Ronald Strote keeps his feet on the ground in his construction law and ADR practice
Published in 2014 Michigan Super Lawyers magazine
on September 2, 2014
Updated on September 12, 2014
Don’t get complacent.
That’s Ronald Strote’s mantra, about which he is not complacent. He doesn’t just say it, he clarifies it. “Complacent meaning, I don’t really have to prepare; I know this area, I know the case and stop worrying about it,” he says.
After 42 years of practice, Strote still enters the courtroom wondering if he’s done enough to prepare. “I have some nervousness before a trial,” he says, “still worrying about what is going to happen, what to anticipate. Have I thought of everything that could possibly come up? Have I anticipated all of the evidence issues?
“It’s that anticipation that I think is a good thing.”
Strote, of May, Simpson & Strote in Bloomfield Hills, focuses his practice on construction litigation; he’s handled everything from cases involving defective construction to contractors and other professionals filing liens claiming they haven’t been paid for their work. He also serves as an arbitrator and mediator.
“There’s nothing magical about being a lawyer, but I think there is something that takes you from being a good lawyer to a better-than-good lawyer,” he says. “That’s caring about your clients, being well-prepared and trying to anticipate what the other side will be arguing.”
Strote learned early on to look for potential curveballs. His first trial in 1974 had him defending a client in a case involving work on rooftop air-conditioning units. The case was straightforward—an “I did the work/you didn’t do the work,” all-or-nothing case, he says.
Or so he thought.
“The judge came back and split [the verdict] right down the middle, even though there was no testimony that half the work had been done,” he says. “I learned that once you walk in, you really never know what’s going to transpire.”
A native New Yorker, Strote attended the University of Michigan and went to law school at Northwestern. He received his J.D. in 1972 and practiced in Chicago for 18 months, but his wife was eager to move home to Michigan.
He found a mentor in Arthur Bonk, an “old school, gentleman professional attorney,” Strote says. Bonk primarily worked with construction clients, and Strote quickly discovered a love for the practice area. “I love digging into the documents,” he says.
When Bonk retired in 1987, Strote called up one of his frequent courtroom opponents, Tom Simpson. “I had litigated against [him] for many, many years. I basically picked up the phone and said, ‘Tom, I need a new place to go.’” He soon joined what’s now May, Simpson & Strote.
For the last two decades, Strote has also worked as a mediator and arbitrator on construction and business-related issues.
One thing he tells homeowners who are in disputes with a contractor: Separate emotion from business. “I understand partially that telling your story is cathartic, that you’re finally telling a third party how you feel you have been wronged,” he says. “I tend to apologize to them upfront, that it’s going to sound a little bit harsh and cold that we’re going to have to discuss this as a business transaction. But that’s really the way they need to look at it.”
While Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy hasn’t hurt his practice, Michigan construction law is still digging its way out of the recession’s rubble. “Everything came to a stop,” Strote says. During the recession, he focused on a backlog of cases, and today he sees local construction slowly picking up, including growth in residential and commercial development.
Through his litigation work, Strote has helped define state construction law. He’s particularly proud of a 2008 case involving a small general contractor that had won a $6 million public bid to build an air freight-handling facility at Bishop International Airport. Two weeks later, the airport authority tried to rescind their approval of the bid.
The issue was “whether the acceptance of a public bid by the public authority rises to the level of a contract when they try to rescind that approval,” says Strote, who represented the contractor. The case went to the Court of Appeals, which ruled for Strote’s client; the airport authority appealed to the state Supreme Court, but leave to appeal was denied in June 2011. “It took three years, but eventually through mediation, my client got a very substantial payment.”
Strote knows it doesn’t always work that way. “I tell people, who tell me what a wonderful case they have, that if we knew how cases were going to turn out, we would be the richest lawyers in the world,” he says. “We try to be as objective as possible in assessing where a case will end, but in the end, we honestly don’t know. All we can do is present the facts the best way we can and couple that with the law. And hope that the court gets it right.”