Teaming up: Eminent domain attorney joins firm led by former rivals, citing collegiality despite opposition

It might be difficult for an attorney to imagine becoming a name partner alongside the legal team that, time after time, proved to be thorn-in-the-side courtroom adversaries. But it might be harder to imagine the situations Michael J. Ash found himself in with his regular rivals-in-law.

To name one: Ash recalls an early eminent domain case against rivals Bill Ward and Scott Heiart, which had them walking between tall trellises, counting the amount of intertwined Korean pear trees dangling down their unique — and difficult, if not impossible, to value — crisp fruits in an orchard by the New Jersey Turnpike.

The Turnpike, and the governmental side Ash represented, needed to acquire 25% of the orchard (nestled next to a rest stop between Turnpike exits 7 and 7A), while Ward and Heiart represented a Korean immigrant who was the orchard’s longtime owner.

“We were able to get that done, including spending all day counting crops together in the orchard, and a lot of research on that produce and what the real estate was worth,” he said. “And, what I found in those experiences is that there aren’t too many adversaries I can think of that could so professionally collaborate in a way that still represented our own client interests.”

That memory was one of the many battles Ash, who was an attorney at Paramus-based DeCotiis, FitzPatrick, Cole & Giblin LLP, waged with Ward and Heiart. And, not just because of how sweet those softball-sized fruits were, it’s one of his career’s fondest.

One of his first cases against them was back in 2004, shortly after he first started practicing law. They’d go on to represent opposing interests in land disputes that spanned the Jersey Shore to Hoboken’s high-rises.

Throughout it all, there was a mutual respect that would one day lead to them joining forces.

“It’s not so much that other adversaries lack professionalism, so much as that we had an abundance of it,” Ash said. “That sort of relationship is special and increasingly rare in the practice of law today, as things have gotten pretty anonymous (during the pandemic).”

Ash is one of the partners now of Carlin, Ward, Ash & Heiart LLC. It’s a culmination of the switch he made three years ago from representing governmental agencies to property owners on the other side of disputes.

“I didn’t feel so conflicted about switching sides, as it’s something of a natural progression,” he said. “Having the ability to see an area of law from multiple perspectives — and the motivations from either side of an issue — makes for a more robust practice and makes an attorney really a practice expert.”

The Florham Park-based law firm’s team includes just a handful of lawyers, but they’re well staffed for what their needs are: Picking up New Jersey’s available eminent domain work as a boutique firm.

That work, as evidenced by the fact that one of Ash’s colleagues was on a call about the Gateway plan that would shore up rail infrastructure between Newark and Penn Station in New York City during his ROI-NJ interview, is going to be in high demand over the next few years.

The federal infrastructure bill is largely to thank for that.

“Certainly, as these projects are announced, it’s going to increase the need for additional real estate and available eminent domain work,” Ash said. “We’re well suited to taking on that while still staying small, which allows us to be a little more entrepreneurial than the big boys.”

Even as the trend in the legal sector is toward consolidation between firms, Ash sees his new home as a comfortable one.

“Our goal is to be a top firm in this practice area as a small, niche firm,” he said.