By Todd Gray
Photography by Michael Buck
this world of political correctness,
about the only group it’s still OK
to bash. In Grand Rapids as in other cities,
however, the legal profession can not be
reduced to a punch line — even a
Increased opportunities for female lawyers,
active recruitment of attorneys of color,
and a commitment to pro bono work among
local firms reveal the heart of a profession
where equality is no laughing matter.
Gender Gap Steadily Shrinking
The world of private law seems to be catching
up with the needs and demands of women. So attest
Janet Knaus and Jennifer Jordan, partners at
two Grand Rapids law firms who represent a growing
number of female partners and associates in West
Michigan and across the U.S. Both women attribute
the change to progressive workplace policies
and mentorship programs that for all intents
and purposes existed only on paper 20 years ago.
Knaus, who specializes in technology
and intellectual property law, joined Warner
Norcross & Judd
LLP in 1983 and became a partner in 1989. Warner
Norcross did not even have a maternity policy
when she joined, but she said its policies
today are among the most progressive in the state.
Firms had to realize over time that in order
to retain women, they had to not think traditionally,
that you have to support women balancing career
and family, and you can’t make them choose
one or the other,” Knaus said. “Over
time, senior management has realized that women
are phenomenal jugglers, and that having a family
doesn’t mean you’re less dedicated
to practicing law.
If firms don’t do that, they’re going
to lose a large percentage of women who want
to raise a family.”
According to Knaus, part-time partnerships allow
lawyers to stay on their career tracks. She said
firms that support such policies reap benefits
in the form of higher retention, increased profitability
and improved morale.
Research shows that women continue
to make slow but steady progress in their representation
U.S. law firms. Women comprised 17.3 percent
of the partners in large law firms in large
cities in 2005, according to the National Association
for Law Placement, a Washington, D.C.-based
That’s up from 17.1 percent in 2004 and
continues a gradual rise over the past 15 years.
The association does not compile
statistics for medium-sized cities, which tend
to have somewhat
lower percentages. Percentages are listed from
some individual law firms in medium-sized cities.
Grand Rapids’ three largest law firms — Warner
Norcross, Miller Johnson and Varnum Riddering
Schmidt & Howlett LLP — combined for
30 women partners among 253 total in 2005, or
Nationwide numbers are more favorable
at the associate ranks, where 47.7 percent of
associates” (still finishing law school)
and 43.4 percent of all associates in private
practices were women. Grand Rapids’ three
largest law firms combined for 35 women associates
among 110 total, or 31 percent.
Jordan became a partner at Miller Johnson in
2004 after joining the firm in 1997; she is also
a Woman Lawyers Association of Michigan Western
Region board member. She cited three primary
factors for women leaving their practices in
larger numbers than men.
There’s less of a stigma for women who
choose to step away and raise a family compared
with a man,” she said. “It’s
harder for women to develop business and become ‘rainmakers’ — although
that’s changing all the time. Women also
define success differently and don’t always
choose the typical path to get the corner office.”
Jordan said that it simply makes good business
sense for senior management at private law firms
to support policies that help retain the associates
Losing young lawyers who have been with the firm
far outweighs what it costs to retain them,” she
said. “Firms can never get that time back
if associates choose to leave the firm because
they haven’t been taken care of.”
External factors are also an issue.
According to the National Association of Law
Trends” report, women from the class of
2002 were less likely to enter private practice
and more likely to accept positions in government
or public interest organizations or as judicial
clerks. Women are also about twice as likely
as men to take public interest jobs.
That makes the pickings even slimmer,
and progressive mentorship policies even more
Knaus and Jordan agree that a good mentorship
program doesn’t mean pairing women attorneys
with other women attorneys — after all,
most firms don’t have senior women in every
area of practice.
Women sometimes struggle to find mentors or struggle
to find business, and unless firms make good
on their investment by helping them and mentoring
them, then they’re going to lose them for
those reasons, as well,” Jordan said.
It’s still a predominantly male-dominated
world,” Knaus said. “Our law firm
is making sure women are placed in leadership
roles. We make sure we have women on the management
committee. You can have the greatest policy,
but you have to have the support of senior management
or it won’t work.”
