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Appellate judge wraps up 6-year term, returns to private practice

Legal News Reporter

Published: April 11, 2013

On Feb. 8, Mary Jane Trapp’s term ended as an 11th District Court of Appeals judge.

At 9 a.m. Feb. 9— a Saturday — a very good client from her private practice days called asking her if she was again open for business.

And so began Trapp’s re-launch of her career as an attorney.

“I’m back — ready, willing and able, and armed with more knowledge,” she said.

Trapp, a 56-year-old Russell Township resident, was elected judge in 2006. She was defeated in November by Judge Colleen M. O’Toole.

Trapp — who previously sought a bench on the state’s highest court — has already been approached by the Democratic party about running again for the Ohio Supreme Court.

Instead, she decided to return to private practice and accept an offer to become of counsel with Thrasher, Dinsmore & Dolan LPA, which has offices in Cleveland and Chardon.

“I thought I had found my calling on the bench,” Trapp said. “But the one thing I missed was having a client lay out their misery. What I missed being a judge is helping clients.”

Trapp previously had her own Cleveland practice with attorney husband Mike Apicella. But the couple closed that down after Trapp became a judge and Apicella wanted to concentrate on writing a book and living the “country lawyer” life in rural Geauga County.

After she lost the election, Thrasher, Dinsmore & Dolan approached her and asked what she planned to do next.

“I said, `I’m looking.’ They said, `Let’s talk,’ “ Trapp said. “This is the perfect place for me. This firm is very well respected. While some big firms were going out of business, this firm has sustained growth. I have known all the partners for many years.

“It allows me to bridge both my professional worlds — my practice in Cleveland and my life in Geauga County. Being with a firm means I don’t have to worry anymore about the administrative side now. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Thrasher, Dinsmore & Dolan is a Martindale-Hubbell AV Preeminent firm and one of the 2013 Top Ranked law firms in the United States.

Other firms showed interest in her as well, but Trapp suspects it was mainly to use her judge experience for marketing purposes.

“I didn’t want to be anyone’s poster child,” she said.

Trapp, a leader in legal reform issues and past president of the Ohio State Bar Association, will focus her practice on appellate and trial advocacy in all areas of complex civil and criminal litigation. She will also do mediation and arbitration services for attorneys, businesses and governmental entities.

In addition, Trapp will offer appellate consultations to other attorneys and legal departments, including trial court record review and case evaluation, brief review and writing and conducting mock oral arguments.

Dale Markowitz, managing partner at Thrasher, Dinsmore & Dolan, said the 80-year-old firm welcomed Trapp’s statewide exposure.

“We are pleased that Mary Jane has joined our firm after serving admirably as appellate judge,” Markowitz said in a statement. “Her depth in litigation practice compliments our practice areas well, and the wisdom she has gained while on the bench will help further our clients’ needs.”

Trapp’s first case since coming back as a lawyer was a hearing in front of Geauga County Juvenile Court Judge Tim Grendell.

“It was a complicated adoption case for an Amish couple,” she said.

Trapp added that being a judge for six years was invaluable experience.

“Now I can sit there and tell a client, `This is probably what the judge is going to do, because I’ve reviewed their work,’ “ she said.

“I think I am uniquely qualified to do private mediation. It’s gambling when you put the outcome of your case in the hands of a judge or jury. I’m having to redevelop these skills of advising clients what the real world is like.”

Trapp spent more than 25 years handing civil and criminal trials and appeals throughout Ohio. She also served as a mediator and arbitrator for the Geauga and Cuyahoga County Common Pleas courts and as a guardian ad litem for children in domestic relations court.

She was the first Ohio court of appeals judge to be selected for the Toll Fellowship and was the 2012 winner of the Nettie Cronise Lutes Award, given by the Ohio State Bar Association’s Women in the Profession Section in honor of the first female attorney in Ohio.

But Trapp said she still needed to do a lot of preparation to come back to her previous career.

What proved especially helpful was reaching out to other attorneys she trusts— including Magistrate Judge Kathleen Burke, the Akron-based federal court judge — for advice and good contacts.

“As a judge, you’re in an ivory tower,” Trapp said. “The practice of law has dramatically changed since I was on the bench. Now private practitioners have to be concerned with marketing because of competition and the economy.”

Being a judge also taught the Case Western Reserve University law graduate what not to do as a lawyer.

One of Trapp’s pet peeves while on the 11th District was what she calls “shotgun briefs” filed by lawyers who fail to hone in on the deep issue of a case.

As for judges, Trapp discovered that some of them need to be more patient on the bench.

“For the most part though, we are blessed on the 11th District with great trial judges,” she said. “Trial court judges have to make snap decisions on the bench every day, and for the most part, they get it right. Some judges need to move their docket faster, but they have a lot of cases and not a whole lot of help.”

What makes a good judge?

“Good judges need to remember they are attorneys with black robes,” said Trapp. “If they remember that and don’t get ‘black robe disease,’ they remain good judges.”

When asked whether she will consider a future judicial run, Trapp replied, “You never say never. But I have no present intention.”