Author turns his gaze on how best to practice pro bono

Cooley associate dean has long been a practitioner and advocate for pro bono

By Cynthia Price
Legal News
The American Bar Association has published the latest book by prolific author and Thomas M. Cooley Law School Grand Rapids Campus Associate Dean Nelson P. Miller.

“Building Your Practice with Pro Bono for Lawyers” is 277 pages (plus 11 more of appendices and index) giving  detailed common-sense advice on how to be effective at doing pro bono work.

Along the way, it also makes a strong case for why.

Miller has long been a practitioner of and an advocate for pro bono programs giving legal assistance to the disadvantaged. In fact, in 2006, he was given the State Bar of Michigan’s John W. Cummiskey Award for pro bono service.

It is to the memory of John W. Cummiskey that Miller dedicates his book.

The acknowledgments say, “Mr. Cummiskey, a founder of the leading law firm Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey, joined with Lewis Powell and Sargent Shriver as one of the founders of the federal effort to support civil legal aid, [on] what would become the Legal Services Corporation. Mr. Cummiskey’s career was a model for what a lawyer can do for civil legal services to the indigent.”

Miller also acknowledges the role of Miller Johnson partner Jon Muth and Dale Ann Iverson, president of the Grand Rapids Bar at the time and currently of Just Mediation, for their roles alongside Cummiskey in starting the Legal Assistance Center, whose board Miller served on and/or presided over from 2006-2009.

Miller preceded his career at Cooley Law School with a seventeen-year civil litigation practice.

After receiving his Juris Doctor cum laude from University of Michigan Law School, Miller focused his practice on personal injury, products liability, malpractice, and civil rights, among other areas, first at Davis and Fajen in Ann Arbor, then at Fajen and Miller in Grand Haven. That phase of his career included arguing before the Michigan Supreme Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and filing amicus briefs in the United States Supreme Court. He has been on several State Bar committees, including Law Related Education, Equal Access Initiative, Criminal Issues Initiative, and Publications and Website Advisory, as well as a member of the Representative Assembly.

He started as a professor at Cooley in 2004, teaching such classes as torts, tax-exempt organizations, and professional ethics, and became associate dean in 2008. Miller’s prolific career as a writer, performed concurrently with his administrative duties, has  augmented his service to the school.

More than a dozen books he has written or co-authored attest to his commitment to making life  easier and better for those practicing the law. Even his 2012 novel,  “Pierce’s Cause — A Trial Lawyer’s Allegorical Novel,” is written with the tort law student in mind.

In the current book on pro bono service, Miller knows whereof he speaks.

Miller has served more than 2,000 pro bono clients. As of 2005, according to an article in the Michigan Bar Journal, he had given in-depth service to almost 50 non-profits, including developing helpful documents to help them track their own contributions to people in poverty.

That article details Miller’s extensive work at “community centers in low-income, minority communities in Muskegon, Benton Harbor, and Grand Rapids.” It features a quote from well-respected Muskegon pastor, Bishop Nathaniel Wells Jr., attesting, “Nelson Miller is the most giving, competent professional that I have met in my 43 years of pastoral ministry. He is dedicated to the improvement of humanity!’’

That dedication, and expertise won over years of work, stands Miller in good stead in “Building Your Practice with Pro Bono for Lawyers.” Miller is quick to point out that he did not write the book alone, but rather credits colleagues at Cooley, particularly Karen Rowlader and Tracey Brame, as well as community partners including Dégagé Ministries, the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, Heart of West Michigan United Way, Judge Ellen Carmody, Grand Rapids Bar Association’s Kim Coleman, and David Bulkowski of Disability Advocates of Kent County.

He acknowledges that a portion of the book was taken from a manual he had edited for Mel Trotter Ministries, which drew on previous work by attorneys and summer associates at Warner, Norcross, and Judd.

The book is organized into three parts. Part I concerns skill-building, primarily in the area of relationships — with a client, with agencies, with other attorneys and with the judiciary. The down-to-earth, detailed advice would be useful for any attorney — and, for that matter, much of it for any person engaging in professional interface with others.

Particularly in the chapter on intercultural skills, Miller suggests steps to hone in on improving how one listens and communicates.  He talks about the different “registers” that clients and professionals may employ in speaking to each other, on a formality scale of “static or frozen” to intimate. Sensitivity to where communications fall on that scale, and why each is used, is a key skill for working with low-income and indigent populations.
Perhaps the most important caution in these chapters is that no one should make assumptions, based either on having dealt with other individuals from a specific cultural or legal category, or on multicultural training which might creep over into stereotyping. If there is confusion, it is important to ask and keep asking, Miller says.

That leads into other strong advice concerning the need for clarity. The book advises writing action steps and expectations down, after ascertaining that the pro bono client actually has the resources to carry them out.

 Then Part II goes through some of the conditions an attorney might encounter in serving particular populations likely to need pro bono work.
For example, in a chapter about the releasee, there is an in-depth discussion about the collateral consequences of incarceration, and a list of considerations to start helping ex-offenders. Such factors as the difficulty in establishing identification after prison time may be less than apparent to those who have never faced such challenges.

Because the book is for a national audience, Miller avoids specifics of state law, but does include relevant federal statute. The chapter on assisting people who have served in the military explains the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 in detail.
The final section covers “Serving the Charitable Organization,” including avenues to start a pro bono program to address unmet needs.

Throughout the book, illustrative and occasionally amusing vignettes about the experience of pro bono attorneys serve to make the book’s message real and urgent.

The text also quotes ABA standards and model rules, draws from case law, and uses examples such as the Stand Down local service member project and Justice for Our Neighbors helping immigration clients.

Miller himself states about Building Your Practice with Pro Bono for Lawyers, “My purpose was to help lawyers everywhere get past several obstacles to pro bono service such as different practice areas, inconvenient office location, limited availability of programs, and cultural barriers. At the same time, though, I wanted to represent in the most positive light the Grand Rapids Bar, our campus here, and the lawyers of Grand Rapids, for their wonderful pro bono service.”