Wayne Law alumnus serves as fire chief and Miller Canfield senior counsel
When Stephen Ott was a law student at Wayne State University Law School, a large fire broke out in a warehouse near campus.
“Smoke from the fire drifted toward our apartment, and you could hear the sirens of the arriving apparatus,” said Ott, a senior counsel with Miller Canfield. “I took a break from studying and joined a crowd that had assembled to watch the Detroit Fire Department work. I found it fascinating.”
Shortly after graduating from Wayne Law in 1979, he read that the Detroit Fire Department was reactivating its auxiliary force. He signed up and reported for training.
“It was just a couple of hours on a weeknight for several weeks, and they taught us the basics of establishing a water supply and operating hoses from exterior positions,” Ott said. “Eventually, we were issued some old gear and told that we could report to an officer at the scene of a multiple alarm fire, and assist as allowed. So three or four times a year, I would do that, and gained a great deal of experience in the process.”
Years later, Ott and his family moved to Northville, where he learned that the city’s Fire Department was a pay-per-call volunteer department. His new home was a few blocks from the fire station, and Ott ended up joining.
“In due course, I was sent to a nearby department to start my formal training,” he said.
Finding a balance between his busy Miller Canfield legal practice, for which he’s been honored by Best Lawyers in America and Michigan Super Lawyers, and his work as a firefighter has been a challenge at times, but he’s never looked back.
“As lawyers, we have some flexibility in our schedules,” Ott said. “That has certainly helped when trying to fit in the training and run response time for the Fire Department. Over the years, there have certainly been times, while in trial or during out-of-town trips, where my focus was more on legal work than on the work of the Fire Department.”
Ott, who earned his bachelor’s degree in political philosophy with high honors from the James Madison College at Michigan State University, assists clients in defending product-related litigation and regulatory matters, with an emphasis on the discovery and information-gathering aspects of the work.
In 2014, Northville city officials asked Ott, then a captain and training officer with the Fire Department, to serve as chief.
“Being the chief is a full-time job, and I was happy with the work I was doing at the firm,” he said. “But I realized I was entering the wind-down phase of my career as a lawyer, and that I had already begun the task of transitioning work and responsibilities to the younger partners in my group. At the same time, I was not ready to give up the practice of law altogether.”
He talked it over with his legal partners, clients, family, friends and city officials.
“We came up with a realistic plan that allowed me to transition from being a full-time lawyer and a part-time firefighter EMT to being full time with the Fire Department and part time with the firm,” said Ott, who became chief in the summer of 2014 of the Northville City Fire Department, which serves the 15,000 residents of the cities of Northville and Plymouth.
His legal knowledge is an asset in his role as chief.
“A lot of the training in the handling of hazardous materials involves a review of the laws related to reporting incidents, transportation, storage, etc.,” Ott said. “Having a legal background is helpful in understanding the regulatory scheme. A fire chief is primarily an administrator, and legal training comes in handy when dealing with all of the administrative issues that cross your desk. Whether it is dealing with employee disciplinary issues, writing a proposal for City Council about purchasing some new equipment, or reviewing the latest regulations from the state, the law degree is a big help.”
Ott also serves as a trustee for Health Emergency Medical Services Inc., the organization that oversees and coordinates the work of Western Wayne County Michigan’s EMS agencies and hospitals. He is active with his church, Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Paul, and with its diocese. And when he can find spare moments, he enjoys spending time with his family, travel, cooking and music.
7 questions with Stephen Ott
Q: Who are some of your role models?
A: In the law, my role models were Wolf Hoppe and Mack Faison. Both are excellent lawyers who know their craft well and helped to teach me what it means to be a practicing lawyer. Ironically, Wolf left the full-time practice of law at the same age I did, and then started a new career as a foreign-service legal officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development, with postings in Africa and South America. When he fully retired and moved to southern Oregon, he began teaching a class at the local university on the U.S. Supreme Court. Mack is still practicing at Miller Canfield. Like Wolf, he also taught me some important lessons on maintaining a good work-life balance.
Q: Why did you choose law as a career and why did you choose Wayne Law?
A: Becoming a lawyer was actually not in the plans for a long time. My high school counselor actually suggested that it was something I should consider, and I remember being surprised about that. In my third year at MSU, many of my friends were taking the LSAT and looking at law schools, and I sort of followed along. Thinking back on it, though, it all makes sense. In college, being involved in student government and serving in various leadership roles, and studying the philosophy behind how societies organize themselves for the common good all pointed toward a career in the practical application of these things, which I believe the work of a lawyer to be.
I was attracted to Wayne Law because it had a good reputation and, frankly, was affordable. I was fortunate to receive a good financial aid package for my first year, and also for my third year when I served as executive editor of the Wayne Law Review.
Q: When you started law school, what goals did you have? How did you hone your expertise over the years?
A: The truth is, I did not really have any specific goals other than to obtain training in the law and better understand how the law helps to promote the political philosophy of a given society. When my legal education was concluded, I had to find something to do, and felt that a judicial clerkship would help further that education. When that was done, I went to Miller Canfield because I liked the people and the atmosphere at the firm. Once there, I was ready to do what was needed, and ended up doing product liability defense, followed by the work in developing systems for discovery response.
Q: Where did you grow up and what sort of kid were you?
A: I grew up in an Army family. I was born in Japan, and lived in New Hampshire, Oklahoma and California before my family settled on the west side of Michigan. I went to high school in Battle Creek, then on to Michigan State, and in 1976, came to Detroit and Wayne Law. I have been here ever since.
I was the oldest of four and had a pretty typical childhood. I was a good student, interested in my studies, and active in things like sports, student government and theater.
Q: What was your first job?
A: My first job where I actually received a paycheck was as a summer baseball umpire. While I had been active in many sports, baseball was not one of them, and I was not a very good umpire. But after that summer, I managed to land a job at McDonald's in Battle Creek. Over the years, I had part-time or summer jobs as a department store sales clerk, making cereal at Kellogg, packing syrup for milkshakes, being a supervisor at the Case Hall Grill at MSU and working the line at the Chrysler Warren Stamping Plant.
Q: What are some of your favorite books, movies and TV shows?
A: Books: For pure pleasure I enjoy Dan Brown and the Harry Potter series. There was also a series of books that I enjoyed by Leo Stapleton of the Boston Fire Department about the career of a character who worked his way up through the department. Historical novels are also a favorite. In the nonfiction realm, I tend to read books with a spiritual bent. I am currently reading "Falling Upward" by Richard Rohr and "The Book of Joy" by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.
Movies: I am drawn to films about selfless service. Here I would include "Schindler's List," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Tender Mercies," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Dunkirk." I also enjoy science fiction films.
TV shows: Shows I am currently watching include "The Crown," "Counterpart" and, of course, "Chicago Fire," even though it is unrealistic in much of what it depicts.
Q: What is something people don't know about you, but should?
A: There really isn't anything else that people should know about me, but I can tell you that I enjoy trivia games. My wife always wonders aloud about how I am full of useless information. I also have a knack for making a comment about a sporting event on TV just before the announcer makes the same comment. And if I ever decide to look for yet another career, I might try being a voice-over artist. I can be heard as the voice of a couple of different voice-mail systems!