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Legal Briefs

By Todd Gray
Photography by Michael Buck

In this world of political correctness, lawyers remain 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 good one.

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 in 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 nonprofit. 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 11.9 percent.

Nationwide numbers are more favorable at the associate ranks, where 47.7 percent of all “summer 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 they hire.

“ 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 Placement’s “20-Year 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 important. Both 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.

Knaus agreed.

“ 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 minority
 
Jobs 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 York. “ 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 school 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 faces the 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. Like 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 that 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, or 1.58 percent.

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 firms.

“ 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 problem: If 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 that Grand Rapids is a great place to pursue a career in law. Two leading efforts to do so are the Grand 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 and Simmons 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 system that would provide a seamless web of legal services guaranteeing access to justice for anyone, regardless 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 referred back.

“ 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 an organization.”

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 the community relief that’s available to them.

Individuals are most often directed in one of three ways: 1) to community organizations where 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.

   
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