Playing Atticus

Jon March is one of the best lawyers in the state, but last fall he got to play the greatest of them all

Published in 2006 Michigan Super Lawyers — September 2006

It is early afternoon, and 12 tall stacks of paper are spread across Jon March’s broad desk in his fifth-floor office at Miller Johnson, a highly respected downtown Grand Rapids law firm. Today the papers and the cases they represent must wait as March is repeatedly called out of the room to oversee an emergency mediation down the hall.

During the last 10 years, facilitative mediation has become a significant part of March’s work, and he welcomes the opportunity to help opposing sides find a middle ground.

Minutes later, he is back at his desk, resolved to turn his attention — at least temporarily — to the cases in front of him. As for the mediation? “I’m not giving up,” he says with a firm smile.

March readily acknowledges that the law is, by nature, an Us v. Them business, yielding clear winners and losers. Yet finding common ground — whether in law or in his personal life — is never far from his mind.

March, 62, grew up in Ann Arbor, where his father taught high school history and his mother was a social worker. With no lawyers in the family, his first taste of the law came while interviewing a local attorney for an eighthgrade career project. The advocacy nature of the law resonated with him, but the courtroom temporarily took a back seat to the bright lights of the stage.

As a teenager, March was drawn to acting, and though he was accepted into Northwestern University’s drama school, he didn’t get any scholarships and couldn’t afford the tuition. He ended up at the University of Michigan, where he studied history, but his heart wasn’t in it. His future wife, Mary Ann, aware of his earlier interest in the law, handed him an application to Harvard Law School and he wound up graduating from the school, cum laude, in 1969.

A year later he joined the Air Force as a captain in the staff judge advocate corps. One of his first cases confirmed he had made the right career choice.

He represented a Vietnam veteran who had returned to the States to start a family and begin a career at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, where March was stationed. “He got involved with antiwar groups and started having conscience pangs,” March says. “One day, he packed up his family and left for Canada.” Five years later he was back, ready to accept the appropriate punishment. Charged with desertion in a general court martial, the veteran faced a possible sentence of 10 years in Leavenworth. “My pitch to the court martial was that this is a guy who served his country,” March says. “For a variety of psychological reasons, he left. But he came back.” As a result of March’s arguments, the man’s only punishment was to be reduced in rank by two stripes. “It was great to be able to help someone like that. There were other instances in the Air Force where I was able to help people who deserved a second chance — and got it.”

March left the Air Force in 1972 and returned to Michigan, where he started knocking on law firm doors. One of those doors belonged to Art Snell, one of the founders of Miller Johnson.

“I knocked on his door during the lunch hour, and he had his sack lunch on his desk.” While Snell ate, he described the philosophy of his firm, which included, March remembers, “commitment to excellence, dedication to your clients and serving your clients, and doing this in a firm where the people care for one another and work together as a team, collegially.” It was the kind of firm March was looking for.

“Art was a lawyer’s lawyer,” March says warmly. “He wasn’t flashy. He was not a self-promoter. He was 100 percent committed to serving his clients and trying to do the absolute best for them.”

Snell’s approach inspired March. Partner Craig Lubben, who now works in Miller Johnson’s Kalamazoo office and considers March a mentor and close friend, remembers being similarly inspired by March.

Early in Lubben’s career, he and March were defending a doctor accused of medical malpractice. “The plaintiff’s lawyer had hired an expert witness,” Lubben says. “My job was to dig up some background info on this expert. I came to learn he had lost his privileges at a number of hospitals, that he was making his living, essentially, by testifying on behalf of plaintiffs in malpractice cases, and that he had been disqualified as an expert in some of the cases. I knew this was good stuff, but I didn’t know how Jon was going to use it.

“So the plaintiff’s lawyer called the expert and began qualifying him. He sounded very impressive, and he had pretty good academic credentials.”

Then March began his questioning.

“Jon systematically dismantled this witness,” Lubben recalls. “The guy was an expert at testifying and he wanted to launch off and give speeches every time, but Jon was very firm in controlling him. By the time Jon got done, the guy was devastated. The judge ruled that he was not qualified to testify, and we went on to win that case. We were talking to the jurors afterward, and I’ll never forget what one of the jurors said: ‘I couldn’t believe the way you cross-examined that guy. It was like television!’”

For client Linda VanderJagt, assistant superintendent for instruction at Forest Hills Public Schools in Grand Rapids, March combines his ready-for-prime-time gifts with a true heart for people. She met March when he was assigned to handle school law for Forest Hills. A lengthy employee harassment case, she says, “involved accusations against multiple staff members in a variety of assignments in multiple buildings across the district. People were very upset.

“Jon prepared people so well to understand the process and their role and the law. … When he worked with us, he understood our culture, our traditions, and our preferred way of doing business with our community and our employees.”

“When you’re involved in a piece of litigation,” notes March, “you have to become very familiar with the particular business or process that’s involved.” For him, that’s one of the job’s great benefits. “You get to meet a lot of interesting people. But you also get to learn about a lot of disciplines and professions.”

Once March’s two sons had grown up and left home, he felt freer to let that natural curiosity about people and professions spark renewed interest in his first love: acting. But it had been a long time since he had been on stage. He had some work to do.

“In the late 1980s, my wife encouraged me to take an adult acting class, just to get back into it a little bit,” March says, happily crediting Mary Ann for her role in yet another major decision in his life. The class concluded with a night when all of the students performed a scene for family and friends on the stage of the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre.

