Attorney at Law Magazine sat down with Kari Melkonian, a partner in the general and automotive liability group at Collins Einhorn Farrell PC, to discuss her roles as a judicial staff attorney and court clerk and her aspirations in the legal field.
AALM: What motivated you to pursue a career in law?
KM: I wanted to be an attorney as long as I can remember. I was fascinated by law shows as a child, and wanted to know more about the legal system. We have one of the best justice systems here in the United States, but there is always room for improvement. As I learned more, I was exposed to some of the injustices and flaws in our system, and wanted to do my part to make it better.
AALM: Your experience as a judicial staff attorney to Judge Martha D. Anderson is impressive. How did that role shape your understanding of civil, criminal, and domestic relations matters, and how has it influenced your work as an attorney?
KM: I was fortunate to work in this position because I played a hands-on role in the administration of justice. I reviewed briefs, researched legal issues and drafted opinions for the judge (among other things). My work in this position helped shape my understanding of the law, and highlighted the importance of written advocacy skills. The outcome of a civil case is often determined by written submissions of the parties; failure to adequately brief a legal issue can have disastrous consequences for a client.
AALM: Could you tell us about some of the most challenging or noteworthy cases you’ve been involved in?
KM: I handle a lot of peculiar cases that involve facts and legal issues we learn about in law school, but think never happen in real life. Some matters are seemingly frivolous, but others involve catastrophic injuries, death or significant property damage.
Two of the most challenging and rewarding cases I’ve handled fall outside of my traditional practice areas:
We represented a nonprofit animal rescue organization in an adverse possession claim arising out of a property dispute with a neighboring business. The rescue stood to lose a significant portion of its property if the business prevailed in its quest to divest the rescue of its land. We argued that the rescue owned the disputed parcel via adverse possession, and prevailed in obtaining an injunction against the neighboring business. The rescue retained all of its land, and continued providing critical services to the community.
We represented a prisoner in a First Amendment retaliation claim filed against a corrections officer. The officer retaliated against the prisoner by fabricating a “threatening behavior” charge in response to the prisoner asking to see the officer’s supervisor. The charge was reviewed by an administrative law judge, who cleared my client because there was no credible evidence to corroborate the officer’s version of events – but not before our client spent nearly two weeks in solitary confinement waiting to be heard. The prisoner filed suit in federal court, and in January 2023, we obtained a six-figure verdict on his behalf. The case was handled on a pro bono basis, and litigated for nearly six years before trial.
AALM: As a former court clerk for Judges Linda S. Hallmark and Barry M. Grant, what did you learn from your time in that role that you find valuable in your current practice?
KM: Being a court clerk afforded me the opportunity to observe hundreds of hearings and trials before and during law school. I saw a lot of good and bad lawyering over the years, and learned from these experiences.
Court clerks are the “gatekeepers” of the courtroom; so they are typically the first person lawyers and litigants see upon arrival. Clerks typically run the docket and courtroom, which involves handling inquiries from attorneys and unrepresented litigants.
Many of the litigants I encountered in this position were facing challenges in a very difficult time in their lives – especially in family court proceedings. So I dealt with people at their worst, and litigants sometimes took their frustrations out on me. However, I learned a lot from these encounters and developed a great deal of empathy for people who find themselves in legal battles – including my clients, and opposing parties.
AALM: You’ve been mentoring students in the legal field and served as an adjunct professor in the paralegal studies program at Baker College. What motivates you to share your knowledge and experience with aspiring legal professionals, and what do you hope they gain from your mentorship?
KM: Being a law student and new lawyer comes with challenges; it can also be intimidating. We learn a lot about the law itself in law school, but not necessarily how to practice law, or develop a network.
Though I am a first-generation lawyer, I started working in the court system as at a very young age (17). So, I had the benefit of working around lawyers and judges who mentored me, and gave sound advice over the years. Not everyone has this opportunity; so I want to give back to the community that has given so much to me, and use my experience to help those who are new to the profession find their way.
AALM: How do you stay current with legal developments and changes in the areas of law you practice, and how do you incorporate this knowledge into your work?
KM: I am fortunate to work for a firm with one of the best appellate groups in the country. Our appellate team keeps us apprised of key changes in the law and other developments that affect our practice groups. We also have internal trainings and an active blog where attorneys write about new cases and emerging practice trends. Our attorneys learn from and mentor each other, which benefits our clients and the firm as a whole.
AALM: What are your strategies for maintaining a work-life balance, and how do you unwind or recharge outside of your legal practice?
KM: Establishing boundaries is critical to maintaining work-life balance. It’s tempting to take on more assignments that you can handle, and commit to too many networking events, out of fear of disappointing managing partners.
I have a busy and challenging caseload. I am also actively involved in local bar organizations, which has played a huge role in my professional development, and it’s something I encourage all lawyers to do. However, working to the point of exhaustion and attending several events a week takes a physical and emotional toll. I learned that I am no good to my clients, firm, family, friends or frankly myself, when I take on too much. It’s okay to say “no.” Don’t overcommit. Encourage associates and new lawyers at your firms to speak up when their plates are full.
Lawyers are never off the clock, and our minds don’t shut off. So, it’s important to have hobbies and interests that don’t involve the law. Spending time with friends, family and my dogs is a great escape for me. I also enjoy photography, hiking, golfing and being outdoors. I run, box and lift weights. I am a huge Detroit Lions fan, and devote a lot of my Sundays to watching NFL football.
AALM: What are your future goals or aspirations in your legal career, and are there specific areas or types of cases you’re particularly excited to work on in the future?
KM: I am haunted by the number of innocent men and women incarcerated across the country. So I am pleased to see prosecuting attorneys establishing conviction integrity units to address wrongful convictions and incarcerations. As more innocent people are being released from prison, I would like to work in some capacity with exonerees who are being reintegrated into society.
I am also haunted by the lack of laws and protections against animal cruelty – from domestic and companion animals to those living in deplorable and cruel factory farms. Punishment for animal cruelty is virtually non-existent.
I want to bring more awareness to these issues, and will continue encouraging our law makers to enact tougher penalties for those who exploit and abuse vulnerable humans and animals.
AALM: What is something our readers would be surprised to learn about you?
KM: I struggled mightily in high school, and barely graduated. I’m thankful for my parents who never gave up on me, and have always been my biggest cheerleaders.
AALM: Anything else to add?
KM: Don’t take yourself too seriously, and always keep a sense of humor!