Minority lawyers are definitely in the minorityJobs in more racially and culturally diverse
cities than Grand Rapids beckoned, but both Patrick
A. Miles Jr. and Valerie Simmons chose Grand
Rapids over Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New
I liked those cities, but I felt that Grand Rapids
was the right place for me,” said Miles,
a third-generation Grand Rapidian and a Harvard
graduate who in 1997 became the first minority
partner at Varnum Riddering Schmidt & Howlett
LLP. “Here I could meet business owners
and executives and get involved in the community
and make a difference. I felt comfortable at
Varnum and I liked its direction.”
Both Miles and Simmons are African-American.
Like Miles, Simmons became the first minority
partner at her firm, Warner Norcross & Judd
LLP, in 1995. She arrived here in 1987 after
graduating from the University of Houston,
and planned to return to Texas to teach law
following a federal clerkship with the honorable
Judge Benjamin Gibson.
Simmons cites the quality of lifestyle in Grand
Rapids as the primary reason she settled here
as the single parent of a 12-year-old daughter.
I looked at the challenges of practicing in a
large city as a single parent and contrasted
that with what Grand Rapids had to offer,” Simmons
said. “Grand Rapids offered an excellent
law firm, good clients and a sophisticated practice
in a smaller, more family-friendly environment.”
In an age when greater diversity
in law firms makes economic sense, Grand Rapids
same challenges as other cities when it comes
to attracting minority lawyers. It’s
hard to do.
Statistics show that law firms
have a ways to go in terms of minority representation.
the statistics for women, the minority statistics
are more complete for large cities, and medium-sized
cities will tend to have lower percentages.
The National Association for Law Placement says
minorities constituted 4.63 percent of partners
in U.S. law firms in major cities as of Feb.
1, 2005. Grand Rapids’ three largest
law firms combined for four partners of color,
The percentages are more favorable
both nationally and locally in the associate
ranks, where attorneys
of color accounted for 15.62 percent of associates
in U.S. law firms in major cities, and 10.9
percent for Grand Rapids’ three largest
Minority law students in general really aren’t
much interested in being trailblazers or one
of a few,” Simmons said. “They’re
looking for places where they can be comfortable — places
where other people look like them.”
Miles describes the challenge
of recruiting more attorneys of color as a circular
there aren’t many professionals of color
here, others won’t choose Grand Rapids.
He acknowledges that Grand Rapids may not have
much appeal to young minority lawyers due to
a low minority representation among business,
governmental, academic and political leaders
in the area. As he explains it, this equates
to a small number of professional executives
who can be viewed as possible mentors.
The flip side of it is that there is opportunity
here and the city is growing,” he said. “It’s
a wonderful place to live and rear a family.
The cost of living is relatively low, and there
are many of the same social and cultural opportunities
of the big city; we just have fewer of them.”
Miles and Simmons both place emphasis
on convincing top young minority and women lawyers
Rapids is a great place to pursue a career
in law. Two leading efforts to do so are the
Rapids Bar Association’s Diversity Committee,
and the Grand Rapids Bar and Floyd Skinner
Bar Association clerkship program.
Miles, who served as president of the Grand Rapids
Bar Association last year and has chaired the
Diversity Committee, describes its mission as
three-pronged: to recruit and retain minority
attorneys, to recruit and retain women, and to
increase the number of minorities in staff positions
with legal employers.
Simmons, vice president of the Grand Rapids Bar
Association in 2005 and current president of
the Floyd Skinner Bar Association, said the clerkship
program is unique in that it attracts first-year
minority law students and gives them work experience
at some of the larger firms in Grand Rapids.
It gives firms a chance to show clerks what it
can be like to work here and live as a young
professional in Grand Rapids,” Simmons
said. “It’s a very good way of introducing
potential lawyers to the Grand Rapids legal community.”
The efforts have only been partially successful,
as the statistics show.
The legal profession over the past 10 years has
certainly made strong efforts to increase the
diversity of lawyers,” Miles said. “There
was a spurt in increase in the number of minority
lawyers during the eighties and nineties and
now that’s probably leveled off and maybe
even starting to decline.”
