "Changing people's lives," says Victor. "If you choose to do corporate, criminal or personal injury work, you'll be able to have an impact on a business or someone's life," he tells students at law schools. "But if you do family law, you have the ability to affect generations. That's an extremely serious responsibility."

Victor says you have to be able to cope with people's emotions. If you have a scorched-earth policy—doing whatever it takes to win, no matter what—"you will only leave behind scorched earth for your people," he says. "In divorce work, no one wins. If you do your job correctly, you take people who are hurting and try to turn it into positive energy to help them find a new way in their lives. ... That's the reward I get."

Victor was handling mediation before it was even called that, with the goal of settling disputes so they never got to court. "Unfortunately, I never see him," says Linda S. Hallmark with a laugh. Hallmark is a judge for the Oakland County Probate Court, and serves on the circuit court's family division. "He's so professional and well-versed in the law that his cases resolve."

Hallmark likes that Victor lives what he believes. "He's a wonderful family man. He believes in the family structure as part of society and in good parenting. He tries to foster that with his clients. That's what sets him apart."

She recalls seeing him with Daniel after his son, fresh out of Vermont Law School, joined the practice in 2002. "It was touching," she says. "He took him around and second-chaired him during certain cases. He's very proud of him. It's great to see that."

Indeed, family is the most important thing to Victor, whose computer screen saver features a photo from his mother, Helen's 90th birthday party earlier this year. The picture includes his wife, Denise; son Ronald, 28, an attorney with Weil Gotshal in New York City; Daniel with his wife, Tracy, and their son Davis; and daughter Sandra, 25, of Bloomfield Hills, an aspiring actress who does office work at the firm.

Victor made Daniel a partner in 2007. While Daniel jokes that Victor carried a briefcase in high school—"That's how nerdy he was"—in the same breath he says his father never missed a sporting event when he was a kid.

A favorite memory was when his father, en route to Lansing to meet with the governor at the time of Daniel's fifth-grade championship hockey game, turned his car around to be there instead. "I saw him in the stands. His face lit up when we won the game," says Daniel. As Victor recalls it, "I'll never forget his face. I think that day he learned to trust me; that he was more important to me than anything else."

It's one area Victor is proud to boast about, that for 12 years he coached and managed his kids' games and championships. "That was priority," he says, recalling how he stepped in to coach Ron's second-grade soccer team knowing nothing about the sport.

He declined an offer to be on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1995 for a segment on grandparents' rights because the show was on Sandra's 12th birthday. Oprah called and asked, "Can you tell me why you won't do my show?" The response was textbook Victor: "I won't leave my children on their birthdays," he told her. So Oprah flew them both in first class and even sang "Happy Birthday" to Sandra.

 

Family first

But Victor is no pushover with his kids. He insisted they all have jobs in high school and college—just as he did. The second-oldest of four siblings growing up in Oak Park, Victor learned about hard work from his parents. His father was a pharmacist; for extra income, his parents ran a small business out of their home selling windshield-washer solvent. A lot was expected, says Victor, who was working by age 15—packing groceries and selling clothes on weekends—and on his own by age 18.  

He says his parents gave their children two career choices: doctor or lawyer. Victor chose law when he discovered in a fifth-grade science class that he couldn't stand the sight of blood. Today, brother Michael, 63, is an emergency-room physician in Chicago; brother Howard is an attorney in Farmington Hills; sister Fran owns an award-winning film-production company in West Bloomfield.

Graduating with a scholarship from Wayne State University in 1971, Victor got degrees in education, history and psychology before going to law school, which he put off for six months to make money as a substitute teacher in the Detroit schools. He worked at law firms while studying at Detroit College of Law. "I'd get Cs" from missing so many classes, he says. After he passed the Bar in 1975, he stayed on with the personal injury law firm where he'd been working, Mallon, Wilenkin and Best. Later that year, he became a partner at what was then Best and Victor. He went on his own to practice family law with that first case in 1978.

Though Victor regrets not spending more time with his own father—"He died too young," he says—because they all spent so much time working, he still demands much from his kids, as Daniel quickly learned after joining the firm. He was fired four times. "I came into this thinking, ‘I'll do it my way,'" says Daniel. "We each needed to compromise. I needed to amp up my motivation. He needed to downplay his expectations." Today, says Victor, he's often amazed by the strategies Daniel comes up with. "It boggles my mind." In a recent case, a client's husband wanted joint custody and was refusing to move out unless he got it. The mother insisted he had done very little in the way of childcare and could not handle that much time with the children. Daniel's idea: In exchange for leaving the house, give the husband temporary joint custody, to either prove to the court that the mother was right, or to find out that the husband actually could care for the children. Either way would be a "win-win" situation for the kids. The case is ongoing.

Besides his kids and grandson, Victor could go on and on about Denise, "my life," he says of his wife of 30 years. "She's the rock of the family. She puts weight in our shoes. If we had big heads, she'd say leave it in the garage."

Denise knew Victor was the one for her after a few dates in 1977. "I never met anyone as compassionate and caring," she says. "He's a lot of fun, especially when he plays piano." She was awed the first time she heard him play. "He was like Marvin Hamlisch."

Victor, who trained himself to play as a teen, mostly entertains the family at home on a grand piano. But in 1999, he and three divorce attorneys (John Mills, Scott Bassett and Rick Trost) got together to play at the annual dinner of the state Bar's family law section in Grand Rapids. The Bare Assets were such a success, they returned to the event occasionally and now play for fun or for various charitable events, including one in September to celebrate You and Me Make Three. They never take any money. Victor's son Ronald joins in on the guitar when he can.

So what's next? As Victor takes more time to relax with Denise at their second home in Florida and works on a book to help adults cope with divorce, he is expanding his firm.

Last spring they hired associate Keri Middleditch, fresh from her job as chief of the juvenile division of the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office. As Victor tells it, the humility his family taught him came in handy. He and Middleditch butted heads a year earlier in court over a heated grandparents' rights case, so he had to check his ego when a colleague mentioned Middleditch was looking to move into private practice with an established firm and suggested he interview her. "She was rude to me and she was not intimidated by me," he recalls thinking, until he later realized, who better to have on his team? "She's the only lawyer who's beaten me in 25 years," says Victor.

For her part, Middleditch says he was well respected and ran her kind of firm. "He and Dan are such great people. They truly have their clients' best interests at heart."

Now there's just one thing Victor has on his mind, according to Daniel: grandchildren. "He's always asking: ‘When's the next one coming?'"

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