Peter A. Hessler: A Gentleman Lawyer

Peter A. Hessler
2024 Feature Nominations

“I feel it’s our duty as attorneys to defend our legal system. It really is the glue that holds our society together.”

As the legal profession becomes more and more specialized, veteran litigator Peter A. Hessler seems to be among the last of a vanishing breed.

“It’s rather unusual anymore,” says Hessler, “but what I’ve enjoyed over the years is the opportunity I’ve had to practice litigation in so many different areas. I’ve litigated in business and commercial matters, product liability and personal injury actions, including malpractice. And, there are not a lot of attorneys who are able to represent both plaintiffs and defendants in the different areas of litigation.

“That’s especially true in the area of malpractice,” he continues, “and I’ve had the privilege of being able both to pursue malpractice actions and defend them. I have also done a fair amount of probate and trust litigation, along with some employment and intellectual property matters.”

In addition to all of the above, Hessler’s firm Wegman, Hessler & Vanderburg also handles a significant amount of litigation representing nonprofit organizations.

While his clients have been diverse, Hessler has not varied at all in one area of his practice, having remained with the same firm his entire career. Nearly four decades ago, fresh out of law school, Hessler, his older brother David, and Hessler’s classmate Keith Vanderburg started the three-man firm.

“And,” notes Hessler, “the three of us are still together.”

Over the course of those nearly 40 years, Hessler has witnessed the firm’s growth from three young attorneys to a full-service civil practice with more than 30 attorneys. As partner, Hessler’s responsibilities in the firm include overall responsibility for the litigation practice and serving as its general counsel.

“Actually,” Hessler says, “litigation is but one of a numerous set of legal services our firm provides its clients. The services we provide are driven primarily by the corporate and business clients we represent.

“We represent a vast array of clients,” he adds, “from individuals to family-owned businesses, to large closely held corporations with facilities oversees, and we provide them with a full set of legal services in multiple areas.”

Of course, there have been significant changes in the practice of law over the course of Hessler’s career. “The biggest change is technology,” he says. “When I started the practice we were typing correspondence, briefs, motions, complaints, pleadings and other legal documents through dictation. Communicating with clients occurred over time. The pace was controlled. That has changed dramatically – and with it, the practice of law has changed.”

“Everything today is instantaneous,” he continues. “Clients expect immediate answers and solutions. And, with the increasing advances in technology, the demands upon lawyers are increasing and expanding as well. Although some struggle to stay abreast with the advances in technology or are even intimidated by the implications, lawyers need to adapt and position ourselves to serve our clients in new and different ways. The use of ‘artificial intelligence’ will become essential. Firms that capitalize on technology competence will have a competitive advantage and will win in the future.”

Hessler also firmly believes that his firm is positioned to succeed in the present legal environment. “One advantage our firm has enjoyed over the years and will serve us well into the future is our commitment to understanding our clients’ business, their strategies, their goals, their concerns, and their dreams. We strive to create a relationship that transcends the particular legal matter involved. We call that ‘strategic lawyering.’”

As an example of the changes law firms are facing, Hessler points to the different ways in which many clients are looking at the legal services they need. “A number of companies are now using performance metrics, so-called analytics, to evaluate lawyers and the services they offer. Lawyers need to understand that and come up with creative ways to meet those expectations and demands.”

As an established and respected litigator with numerous successes to his name, one might assume that Hessler’s favorite aspect of the law is appearing in court. Actually, he says he enjoys the process leading up to that point even more.

“It’s often in the discovery process where the case is either won or lost,” he says. “Certainly, more cases than not, settle before trial. You really get into the meat of the litigation process in the discovery phase and in the motion practice that follows and I have always enjoyed those areas. Depositions in particular, are often critical and I find the preparation for and taking of depositions to be a rewarding part of what I do.”

Hessler notes that changes in technology have also dramatically changed discovery practices, especially in the area of e-discovery. “I believe our firm has positioned itself exceedingly well in that area and has assisted a number of our clients in meeting the increasing requirements under the civil rules. A failure to stay on top of the requirements could be a prescription for disaster.”

Like most attorneys, Hessler admits that what he finds most rewarding about his work is helping the firm’s clients receive the justice they deserve.

“Whenever I get a personal note from a client, that’s very meaningful to me,” he says. “I place them on my windowsill because it’s such a great feeling knowing that you have helped them in such a meaningful way.

“The other thing I tend to emphasize, in fact it’s something of an unwritten rule I follow,” he adds, “is that anytime a client complains about the legal system, I defend it. I just feel it’s our duty as attorneys to defend our legal system. It really is the glue that holds our society together. Yes, it’s flawed, but it really is designed to protect everyone that comes into court. It doesn’t mean we can’t work to improve it, but we have to defend the system.”

Naturally, as every attorney knows, things are seldom ideal. So many variables can negatively impact a case or cause or even the attorney’s attitude about what he or she is doing. For Hessler, one thing he finds frustrating is when a client cannot afford to pursue or defend his or her or its rights and interests.