Getting lawyers of color to choose
Grand Rapids is only half the battle: Once they’re
here, the key is getting them to stay. Miles
say all young lawyers need mentors to aid them
in their careers and help them get quality work.
Many of these things happen not based on abilities,
but on … the perception of one’s
own value,” Simmons said. “The fact
that you might be a woman or a minority makes
it that much more difficult. Once you’re
fortunate to recruit young minority lawyers,
your goal is to retain them — and that
is a very difficult thing to do.”
For the good of the public
John Cummiskey had a vision.
Cummiskey, the late Grand Rapids
attorney and a founding member of Miller Johnson
Snell & Cummiskey
PLC, is considered by many to be the father
of pro bono in Michigan. He envisioned a legal
that would provide a seamless web of legal
services guaranteeing access to justice for anyone,
of economic status.
That dream became more of a reality in the form
of the Grand Rapids Legal Assistance Center,
which Cummiskey was able to see get off the ground
in 2002 prior to his death that same year. The
center exists primarily to help individuals navigate
what can be a confusing legal system. The center
is a partnership between the Grand Rapids Bar
Association, Western Michigan Legal Services,
the courts, Kent County commissioners, the city
of Grand Rapids, the Michigan State Bar Foundation
and a number of community organizations.
Jon Muth, a former president of the State Bar
of Michigan and an attorney with Miller Johnson,
points to the widespread support the center receives
as being a key to its success.
If a woman calls in with an acute domestic problem,
her first priority may be to go to the YWCA — not
a lawsuit,” he said. “She may have
immediate concerns that are more practical, such
as finding a place to live or emotional support.
If at a later time it’s determined that
she needs legal assistance with a divorce or
a restraining order against an abuser, she is
What’s interesting here in Grand Rapids
is the almost universal willingness for firms
and organizations across the board to participate
in the Legal Assistance Center,” Muth said. “All
firms in Kent County participate. There is a
high recognition in this community of both the
need and the collective responsibility for such
Another local pro bono milestone was reached
recently when Dykema Gossett PLLC became the
first law firm in Michigan to hire an attorney
to manage its pro bono legal services program
on a full-time basis. The firm estimates that
last year its lawyers and legal assistants performed
nearly 11,300 hours of pro bono work and collectively
contributed some $112,000 to legal service agencies.
American Lawyer magazine ranked Dykema Gossett
as one of the top 100 law firms for its pro bono
efforts in 2005.
Muth describes the center as being unique because
it is largely privately funded through donations,
individual lawyers, law firms, law-related foundations
and community foundations. There are other such
centers in the country, but almost all of them
are government funded.
The center helps channel people
to the proper resources and prepare them for
the next step,
which in turn clears the courts of cases that
might otherwise bog down the system. As Muth
explains it, many issues that people perceive
as being legal issues are really challenges
that can be handled by following through with
community relief that’s available to them.
Individuals are most often directed
in one of three ways: 1) to community organizations
they can get non-legal help outside of the court
system; 2) referral to an attorney, which can
be through Western Michigan Legal Services, The
Children’s Law Center, or other free or
low-cost services; or 3) if an individual doesn’t
qualify for such programs, the center uses the
Lawyer Referral Program at the Kent County Courthouse.
Muth said the state of the broader economy over
the past few years has heightened the need. The
number of people being helped by the center spiked
about a year ago, from 700-800 people per month
to 1,200-1,300 people per month.
He explained that much of this
has to do with a growth in the number of people
who are trying
to represent themselves in court. These individuals
may not qualify for community resources or
free attorneys, but aren’t able to pay
for an attorney.
So many people in this community have lost the
kind of good-paying jobs that had them pretty
thoroughly entrenched in the middle class,” he
said. “Many of them have credit debt problems,
fairly sizable mortgages on nice homes, or family
problems as a result of the stresses created
by the economics. This is contributing to the
number of people trying to represent themselves.”
For help from the Legal Assistance
Center, log onto the Web site at www.legalassistancecenter.org,
walk into the center at
the Kent County Courthouse, or call 632-6000,
toll free (888) 454-9554. GR
Grand Rapids Business Journal reporter Anne Bond
Emerich contributed to this report.