Second chance: Wayne Law grad overcomes early troubles to launch legal career

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

What a difference two decades makes.

On November 22, Wayne Law graduate Bob VanSumeren was sworn in before Hon. Michael Smith, the same judge who sentenced him in 1999 to 70 to 240 months in prison, after VanSumeren robbed a gas station with a BB gun, followed by an unarmed robbery of a bank. The swearing-in, almost 20 years to the day, was in the same courthouse, First Circuit Court in Hillsdale.  

“The judge didn’t remember me,” VanSumeren says. “I don’t know if he knows how largely he loomed in my mind for many years. I met with him before the ceremony, to make sure he was in fact okay with all of it.

“I wondered if I would feel resentment toward him, for sending me to prison. When we met, however, I felt no resentment. I deserved what I got, and I can barely relate to that 19-year-old person I was.”

VanSumeren let the judge know that his two sons, ages 6 and 10, would be present; and that he had explained to his older son about the Character and Fitness Process, and how VanSumeren would have to prove he was a good person in order to be allowed to practice law.

“My kids, specifically my oldest, know my story. They know that when Dad was 19 he stole money from a bank and went to prison,” he says. “They’ve watched me work, quit drinking, finish my master’s degree, get into law school, commute from Jackson, and study for the bar.”

“I needed my boys to see this chapter end with their Dad being restored after many years’ toil and effort.” 

After the ceremony, the judge gave the boys a tour of the historic courthouse, and let them sit on the judge’s bench and bang the gavel.

“That gesture, from the judge who sentenced me, meant as much or more than the ceremony itself,” VanSumeren says 

After the tour, the younger boy announced to his father and the judge, “Dad, when I’m a judge, I’m going to use my experience.” 

“I wasn’t sure what he meant, but it seemed profound,” VanSumeren says with a smile.

VanSumeren, a lifelong resident of Jackson, found his life going off the rails in his teens, after his family broke apart. He struggled, dropped out of school, became homeless and fell prey to drugs and alcohol. Then came the two robberies and the prison sentence, during which he did a lot of reading and studying and began the process of turning his life around.   

After his release in 2005, he studied at Jackson College, then headed to Western Michigan University to earn his undergraduate degree in comparative religion, sociology and psychology; a master’s degree in comparative religion; and a graduate certificate in spirituality, culture and health.

His next step was Wayne State University Law School, where he earned his juris doctor in 2018. He is deeply appreciative of his law school experience.

“Wayne Law was supportive of me—when no other school would admit me because of my past, they took a chance on me,” he says. “I didn’t often tell my story, but some knew it. The professors who knew about my past were caring and helpful. The administration was great, especially Felicia Thomas, then assistant dean of Student Affairs.

“If I had it to do over again, I’d spend less time worrying about what others might think about me, because the truth is, the folks at Wayne Law were often a lot more accepting of me than I was of myself,” he adds. “I think sometimes people in my position—formerly incarcerated, people with troubled pasts—hold on to things longer than necessary. I can look back and see instances where I was my own barrier.”

As a law student, VanSumeren enjoyed a 3-month internship at the Washtenaw County Office of Public Defender, and an internship at the Family Law Project in Washtenaw County, where he then stayed on as a project coordinator, until he sat for the bar exam. 

“I enjoyed my time at FLP and I learned a lot,” he says. “I appreciated the opportunity to learn family law, and to get some courtroom experience along the way.”

What VanSumeren treasures most about those two internships were the times he was able to interact with clients. 

“I’d wondered what role my own story would play as I interacted with clients,” he says.  “At first, I thought the story itself would help me relate to my clients, and I did at times hint that I had been in some dark places.

“But mostly, I found clients didn’t really care about where I’d been, or what problems I’d faced. Clients are people in crisis and they want solutions. The value of my story is that I remember when I was in crisis, and I remember how it felt, and how hopeless things seemed. The attorneys at the Family Law Project taught me what it means to be a trauma-informed lawyer, a concept that had long resonated with me.” 

VanSumeren passed the bar in July 2018 and was recommended by the Character and Fitness Committee for acceptance after a lengthy process; the Board of Law Examiners adopted that recommendation. 

Now VanSumeren’s goal is to be a good lawyer. Once licensed, he will begin serving as corporate counsel for Starr Commonwealth in Albion, a private nonprofit organization centered on treating childhood trauma.   

“I’ve made it this far only to begin,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate to experience this sort of return. I’ve enjoyed the benefit of supportive family, friends, and mentors. I couldn’t have done any of this without my wife. I’m privileged, and I know it. 

“And now, as my Character and Fitness attorney Tim Dinan tells me, I’ll start out at the bottom. Of course, there are worse places to be.”

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