“I was playing Salieri in a scene from Amadeus. Well, I had to take a deposition in Kalamazoo that day. My plan was to do the deposition and then come back up to Grand Rapids and do this. No sweat. I knew my lines and I’m used to being in front of people.

“So I get to the theater and as my turn approaches to go backstage, all of a sudden I’m absolutely terrified. I’m thinking, ‘What’s happening here? I do this all the time. How can I be so scared?’

“I think it was the idea that in a case I know the facts of the case, the arguments to make, and I can make those without being limited to specific words. But in a play I’ve got to go out and say these specific words, and they have to be said roughly in this order, because somebody else has got words to say and they’re counting on a cue from me.”

Despite his anxiety, March’s performance went well and he enjoyed the experience. He soon sought out advanced acting classes and began auditioning for roles — and getting good parts.

“I’ve directed Jon in five productions so far,” says Penelope Notter, associate director of Grand Rapids Civic Theatre and one of March’s acting teachers. “He was the wizard in The Wizard of Oz. In Enchanted April he played a self-centered, egotistical rogue, and it was very funny. And he was in Love Letters, which was a touching and emotional piece. Jon is a smart actor, very disciplined, and always totally prepared.”

Bruce Tinker, executive director of Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, agrees. “Jon is one of those rare individuals who inspires excellence when he’s involved. Not only does he achieve excellence as both a professional and a community volunteer, but he inspires excellence in everyone he performs with. That is a very rare trait.”

In the fall of 2005, March’s growing acting skills netted him one of the prime roles for any actor, let alone a lawyer-actor: Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. “That’s probably the most pleasurable role I’ve ever gotten in the theater,” March admits. “I’ll never have another role that I’ll love as much.”

“For an actor, it doesn’t get much better than that,” says Paul Dreher, who directed the play for the Civic Theatre. “Jon just seemed to have the right stature and demeanor that I was looking for in Atticus. It was a reach for him; he hadn’t done anything that extensive before. But Jon works hard, hard, hard. He’s diligent. And he was quite wonderful.

“The role affected him personally, being a lawyer. I know that after that, when he was doing something in the law, he found himself thinking, ‘What would Atticus do?’ It affected him that way, Atticus being such an exemplar of the law and what a lawyer should be about.”

While March doesn’t believe his legal background helped him get cast — when he had first auditioned to play Atticus in a previous production, he lost out to a psychologist — it did enrich his ability to play the part. “There’s something to be said for the fact that as a lawyer you know about cross-examination and making a closing argument.

“I have to say, though, that Atticus was not much of a crossexaminer,” adds March, chuckling. “He asked a lot of open-ended questions. And Mayella Ewell handed his lunch to him on a platter when he thinks he’s going to get her to admit what really happened. She delivers this powerful speech that begins, ‘All you fine gentlemen with your fancy airs,’” March recites, slipping easily into a soft, Southern drawl, “‘if you can’t understand that I’ve been raped …’ Atticus had to stand there and take it. His question violated all the rules of cross-examination. But Atticus had other redeeming features.”

Soon after the play closed, he and Mary Ann were visiting family in Pittsburgh when they discovered an exhibit on moviemaking at the Carnegie Science Center. “They had Gregory Peck’s script from To Kill a Mockingbird,” March says. In it were Peck’s margin notes “about how to play these various scenes, what are the emotions, what are the key words. It was mesmerizing,” he says, still awed by the find. “I wish I’d seen it beforehand. There were some pointers in there about things I hadn’t thought about.”

Many outsiders imagine natural parallels between courtroom presentations and stage work, but March isn’t convinced. “People say, ‘Well, by being in the theater you’re able to be a better trial lawyer.’ I’ve always discounted that. Now, I think the talents that allow me to get parts — the ability to be able to speak distinctly, to show some kind of emotion — are abilities at play in the courtroom. I have the ability to stand in front of a judge or jury and make cogent, persuasive arguments. But I can’t say I’m better at that for having — over the last 15 years, on the average of once a year — been in a play.”

In fact, March emphasizes that being a lawyer and being an actor are almost completely different. “For each of the stacks of paper here on my desk, there is another lawyer or lawyers — who are almost always very good — trying to prevent me from doing what I want to do. It’s adversarial. If you don’t get the case settled, you go to trial. There’s a winner and there’s a loser.

“But when I go over to Civic Theatre, or one of the other theaters in town, I’m getting together with a group of people for one common purpose: to put on a play as best we can. There’s no competition. We’re all working together.”

Despite his obvious devotion to acting, March has never considered sacrificing the law for the stage. “I don’t have that kind of talent,” he admits with a laugh. “As a professional actor, I would have probably been a great waiter.”

Besides, his passions are clearly with the law.

“You’re there to serve your client and to do whatever you can to put their case forward as best and as persuasively as you can, within the parameters of the law and legal ethics,” he says, echoing the guiding principles of his mentor. “Art and his partners set an example for doing things the right way. Hopefully other lawyers in the community would agree.

“I think the quality of the bar here in Grand Rapids is very high,” March adds. “It’s a good place to practice. And if the people you’re working with are good, it brings out the best in you.”

For Jon March, that seems to ring true whether he’s working before a paying audience of hundreds, a jury of 12, or two opposing parties in desperate need of a real-life Atticus Finch.

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