“It’s very sad when a client is basically in the position of saying, ‘I can’t afford this,’” he says. “Even when I’m encouraging them that they have a strong position, it’s very frustrating when they simply cannot afford to pursue it. Then you’re in the position of trying to do the most you can to meet their needs, and once you’re in the case or take on the cause, you have to see it to completion, working within the financial and other constraints that exist. It’s always challenging in our system, especially since, the parties generally bear their own costs, win or lose. My goal is to represent them to the best of my ability and to work with them in achieving their goal. And this applies both to individuals and to corporate clients. To make legal services more affordable, attorneys need to be creative, develop alternative fee arrangements, and offer their services through specific and limited scope representation. It’s another way we need to adapt to our clients’ changing needs.”

Hessler also has strong feelings about what amounts to good etiquette among lawyers. He perceives his profession as one that is honorable and should be above name-calling and brawling. To witness attorneys verbally attacking one another is something he finds abhorrent and not worthy of someone sworn to uphold the law.

“It’s one reason why lawyers are perceived too often as self-absorbed and untrustworthy,” he says. “Simply put, that’s not who lawyers should be. I guess I think of it, again, as defending the system. Even as lawyers take on clients with unpopular causes, that’s an essential part of what we do in and for our system, but we can do so with respect and civility.”

One of six children, Hessler was raised by very devout parents who expected their sons to follow in their father’s footsteps as a pastor in the Lutheran church. David, the second to the oldest and Peter, the second to the youngest, had other ideas.

Somewhat idolizing his brother who was 10 years his senior, Hessler made the decision in seventh grade that his path was destined for the courtroom.

“David is still with the firm,” says Hessler. “He’s retired from full-time practice, but he’s still engaged and affiliated with our firm. He was the first one in our family to go to law school. We were pastor’s kids with a tradition of following our father, grandfather, and uncles into the church. But David struck out following his own dream and I kind of always admired him.

“I don’t necessarily recall telling anyone that I’d made the decision to follow him into the practice of law, but all through high school and college that was my mindset.”

Attending Valparaiso University in Indiana, where he graduated summa cum laude, Hessler stayed the path he had envisioned for himself, continuing on to the school’s law program. During the summers, he clerked for the practice his brother David, and David’s father-in-law Martin Wegman had begun. Just before he graduated in 1978, the practice of Wegman and Hessler was facing a crisis. Wegman had suddenly, and at a young age, passed away leaving David on his own.

“David told me that he was going to try to keep everything together and asked if I wanted to join him,” says Hessler. “He also asked if I knew of any strong, law school classmates who might be a good fit for the firm. I told him about my very impressive classmate Keith Vanderburg, who was number one in our class.”

Vanderburg visited Cleveland during that Christmas break. Everyone hit it off , and it was decided the three young attorneys would carry on the tradition that David and Wegman had begun.

“So, I moved to Cleveland in 1978,” says Hessler, “right at the time when the city was on the brink of default. I instantly fell in love with Cleveland. I had never experienced a large city that felt rather small. The downtown was a compact area that you could literally walk in maybe 20 minutes, but it had all the cultural, social, entertainment, and major league sports offerings that helped you identify with the city. And, I had never seen a major metropolitan area that had so many trees!

“I’ve never regretted the move,” he adds. “My wife and I raised our family here, and it’s a wonderful city to raise a family. I became a big supporter right off the bat, and now I feel like I’ve spent my whole life here.”

Most people can recall at least with some vague details, when and where they met their spouse. But Hessler recalls the exact date and setting.

“I met my wife on June 9, 1966,” he says. “I was 13 and she was 10. Her older sister and my brother David got married on June 10, 1966. Even at 13, I thought I was in love. She didn’t pay much attention to me at the time, but 13 years later, she fell in love, too, and we got married.”

His wife, Viola, and her sister, daughters of David’s original partner Martin Wegman, were raised in Cleveland which is how both Hessler and his brother ended up in the city. Hessler and Viola have four children, two of whom are in the practice with their father; his oldest daughter, Rachel Lyons, and his son, Aaron.

“It’s truly a wonderful blessing to be able to practice with your children,” says Hessler. “Something I truly treasure.”

When he’s not busy practicing law, Hessler says he enjoys playing tennis as much as possible and he and his wife are very involved with their church and related nonprofit organizations. They love the Cleveland Orchestra and the city’s other cultural venues and professional sports teams.

When asked what he considers to be his greatest accomplishment, Hessler doesn’t hesitate to respond. “This might seem a little trite,” he says, “but I think I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve been able to do what I do, without interruption, over 38 years now. Every assignment, each new matter, brings with it new challenges and just that feeling when you succeed on behalf of a client is so rewarding. For example, there’s nothing more intoxicating than having a jury return with a decision in your client’s favor. It’s one of those unique feelings that only a lawyer can experience.

“There’s such a feeling of vindication,” he adds. “It’s often a long, long struggle, but in the end, it’s worth it.”

Susan Cushing

Susan Cushing is the associate editor of Attorney at Law Magazine as well as a staff writer. She has been contributing to the magazine for more than eight years.

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