Going up: New Foundation President sets bar high for 'Signature Event'


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Throughout her life, Veronica Leonard has made a habit of being “goal-minded,” a character trait that she figures to put to especially good use as she leads the Oakland County Bar Foundation into its 20th Annual Signature Event this spring.

Now in her eighth month as president of the Foundation, Leonard is hoping the celebration of that 20-year milestone will coincide with a record-breaking amount of money raised by the nonprofit organization dedicated to funding legal aid causes and various other charitable programs in the legal community.

“Since this is such an important year in the history of the Oakland County Bar Foundation, it would be particularly nice if we raised more than $300,000 at the Signature Event,” said Leonard, who heads her own family law firm in Southfield. “We’ve come close the last few years and it would be great to top that figure this year.”

The 2019 version of the gala will take place Thursday, April 25 from 6:30-9 p.m. at posh Oakland Hills Country Club, which has played host to some of golf’s greatest tournaments.

“It’s a fabulous setting for our primary fund-raiser, and it also provides a great opportunity for our sponsors and supporters to enjoy an evening of fun and fellowship,” Leonard said.

In an effort to up the sponsorship ante this year, Foundation volunteers are “getting reacquainted” with former sponsors of the event in hopes of reaching the fund-raising goal.

“We want them to know how important they have been to us in the past and how they can help us extend our reach in the future,” said Leonard, a native of Detroit who has made her home in Southfield for the past 18 years.

In her message to potential sponsors, Leonard noted that the Foundation “is deeply committed to equality under the law, and our grant program is designed to fund worthy causes and impactful nonprofit organizations to help people of all ages to gain a greater understanding of justice and how the law affects their lives.”

The Foundation awarded nearly $260,000 in grants last year and has funded more than $2.2 million in grants to worthy causes since 2002, according to Leonard. Some of the grant recipients include the Family Law Assistance Program, The RESTORE Foundation, Pro Bono Mentor Match, Beaumont Patient Legal Support, the University of Detroit Mercy Federal Pro Se Legal Clinic, the People’s Law College Program, and Care House – Intervention and Treatment Program, among many other grantees.

Leonard, a graduate of Cass Tech High School in Detroit, was encouraged to get involved with the Foundation by noted attorney Michael Lee, a former Straker Bar president who passed away in 2014 at age 53.

“Michael was a great role model for all of his community involvement, and when he called to ‘recommend’ that I get involved with the Bar Foundation, I knew it was something that I better consider doing,” she said. “He could be very persuasive in that regard.”

A former Straker Bar president herself, Leonard joined the Foundation board in 2013, and quickly began marching up the officer ranks.

“We have a very dedicated and talented board, and we also are blessed by the hard-working staff of the Oakland County Bar Association,” Leonard said. “They  do an enormous amount of work to help make us ­ successful.”

The middle of three sisters, Leonard earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from Michigan State University, where her interest in the law was sparked by a “Food and the Law” class that examined FDA regulations.

“When I applied to law school, I still wasn’t completely sure that it would become my life’s work, but that began to change when I got a job at the Oakland County Friend of the Court during my first year of law school at Wayne State,” Leonard related.

She subsequently served as a law clerk for Oakland County Circuit Judge Barry Howard, who “imparted a great deal of knowledge on me,” said Leonard.

“He was the master negotiator and could settle a case like no other,” said Leonard of the former State Bar of Michigan Champion of Justice Award recipient.

Upon graduation from Wayne State, Leonard was hired as a judicial staff attorney for Oakland County Probate Judge Linda Hallmark, who was re-elected to a fourth term on the bench in November.

“Veronica came highly recommended by Judge Howard and she did an outstanding job during her six years on my staff,” said Judge Hallmark, a recipient of the OCBA’s Distinguished Public Servant Award in 2017. “She is a very kind and compassionate person, and is a very dedicated and hard-working attorney.

“She also has become a wonderful friend over the years, and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her son (Aaron) grow up and become such a great reflection of his mother,” Hallmark added.

As a single mom, Leonard takes special pride in the growth of her son, a product of University of Detroit Jesuit who is now a freshman studying accounting at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

“Aaron is my pride and joy, and it has been a delight to see him mature into the young man that he is today,” said Leonard. “I can thank my parents and my sisters for being so helpful in his upbringing.”

Her parents grew up in the Deep South and migrated to the Midwest in search of better job opportunities.

“My mom (Velma) worked at Michigan Bell for most of her career before retiring and now lives a mile from me,” Leonard related. “My dad (Henry) worked at Chrysler for 30 years when he retired. He was a huge help to me with Aaron,” Leonard said of her father, who passed away 9 years ago.

Her parents, who were married for 42 years, never attended college, and yet were overjoyed to see their three daughters – Carolyn, Veronica, and Tanisha – all graduate from MSU.

“Our parents worked very hard to put us all through college, sacrificing a lot to make sure that we received a college education,” Leonard said.

The example they set is something that Leonard tries to impart on clients who are in the throes of custody disputes during divorce.

“I always try to remind my clients who are struggling with custody issues that even though their marriage might be coming to an end, they are parents forever,” Leonard said.

She added, “Focusing on that fact can go a long way in ensuring that the welfare of the children is always uppermost in mind.”