Sarah Riley Howard makes the short list of top Michigan women lawyers

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Any way you look at it, there are lots of women lawyers in the state of Michigan.

Reporting of the percentage of female attorneys nationwide range from about 35% to about 60%, but even at the most conservative estimate, there are over 12,000.

And of those, only 50 are chosen by Michigan Super Lawyers as the top women lawyers in the state. How do they make such a difficult selection? When they survey the attorneys’ peers for the regular super lawyers listing, those with the highest point totals make the cut.

As of this year, Sarah Riley Howard of PSFK (which stands for Pinsky, Smith, Fayette and Kennedy) Law has joined the prestigious list.

The other of the two West Michiganians on the 2018 list, Lauretta “Laurie” Murphy from Miller Johnson, has been included in previous years. Murphy, an estate planning and elder law attorney, is chair of several practices in the firm: estate planning, private client, probate, guardianship, and trust disputes.

In practice since 1988, Murphy has won a large number of similar honors (some of them covered in previous Grand Rapids Legal News issues), and is also on the Super Lawyers Top 50 Consumer Lawyers list.

Sarah Howard’s area of specialty is somewhat harder to pin down.

She works in the area of civil rights and workplace discrimination, but perhaps her online biography says it best: “Sarah Howard likes to make things right.”

Some of the cases she has made right have had high visibility. In particular, she was the attorney for Keith Allard and Benjamin Graham, two aides in the Michigan House of Representatives who were fired after their bosses, Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat, were forced out of the legislature due to circumstances surrounding a sex scandal the two representatives were involved with. (Courser resigned, Gamrat was expelled.) Allard and Graham, who claimed that their dismissal was due to their refusal to comply with their bosses’ request for wrongoing in the affair’s cover-up as well as communications with House leadership telling what they were asked to do, sued for wrongful discharge.

Not only did Howard win a monetary settlement for her clients, she also won something they deemed very important: an acknowledgment that what they did was right.   “...the House appreciates that Mr. Allard and Mr. Graham did the right thing and brought serious concerns about the activities of Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat to light, allowing the House to take appropriate action,” former House Speaker Kevin Cotter said officially at the time of the settlement.

“We were also able to obtain the right to indemnification in any other actions brought by Ms. Courser and Ms. Gamrat,” Howard says.

She has also had other high-profile cases, including a successful one involving the “vague” nature of Michigan’s Sex Offender Registration provision that people on the registry may not live within 1000 feet of a school, and a few that are pending.

Howard started out her career in 2002 at Warner Norcross + Judd, where she worked on compliance auditing for clients and other business matters. Prior to that, she clerked for U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan Judge Richard Enslen in Kalamazoo, after her graduation from Western Michigan University for her B.A. and the University of Michigan Law School for her J.D.

In 2014, Howard, who lives with her husband and two daughters in the Grand Haven area, decided to make a run for public office. She was ultimately unsuccessful in winning the Michigan senate seat, though she exceeded expectations in a race against entrenched politician Arlan Meekhof.

When she returned to the legal field, it was with the well-known firm Pinsky, Smith, Fayette and Kennedy, known statewide for such attorneys as Katherine Smith Kennedy and Rhett Pinsky.

“As excited as I was when I started here, I’m even more thrilled now. It’s exceeded my extremely high expectations,” Howard says. Some of that excitement comes from new attorneys PSFK Law is hiring, including Erin Dornbos and, just this week, Crystal Bultje (recently of Dickinson Wright).

Howard  also has found the time to be active in a variety of organizations. She was a trustee of the Grand Rapids Bar Association from 2012-2015 (as well as chairing the Young Lawyers Section from 2005-2006) and the recent president of the Federal Bar Association Western Michigan Chapter, continuing to serve now as National delegate. She is also on the lawyers committee for the ACLU of Western Michigan, the executive board of the Progressive Women’s Alliance and the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance board.

Through all of that, along with her devotion to her family, it is clear that Howard finds her legal work to be genuinely rewarding. “My favorite cases are the employment discrimination ones,” she says. “I consider them a really important type of civil rights case – people have the right to be free from sex discrimination, age discrimination, any discrimination.”

About her inclusion in the top 50, Howard says, “It’s obviously a great honor. I feel lucky to be able to do the work I do and assist the clients and advance some of these really important interests under the law, so to receive this honor feels like more than I should hope for.”


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