President's Page--Together We Can Make the Difference
In previous months, I have written about the need for lawyers to refresh their spirits. This month, I will give examples of how some Michigan lawyers do that. These are Michigan lawyers who have taken time to provide legal assistance to those in need. They have not done it with fanfare. They have not done it to win awards. They just do it.
A few weeks ago, I received an interesting and heartening letter from a fellow lawyer, Nelson Miller of Grand Haven. Nelson wrote about his pro bono project, which began when he represented Beotis Clark on a personal injury matter. Mr. Clark is an assistant pastor at the Holy Trinity Church of God in Christ in Muskegon and, during his representation of Mr. Clark, Nelson began giving pro bono legal assistance to some of Mr. Clark’s parishioners. That went on for five years. Last year, Nelson formalized his pro bono work. Through Bishop Nathaniel Wells, Jr., he received office space from the nonprofit community center affiliated with the church. Two afternoons a week, from one to four, Nelson provides pro bono legal advice to those in need, 10 to 15 people a week, 500 to 600 people a year.
These are Nelson’s words:
The problem of unmet legal needs for the disadvantaged is not, at root, a matter of money. Rather, the problem is a matter of the spirit of our profession and the condition of our individual souls, as we make day-to-day judgments about which calls to take or return. The State Bar has determined that there is one attorney for every 300 Michigan citizens (plenty to go around) but only one attorney for every 6,500 low income Michigan citizens. That means that Michigan lawyers on the whole prefer serving the rich. And that is what I mean by a problem of spirit.
While giving others access to justice, we ought to give more of us access to our souls. We ought to give more lawyers the opportunity to serve the disadvantaged client, not by giving up our present practices to join legal aid clinics, nor by writing a check, but rather by balancing our private practices to include a larger amount of work for the disadvantaged client. We ought to tap the personnel and resources of our private law firms to directly serve the disadvantaged client, rather than (or in addition to) funding and creating more legal aid clinics. The benefits to all—to the lawyer who goes into the community an afternoon or two a week, to the disadvantaged clients that lawyer serves, and to the communities in which the service is rendered—can be enormous.
Last week, I received a letter from Rosalie Tucker Rishavy, the alternative dispute resolution coordinator of the Detroit office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She said this:
I am in charge of a mediation program of the Detroit office of the EEOC....Throughout the four years of the program’s existence there has been a small but determined group of Labor & Employment Section members who have helped and supported the program in many ways, taking valuable time from their own practices to do so....
You may recall that Congress passed the FY 2000 budget very late in 1999. As a result, we essentially were unable to contract out mediations until July 2000. This posed a significant problem to our program as we rely heavily on contract mediators....
In an effort to continue to serve the public during this financial crisis, I contacted attorneys who practice in this area....Not one attorney whom I approached turned me down. As a result, nearly forty charges of discrimination were mediated strictly on a pro-bono basis. Tom Kienbaum and Terry Miglio had me send over ten cases each, and they distributed them around their firms. Others took one or two or whatever they felt they had time to do. These individuals were from both sides of the bar. These pro-bono mediators dedicated the same level of resources, skill and effort to these mediations as they would have to paying clients and they achieved excellent results....I think that is a fine testimonial to the group who conducted the pro-bono mediations. Those individuals were:
Terrence J. Miglio and associates at Keller Thoma
Thomas G. Kienbaum and associates at Kienbaum, Opperwall, Hardy & Pelton
Victor Marrocco, Ford Motor Company
Kathleen L. Bogas at Sachs, Waldman, O’Hare
Steven L. Schwartz at Sommers, Schwartz, Silver & Schwartz
Martin K. Magid, Administrative Law Judge, retired
Diane M. Soubly, Comerica
Joseph A. Golden at Sommers, Schwartz, Silver & Schwartz
Michael G. Nowakowski, Federal Mediation & Conciliation Services
James W. Statham, Federal Mediation & Conciliation Services
The Director, James R. Neely, Jr., and I wish to acknowledge and commend this group of individuals for stepping up and using their valuable time for public service and, in doing so, keeping this office’s mediation program alive throughout a financial crisis.
Several months ago, the Upper Peninsula bankruptcy lawyers helped to resolve a difficult circumstance. A lawyer admitted in Texas but not in Michigan had a large bankruptcy practice in Michigan. The question of whether the lawyer was authorized to practice in Bankruptcy Court in Michigan was brought before Bankruptcy Judge James D. Gregg who held that the lawyer was engaged in the unauthorized practice of law by conducting a bankruptcy practice in Judge Gregg’s Court. The lawyer had an estimated 600 to 1,000 open bankruptcy files. Fifteen Upper Peninsula bankruptcy lawyers, coordinated by Donald W. Bays of Marquette, volunteered to provide legal services to those clients, pro bono to the extent that the clients had already made payment for fees.
There are many Michigan lawyers who help individuals in need. Mark K. Schwartz of Waterford is one. Virginia Srygley was defrauded by a nonlawyer "mediator" who negotiated a modest settlement for Ms. Srygley on a personal injury matter. The nonlawyer mediator charged Ms. Srygley a one-third contingency fee, then charged an additional amount on an hourly basis, so that the entire fee was almost equal to the settlement. Ms. Srygley contacted Mark. On a pro bono basis, Mark assisted Ms. Srygley in obtaining a judgment against the nonlawyer mediator for the entire amount, then assisted her in filing criminal charges. After the conviction, Ms. Srygley received full payment of the settlement amount through court ordered restitution.
Regardless of a lawyer’s area of practice, from time to time each of us has the opportunity to help those in need.
When your time comes, seize it!
Your spirit will be refreshed, and you will become a better and more insightful lawyer. We all must do our part. Together we can make the difference.