Michael Louis, a partner at MacElree Harvey, spoke to VISTA Today about his childhood in Wilmington as the third oldest of four brothers. He discussed what he learned from the different jobs he had growing up, from mowing lawns starting at age 12 to meeting lifelong friends working at Fenwick Crab House.
Louis also talked about meeting his wife during his first week of law school and why he ended up working at the same firm, MacElree Harvey, for his entire 43-year career. He also discussed why he’s been taking on different types of cases lately and believes the law is about helping people solve their problems.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born the third son of four boys in Wilmington, Delaware, and grew up in Sharpley, a development behind the Charcoal Pit. It was so nice – it’s a pretty built-up area now, but when I grew up, the little development there was called Sharpley, and there was nothing in between my house and the Brandywine River.
We’d leave in the morning, and our parents would see us around dinnertime. You know how everybody knows where their kids are every second now? Not back then!
What did your mom and dad do for a living?
My dad was an insurance salesman with Metropolitan, and my mom was a private duty nurse who often worked for members of the DuPont family.
What do you remember about growing up in Sharpley?
I was the third out of four boys. I remember trying to get attention from my big brothers. There was enough of an age difference that they didn’t want to hang out – until we were older. A few years make a big difference.
We would just do whatever the sport was every day. We would play football, baseball, and basketball. Never really did hockey, but – back then, the lakes used to freeze – we would go out to Twin Lakes, off of Route 52, and skate there.
Were you good at any sports, Michael?
I played high school baseball – that was probably my favorite. In high school, I played center field, and when I was younger, I played second base. I was a great hitter in junior varsity, .500, but by the time I got to varsity, it was more like 250. Every step up you go, it’s a huge jump.
Do you have a favorite game memory?
We had a player on my high school team named Joe Miller. Ruly Carpenter used to come to our games, and he’d bring a little lawn chair, a little metal and plastic one. He’d sit on it by himself, maybe bring a drink or something to eat, and watch Joey Miller. He came to most of our home games during Joe’s senior year – I was a junior at the time.
Did you have any jobs while you were growing up?
Always. I probably started at around 12, cutting lawns in my development, and I did that right through college. I always had a job. I never got an allowance.
Where did that work ethic come from, Michael?
I guess from my mom and dad. That’s probably the best thing we gave to our kids – they all started working at 14.
I also worked at Hearn’s grocery store as a stockboy in high school. I worked down the beach all through college. I made some lifelong friends – our two best friends we worked with down at the Fenwick Crab House in Delaware. Last year, with COVID, my wife and I didn’t go anywhere, so we bought a house in Bethany Beach, Delaware, between Rehoboth and Fenwick Island.
What life lessons do you think you learned working those jobs that still stay with you today?
I think hard work is three-quarters of it. You just come in and work hard. I was never a big whiner. My older brother, who had cerebral palsy, was probably the best influence on my life. It made me realize how blessed I was just from the luck of the draw. I’ve never met a more positive person than my brother. I’ve never seen him complain or be negative his whole life.
That must have set a great example for you from a very early age.
I’ve never really been much of a complainer or had a lot of sympathy for whiners because of that. Because most of the people who do it, comparatively, don’t have anything to complain about. If you have your health, you really shouldn’t complain about anything.
What kind of music were you listening to?
Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, and The Band. My favorite was probably Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. I saw them a bunch of times.
How did you decide where to go to school?
I went to the University of Delaware, which is just about where everybody went. I didn’t look at any other places. It was a good school and very cheap. But I looked at a lot of law schools.
Looking back, was it a good choice for you?
Yes. I think I got a good education at the University of Delaware and still have a lot of lifelong friends from there.
So when did you decide you wanted to be a lawyer?
It was actually in college. Organic chemistry made me decide. I was thinking of being a doctor. Nowadays, my wife says, “Thank goodness you weren’t a doctor – you hate germs and don’t want to be anywhere around sick people.”
With law, I liked that I could help people. There are a lot of things you can do with it. I think I’ve helped a lot of people over the years.
You looked at a lot of law schools – why Dickinson?
Actually, I was thinking I’d come back to Wilmington. My number one was William and Mary – I really liked that area. I got waitlisted and eventually got in there. Then I was talking to another guy who I went to grade school with who was applying to law school, and he was telling me where he was applying. When I told him I got into Dickinson, he said, “Dickinson? You should definitely go there! All the judges went to Dickinson.”
So that was persuasive, and then I went up there and really liked the little town. They had a dorm so I could stay there, and if I’d gone to William and Mary, I would have had to go down again and find an apartment. It was meant to be since I met my wife there.
How did you meet her?
It was the first weekend. She was a senior undergrad, and I was a first-year law student. She was with a bunch of her girlfriends, and I was with a bunch of my classmates. I asked her out the next night. I remember we went and saw “All the President’s Men.” We’ve been dating ever since.
It was ’77. In fact, either my first or second year was Three Mile Island. When my wife and I would go to work in Harrisburg, you had to go across the bridge, and you could see Three Mile Island. Her dad was working up on Wall Street, and something came across Reuters that said, the owner of Con Edison has just evacuated his family. Her dad called us and told us, “get out of there.”
My wife said, “Well, we’re in charge of the Barristers’ Ball tonight, so we’ll go tomorrow.” So we went to the Barristers’ Ball – that was our big year-end party – then we went back to my house in Delaware.
