NALS hears from controversial defense lawyer, lemon law attorney, others



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

The annual conference of the Michigan chapter of NALS (“the association for legal professionals”) offered a wide variety of speakers and events when it was held April 25 through 28 in Kalamazoo.

In addition to hearing about the siting of the 2021 National Mock Trial Competition in Michigan and getting an update on the sexual assault kit investigations, as reported last week, the paralegals, legal assistants, administrators, vendors, court reporters and others that make up NALS membership heard from some high-profile legal speakers.

Chief among them was the morning keynote speaker, Shannon Smith. Smith is best-known for serving as the defense lawyer for Larry Nassar, but that is not her only controversial case, as NALS members learned.

Her energetic and thought-provoking presentation was called “Defending the Damned and Despised,” and it was named after a quote from the famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow: “To be an effective criminal defense counsel, an attorney must be prepared to be demanding, outrageous, irreverent, blasphemous, a rogue, a renegade, and a hated, isolated, and lonely person - few love a spokesman for the despised and the damned.”

To hear Smith tell it, she has been all that and would do it again for her clients despite the personal toll it takes.

Her life has been threatened, along with the lives of her husband (who attended the NALS conference and was applauded for his administration of Smith’s law office) and four children. She has been called a number of names by people who really hit below the belt, including caricatures of her looks. The well-known Nassar victim Rachel den Hollander said that for Smith “sexual assault was nothing more than an opportunity for a photo op and self-promotion.”

Smith, whose initial interest in her career was sparked by being bullied as a child, said that her immediate urge was to defend herself immediately against such criticisms. “At first I was forming a response, like, that’s not what I meant when I said that... but then I just had to say to myself, I can’t care, I just can’t care,” Smith said.

At the same time, the Nassar case disturbed her. “I had to take a few days off after the sentencing,” she said. “I thought long and hard about, do I really want to be a defense lawyer? There’s a lot of compassion fatigue that you feel for the victims and even for your own client, whether the charges are true or not true.”

Smith thought that defending a client like Larry Nassar was a once-in-a-lifetime challenge, but her next case was defending a doctor accused of female genital mutilation. She willingly went through the stress of that “convicted-in-the-media” case because she feels that even the damned and despised deserve representation... but in fact her client was not guilty of that crime.

When Smith showed experts videos of what her doctor client did, they all agreed that she was not engaging in female genital mutilation but rather an operation similar to circumcision, and all of the charges against her were dropped.

Another high-profile speaker was Steve Lehto, the “lemon law attorney.” Lehto’s humorous and exuberant presentation fundamentally focused on the many ways he got his name out and the interesting twists his life and career have taken.

Starting with volunteering to defend the people (all men, he noted) who received traffic tickets for showing off during the Detroit-area Woodward Dream Cruise, one thing led to another and Lehto became widely known even before there was a blogosphere.

In 2006, Lehto wrote a book about the “1913 massacre” in Calumet, Mich., where dozens of children of striking miners were killed in a stampede after someone yelled “Fire.” When an ad for the book was featured in the weird headline portion of the Jay Leno Tonight Show, he followed up by sending Leno his card. This combined with Lehto’s love of vintage cars and eventually resulted in his meeting Leno and a host of other lesser-known celebrities.

Friday attendees were also treated to a useful session on managing stress from mindfulness instructor Cindy VanderWeele. She encouraged the participants to savor actual physical strawberries she passed around, focusing each of the senses in turn.

The last presentation of the day, which nonetheless held people’s attention, was a talk on “Causation of Crime” from Grand Valley State University School of Criminal Justice’s Christopher Kierkus, Ph.D. Technical difficulties prevented him from starting out with some videos, including one of the Grand Rapids slaying of a nine-year-old boy by a 13-year-old boy, and another about the Muskegon case of Jessica Heeringa, of which Jeffrey Willis was convicted.

Kierkus then went through a large number of theories about why people commit such crimes, noting that a prime reason for asking that question is to prevent them but also, in many cases, to improve the lot of potential offenders.

Such entertaining and informative  talks were not the only draw to Kalamazoo for the NALS professionals. On Saturday, the group’s annual meeting and awards banquet were held, along with the swearing-in of a new roster of officers.

The national NALS began in 1929, and NALS?of Michigan was established in 1961; the organization is well-known for providing certification and training for legal professionals. There are six Michigan chapters: Detroit, Greater Kalamazoo, Jackson, Lansing, West Michigan, and Grand Traverse Area. NALS of West Michigan is generally a strong presence statewide, and this year was no exception.

Sue Acklin, who works at Warner Norcross + Judd in Grand Rapids and was the winner of the NALS of West Michigan award of excellence this year, is the new state president. Christopher Acklin of the Avanti Law Group in Wyoming, Mich., gave the oath of office.

Other officers are: Vice President of Certification & Education, Maureen Jones; Vice President Membership & Marketing, Cathy Zackery; Treasurer, Jennifer Boak Robinson; Executive Secretary, Tami Lewton Carl; Parliamentarian, Becky Quimby; Executive Advisor, Sherri Bowden.

Both Quimby and Bowden are from NALS of West Michigan. Zackery, Robinson, and Lewman are from NALS of Greater Kalamazoo.

Also from Kalamazoo was the state Legal Professional of the Year, Paula Steffey, who was instrumental in putting on the conference.

The Clara LaGow Award, given to the Michigan chapter that has the highest percentage of members who passed the various legal accreditations offered by NALS went to NALS of West Michigan, while the West Michigan group tied with the one from Detroit for the highest number of new members in the chapter.

Another NALS of Michigan activity is giving a scholarship each year. This year, the $1000 scholarship went to Gianna Mason, who has a GPA of 4.0 and is attending Ferris State University for her degree in Criminal Justice.


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