Practice Law in Paradise
by Thomas H. Howlett
Job posting seeking an assistant attorneys general for the island nation of Palau from the National Law Journal in 1995.
Photo of the Palau Supreme Court building.
I have a special distinction within the Oakland County Bar Association about which I am quite proud. And it precedes by many years the humbling opportunity that I now have to steward the OCBA as its president for the next year.
The distinction is this: I seem to have taken the most circuitous of routes to OCBA membership, at least in terms of total mileage.
Let me briefly tell you about my career zigzags, and why I remain so grateful to have ended up with the OCBA being an integral part of my professional life.
My story of belatedly finding the OCBA as a practicing attorney began nearly 25 years ago in Grand Rapids, where I spent a terrific year after law school working for the late Hon. Douglas W. Hillman, then-chief judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan.
My wife, Kim, and I then headed to Washington, D.C., where we each took litigation jobs with private law firms.
During our years in D.C., the assignments could be exciting, and the work environment sometimes glamorous. Litigation took us to courts across the country. Kim worked down the hall from the spouse of a U.S. Supreme Court justice. My office afforded a great view of the National Archives.
But as Michiganders, it struck us as odd that at D.C. social gatherings so much discussion seemed to center on the question, “What do you do?” And we wondered why the Washington Post had deemed it newsworthy one Halloween to publish a story about the travails of Washington parents trying to make it home in time to take their children trick-or-treating. Weren’t folks usually home at that time?
Then fate intervened and the path that would eventually lead us back to Michigan took a sharp turn 8,000 miles and 12 time zones away.
In May 1995, soon after our first daughter was born and while Kim was still on maternity leave, a law school friend seeking to emancipate himself from a large law firm in Chicago called to ask for my thoughts on an ad he had just seen in the National Law Journal for a position at a firm in Portland, Oregon.
When I went to check out the ad, my eyes were quickly drawn to another posting directly below the one about Portland. This one was seeking assistant attorneys general for a new island nation, the Republic of Palau, which had just become “the world’s newest sovereign state.” The ad hailed “the opportunity to live in a tropical paradise.”
Not familiar with Palau? Neither were we.
Formerly part of Micronesia, Palau is near Guam in the western Pacific Ocean; when you fly to Hawaii, you’re halfway there. In 1995, this archipelago of 300 islands and just 20,000 people had recently become independent after nearly 50 years as a U.N. trust territory following World War II.
In determining its independence, Palau had adopted a U.S.-style Constitution with three branches of government. But the new nation lacked the legal infrastructure to operate itself. So Palau came to the U.S. looking for attorneys to help enforce and interpret its new laws. On a whim, I sent a resume, which was followed by an interview in D.C.
And in November 1995, about six months after stumbling across the ad, we found ourselves landing in Palau sight unseen with our seven-month-old, as our possessions progressed across the Pacific via container ship. An amazing two-year personal and legal adventure ensued.
It’s impossible to capture fully what it was like to live and work in a one-stoplight island nation. My varied docket in the Palau Supreme Court included prosecution of assault cases involving coconuts, litigation of claims arising from a tragic bridge collapse, interpretation of international treaties, and repatriation of destitute fishermen apprehended for illegally fishing in Palau’s waters. On weekends, we would scuba, sail and sweat in a place that we had quickly concluded was always at least 10 degrees hotter than paradise.
But the lasting impression from Palau was the pervasive sense of community that we always felt in this place so far away.
Lawyers and judges would repeatedly see each other not only in court (where government attorneys distinguished themselves from public defenders by not wearing sandals), but also on the beach, in restaurants and around town. This familiarity with one another appreciably helped to resolve legal disputes.
And the lives of our Palauan friends and colleagues always centered on family – immediate family, extended family and even adopted family, including “expats” like us.
So when our island nation experience drew to a close near the end of 1997, we decided to seek out the sense of community we had grown to love in this place on the other side of the globe. Upon our return to the United States, we sold our home in the D.C. area and moved back to Michigan.
Within days of beginning work at The Googasian Firm in January 1998, I joined the OCBA. And almost immediately, I found that the OCBA replicated many of the best aspects of the experience in Palau. Just as I had been welcomed warmly to Palau, I was made to feel right at home despite my status as something of an outsider with no previous work experience in Oakland County.
Through participation in Inns of Court, committee work and social events, I found that the OCBA offers a special community of its own. Members of the OCBA enjoy the benefits of practicing law and furthering justice in an environment where professionalism, civility and regular interaction enhance the quality of our work lives. We genuinely care about each other and the people we serve. It turns out that the good people of the OCBA and the Republic of Palau have quite a bit in common.
So that’s my non-linear story of finding the OCBA. It took me a stretch to get here, but I am so very glad that I did. I will aim to spend much of the next year spreading the word about how meaningful membership in the OCBA can be for attorneys regardless of where they may have been or where they may be going.
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