And here’s a funny thing – we went and saw “The China Syndrome” that weekend when we escaped from Dickinson. A line in the movie said, “What would happen if there was a meltdown?” – which we were finding we came close to. And they said, “Well, it would destroy an area the size of Pennsylvania.” Isn’t that crazy?
Oh, and we also had tickets for that weekend to see Elton John and Billy Joel at the Hershey Arena, but they canceled that because they evacuated people to the Hershey Arena.
Was Dickinson a good law school for you?
Yeah, I had a good experience there. It wasn’t cutthroat – I made a lot of good friends there. I got a really good education.
During my first summer, I clerked for one of my professors, but in my second two years, I worked in Harrisburg for a good law firm and got some good experience.
What brought you to West Chester and MacElree Harvey?
I actually had a job already in Wilmington working for the attorney general’s office. I was moving on a Saturday. I had my second interview with MacElree Harvey the week before. I wanted to ultimately end up with a small firm, so I said, why take the step of working for the attorney general if I can go right to it? The people at MacElree Harvey seemed very nice. West Chester seemed very nice.
So I said, “If you want me, can you let me know before I move on Saturday“ – this was a Wednesday – “to Newark?” I already had an apartment and everything – I think we were going to move to Newark, right near our friends that I met at the beach that we’re still friends with. It was before cell phones, so as I was driving back to Carlisle, they called my wife and offered me the job. We came down the next day and found a place to stay at the Cambridge Hall Apartments on Rosedale Avenue.
When you look back over your career, Michael, who were the people who saw promise in you?
Bill Gallagher and John Featherman were the leaders of the firm, and they were good examples. They both worked harder than anybody else, yet still treated everybody with dignity and respect. They were good mentors, and good models to emulate.
What did Bill and John see in you?
Since John was on the business side of the firm, it was Bill who made the decision to hire me. Bill told me one time, “you’re not ugly, you’re not stupid, and you work hard. You’ll do fine.”
What do you bring to the practice of law that’s unique and distinctive?
I try to do the same thing – work hard and treat everybody the way they’d like to be treated. I also think I’m pretty good at empathizing with people. Maybe that comes back to my brother, knowing what it is to have hard times.
Another thing – I try to help people solve their problems. So if they come in and they hired the wrong contractor, and it’s all messed up, in addition to maybe suing that contractor and getting their money back, I’ll try to give them some good contractors who can help them fix whatever the problem is.
Anybody else that helped you and opened up doors for you?
Jack Stover, from the firm I clerked for in Harrisburg, wrote me an amazing recommendation that helped me get the job at MacElree Harvey.
Why did you stay at one firm for 43 years? What was it about MacElree Harvey that kept you there?
I liked the people, and I liked what I was doing. They treated me well.
Halfway through 2022, what are you focused on?
I’m taking some cases that I maybe wouldn’t have taken. I took one the other day where the guy was in prison, and they sold his property at a tax sale, then they went in and cleaned out everything that was in his property.
So when he got out of prison, which was for a minor thing, there was a tenant in his house. We ended up suing and getting the tax sale overturned and getting a judgment against them for the rent they’ve taken, and getting rid of all his personal property.
I’m doing more and more tax sales because those are people who’ve worked their whole life to pay this property off, and then they’re going to lose their whole home. Getting their properties back for them is very rewarding.
You’re pretty involved in the community – what community initiatives do you have underway?
I’ve always loved the West Chester area, so I’ve been on the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce for six or seven years. I’ve been on the board of West Chester Lions Club forever, but it’s down to about 10 or 15 people. So, a couple of years ago, I joined Rotary, and I’m on both of those boards. Rotary, for whatever reason, is thriving. They’re both filled with great people; it’s just that Rotary is a lot younger.
What do you do with your free time, Michael?
We got a place down in Bethany Beach two years ago, so I’m trying to take off Thursday night and go down to the beach for the weekend. We have two twin boys, and they both have kids, so I have three grandkids in the area. And my daughter’s up in Boston, so we go up and visit her, or she comes down here.
Do you read much, Michael?
I do more audiobooks than reading, mostly because my eyes are tired when I get home, but I’m picking up more books down the beach when I go down. I just finished a book on Warren Buffet, which is unusual for me, but one of my partners is a big Warren Buffet fan. Very interesting man.
I do a lot of autobiographies or biographies. It’s interesting – I haven’t met one yet that I envy. I may admire traits of them, but there’s often a part that I wouldn’t want to be. Not usually great family men.
It’s a crazy world out there, Michael. What keeps you hopeful and optimistic?
When you get involved in these charitable organizations or service organizations like Lions and Rotary, you realize that behind the scenes, there are an awful lot of people out there that are just doing good quietly, not looking for any fanfare or notoriety. I think that most people are good and are trying to help their fellow man.
Finally, Michael, what is the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from a guy I worked with named Rick Fehling – he’s a bankruptcy judge now. He worked at the same firm I did in Harrisburg during law school.
I think a bunch of us were complaining about what the bosses were making us do, and he said, “You know what? When you become the boss, you can make the rules. But right now, just do whatever they tell you, exactly the way they told you unless it’s illegal or going to hurt someone. And then when you become the boss, you can make the rules.”