Cheryl Bush is one of those kinds of people who knew from a very young age what she wanted to do, and then went out and did it.
Watching the old TV show “Perry Mason” when she was “about 8 years old” convinced Bush that she wanted to be a trial lawyer. She didn’t even know, until she got to high school, that there were other kinds of lawyers she could be.
Knowing she was going to have to pay for college, Bush got a job three days after her 16th birthday, and the plan began coming together when she got into Wayne State University. That’s where it ran into its first snag, though.
“I had a really sucky first-two-quarter grade point of like 2.3, and I thought ‘I’m never going to get to law school with a 2.3,’” said Bush, who retired last week after more than 39 years. “So I quit carrying 16 credit hours. When I dropped down to 12 credit hours I didn’t get anything besides A’s after that.”
Her grades were good enough to get her into law school at the University of Michigan, where she accumulated a GPA of 3.30001 – “And it was only the .0001 that got me to graduate cum laude,” she said, laughing – and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Since then, she has built the kind of career over nearly 40 years that had her colleagues and friends throwing her a lavish retirement party at the Detroit Institute of Arts, something she never expected when it all began.
“It feels amazing, and it feels over the top,” Bush said of the party. “I have a hard time accepting compliments, and this is a pretty big one. I never would have pictured it in a million years. It makes me feel a little on the awkward side. I am very grateful for this firm, for everybody in it, for the clients that I have had over the years. Maybe because I started with sort of expectations that, whatever they were, certainly they were not this. It’s kind of hard to believe.”
Out of law school, Bush started as an associate and spent 10 years at Bloomfield Hills-based Dykema Gossert. She left Dykema to join a small firm of trial lawyers, and after that firm ended 10 years later, a couple of partners ended up back at Dyema.
Not Bush. She and her current partner, Patrick Seyferth, along with a third partner, Ray Kethledge, struck out on their own, forming the BSK firm in June 2003 (Kethledge left to become a judge on the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 2008). Rick Page followed Kethledge as a partner, and the firm became BSP.
“After (Page) left, we really wanted to be the “BS” Law Firm,” Bush said, laughing. “But our clients recommended against that (laughing again).”
Seyferth, who has known her for 25 years, attributes Bush’s success to both her personality and her ability.
“She’s real … What you see is what you get,” Seyferth said. “She doesn’t do anything lukewarm, she’s always full-speed ahead. She has credibility. It’s like respect, you have to earn it, and everyone respects her. I’m going to miss her.”
Anyone who’s been involved in a career that has spanned nearly four decades can certainly point to some highlights, and Bush is no different. For instance, one highlight was getting into the American College of Trial Lawyers.
“I never would have anticipated being recognized by my peers at being really good at what I did,” Bush said. “I was surprised I got in. You get in because people who are already in the college hear about you and they nominate you. It is totally peer driven.”
Another highlight was her one – and only – criminal trial. It involved a relative, and Bush and her husband, Stephen Winter, traveled to Alaska to defend him in a case involving a traffic accident in which he was criminally charged. The team of Bush and Bush got an acquittal.
“For me, that was eye-opening because I had never really appreciated the scope of a prosecutor’s discretion,” Bush recalled. “We tried it, with the time the jury spent in deliberations, for a month, and the jury came back with all not-guilty (verdicts). It wasn’t easy for our nephew … he was really lucky he had two trial lawyers in the family who knew enough about accident reconstruction to hear about how the accident happened, to look at the police report and see there were deficiencies in the police report and the work they had done, but also to realize he didn’t cause the accident.”
She said she doesn’t really have any favorite cases, because so many of them have been in defense of automotive companies facing product liability lawsuits. But she also doesn’t have any cases she regrets getting involved in.
“I have tried hard cases, but I’ve never had a client who I had thought had done something wrong or made a mistake,” she said. “There’s always a risk going into trial, but I never had a case where I wasn’t proud of my client and how they had handled things.”
The kind of career Bush has put together has been an inspiration to attorney Regina Hollins Lewis, a partner in the firm Gaffney Lewis LLC in Columbia, S.C. The pair met at a meeting of the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms some 12 years ago. They don’t see each other more than once or twice a year, but that doesn’t temper Lewis’ admiration for Bush.
“Despite the physical distance between us and the fact that we have spent a limited amount of time together, Cheryl has managed to have such an incredible impact on my life,” Lewis said during a speech at the DIA party. “From the moment I met her I knew she was special, I knew she was a powerhouse, she clearly knew her stuff, and she immediately made clear she was a trial lawyer and not a litigator, and she taught me the difference. She didn’t just work up cases, she tried cases, and it was immediately apparent that she loved what she did and that she did it well.
“Her passion for the law was an inspiration to me,” Lewis added. “Over those years, Cheryl became a mentor and a friend to me.”
She’s also become known as something of a prankster around the office. Over one holiday, the office was being repainted, and Bush had the largest wall in Seyferth’s office – unbeknownst to him — painted what she called “Pepto Bismol” pink. She emailed pictures to clients and friends, who immediately told Seyferth how much they “loved the office, especially the color!”
And she’s also famous for leaving humorous out of office messages that are at the same time sarcastic and filled with love. Having that kind of humor around the office, Bush believes, is critical.
“It’s important to have that kind of humor because it’s a really hard job,” Bush said. “It’s not just hard for the lawyers, but it’s high-pressure for the administrative assistant, the paralegals and the other admins we have here. I think it’s important to get people to sit back a little bit and laugh.”
Now Bush and Winter, also a retired lawyer, will be doing their sitting back and laughing on a farm on the big island of Hawaii. Winter, who got a master’s degree in architecture, is busy designing the home, and the couple will retire to raise low-line cattle and crops on 30 acres on the Big Island.
“My husband grew up on a farm, so he’s had cattle, but he’s afraid that his wife is going to be afraid of the cows because I grew up in Fraser, Michigan,” she said, laughing again. “We need a project, we need an adventure or we’ll go crazy. It’s in ranching territory, and I could not be looking forward to this more.”