From the president: Preparing for the unprecedented


by James W. Heath   |   Michigan Bar Journal


From the PresidentOur world changed three years ago. In some ways, it is hard to believe it’s been that long already. In other ways, it’s almost difficult to believe this “new normal” hasn’t always been our way of life. For just a moment, I would like to take us all back though to those first few months after the COVID-19 pandemic and the few months prior it hitting home and shutting down our state in March 2020.

Remember those days before COVID? Looking back, it’s almost hard to believe how invincible we believed ourselves to be. Of course, we all saw the devastation happening elsewhere for months and yet most of us went about our daily lives in those days and weeks before the pandemic hit Michigan, never imagining it could impact us.

While many of us were blissfully going about our business not even beginning to imagine the impact this worldwide pandemic would have, the State Bar of Michigan was getting ready.

Preparations officially began on the day after Christmas 2019 when the State Bar of Michigan’s former executive director, Janet Welch, and our current one, Peter Cunningham, started brainstorming on how to handle the coronavirus.

The State Bar of Michigan began buying laptop computers, installing Microsoft Teams so we could have virtual meetings, and assessing what it would take to operate remotely and out of office.

Nationwide, many state bars and lawyer referral services — like a lot of other businesses — closed. Of course, the State Bar of Michigan offices closed, but we remained hard at work. The State Bar of Michigan became the one-stop resource for attorneys and information sharing and keeping members updated during the unprecedented challenges we all faced.

We not only sustained our services, though; we also expanded them. In a matter of days, the State Bar of Michigan launched two brand new programs to support the needs of our state.

First, the State Bar launched a hotline for residents and recruited a team of 120 attorneys working on a pro bono basis to help answer questions regarding the flood of uncertainties. These concerns covered everything from workplace disputes to landlord-tenant issues. At its height, the hotline received more than 400 calls a day from Michigan residents with nowhere else to turn.

Second, the State Bar of Michigan launched a pro bono helpline for frontline responders created to provide free legal help to Michigan’s essential workers. The number-one legal issue handled by this hotline was frontline workers looking to prepare their wills just in case they lost their lives protecting ours.

And as a result of these efforts, the American Bar Association awarded the State Bar of Michigan with its Cindy A. Raisch Award, which recognizes outstanding achievement in lawyer referral services for our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

These programs speak to the deep dedication of staff and the State Bar’s commitment to creating innovative solutions to serve the needs of Michigan attorney and the public — even in the midst of a crisis.

While it is an honor for the State Bar to receive recognition for its foresight and innovation during the height of the pandemic, our work by no means ends there. Now, three years since the official start of the pandemic in Michigan, you can continue to see the State Bar of Michigan’s commitment at work daily.

For instance, the State Bar of Michigan is leading national efforts to help attorneys struggling with addiction, depression, or other wellness issues because the sad fact is that lawyers commit suicide at a rate that is six times higher than the general public. Also, the State Bar of Michigan is working with stakeholders to increase access to justice in civil courts and supporting the work of the Supreme Court’s new Commission on Diversity Equity and Inclusion.

Make no mistake about it, COVID-19 challenged all of us in ways we never could have fully predicted. When I look back, I do so with pride knowing that the State Bar of Michigan stepped up. We served without interruption. We provided leadership, answers, and innovative new ideas. We served.

As the State Bar of Michigan’s very first president, Roberts P. Hudson, said, “No organization of lawyers can long survive which has not for its primary object the protection of the public.”

His words are not only wise; they are the motto of the State Bar of Michigan. Looking back over these last three years, we all should be proud of the work our Bar has done, is doing now, and will do in the future.


The views expressed in From the President, as well as other expressions of opinions published in the Bar Journal from time to time, do not necessarily state or reflect the official position of the State Bar of Michigan, nor does their publication constitute an endorsement of the views expressed. They are the opinions of the authors and are intended not to end discussion, but to stimulate thought about significant issues affecting the legal profession, the making of laws, and the adjudication of disputes.