Higher Calling: New State Bar president aims to promote greater civility, professionalism

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

In late September, Jennifer Grieco etched her name in the State Bar history books, becoming just the seventh woman in its 84-year history to lead the association as president.

In 2021, Dana Warnez is in line to become the eighth, following in the footsteps of her late sister, Kimberly Cahill, a Macomb County family law practitioner who died of cancer in 2008 at age 47, less than two years after she assumed the presidency of the State Bar.

The appearance of women in prominent leadership roles, while no longer just a novel idea in the legal profession, is part of a broader goal for the 45,000-member organization, according to Grieco.

“I hope that as members of the State Bar, we continue to push for diversity and inclusion in our leadership,” Grieco said in remarks at the annual meeting in Grand Rapids.

Grieco, a partner with the commercial litigation firm of Neuman Anderson in Birmingham, began blazing legal trails in 2010 when she became the youngest woman to serve as head of the Oakland County Bar Association, which was founded in 1934. It was as OCBA president that she spearheaded the creation of the Pro Bono Mentor Match Program, an initiative that was designed to “engage new lawyers in pro bono work to benefit those who don’t have the means to retain an attorney.”

At the time, Grieco urged her legal brethren to rally to the cause of the profession in a “time of need.” She said that the “number of new lawyers coming out of law school without jobs is one of the greatest challenges” facing the legal profession. The chance to “lend a hand,” she said, is most readily apparent in pro bono cases where the need continues to grow even as the economy slowly improves from the dark days of the recent recession.

Now, as president of the State Bar, Grieco “urges bar leaders start a conversation of how to improve professionalism among members of the bar in an increasingly divisive world,” punctuated by political posturing in the run-up to the 2018 midterm election.

“As we have all seen in recent years, citizens of our country struggle to have a healthy discussion with those who do not agree with them,” Grieco said at the State Bar meeting, crediting past president Ed Pappas for spearheading a professionalism summit. “We have seen bullying at all levels and this is unfortunately the social discourse that the future generation of lawyers is watching.”

And yet, while the “lack of civility is becoming more pronounced in society,” Grieco believes that in many respects the legal profession is helping establish the proper standard for all to follow.

“I have always been proud to be a member of a profession where we disagree and we can challenge the position of our opponent in court as adversaries but share a drink with that opposing counsel at a bar association event,” Grieco said. “Or, after defending a contentious out-of-state expert deposition, we share a cab ride back to the airport. Or simply congratulate opposing counsel on a well-argued motion or a trial victory . . . These are just a few examples of the profession at its best.”

In turn, Grieco has distinguished herself among the best throughout her legal career, which began in 1997 after she earned her juris doctorate degree from the University of Toledo College of Law, where she was a member of the law review.

Following graduation, Grieco landed her first job with Sommers Schwartz, a firm where she clerked during law school. During her 10-year stay there, Grieco established a reputation for expertise in handling black mold cases. It also was a time frame when she became involved in the activities of the OCBA, the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan, the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association, now known as the Michigan Association for Justice. She served as president of the Oakland County Region of the WLAM from 2003-04.

After spending three years with Maddin Hauser in Southfield, Grieco joined Neuman Anderson in March 2010, focusing her practice on complex commercial litigation.

Such weighty legal matters figure to have prepared Grieco well for the State Bar presidency and for the “challenge of innovation clashing with our regulations” in the legal profession.

“At the recent meeting of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, one of the speakers noted that the market for legal services worldwide in 2017 was $437 billion,” Grieco noted. “Considering that 80 percent of the middle class cannot afford a lawyer and therefore have not hired counsel, the speaker estimated that the legal market has the potential for $1 trillion in revenue.

“As a result, there are entrepreneurs – non-lawyers – who want to profit from the market for legal services without having obtained a law license and without having to comply with the Supreme Court rules or the rules of professional conduct which were adopted to protect the public.”

Grieco noted that some “innovators complain that rather than protect the public, our regulations actually inhibit innovation” and “impede access to justice,” issues that state bar associations across the country are examining in an effort to address such concerns.

Another hot button topic that leaders of the State Bar will be addressing this year revolves around the “governance” and “scope of the operation of the State Bar of Michigan” itself, according to Grieco.
In short, “we now have the increased threat to the mandatory bar association since the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 7 decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees,” explained Grieco.

“Janus did not overrule Keller v. State Bar of California, which authorizes mandatory bar associations, but it did overrule the Abood decision upon which Keller relies,” said Grieco, who noted that cases have been filed in North Dakota, Oregon, and Washington challenging mandatory membership in state bars.

“Regardless of your views regarding mandatory unions, I submit that a bar association is different because the legal profession is different,” Grieco said at the State Bar meeting.

“At the core of our mission as a bar association is protection of the public. It is the foundation of everything we do, as officers of the court and as set forth in our oath of office,” Grieco said.

As the daughter of an Army officer, Grieco gained a global view of life during her formative years, bouncing from base to base in Germany and the U.S.

She graduated from high school in Heidelberg, Germany, opting to pursue her collegiate career at the University of Toledo, the Ohio city in which her grandmother lived. It was at Toledo where she met her future husband, Chad Burch, a finance major who later became an executive with American Equity Corp.

The couple has a 9-year-old daughter, Meadow, a bright fourth-grader who is expanding her educational horizons at The Roeper School in Bloomfield Hills.

“Meadow is smart, kind, funny and compassionate, and my daily inspiration,” Grieco said of their daughter. “I am most proud of the privilege to be her mom.”

Sadly, Meadow will never get to know her uncle, Grieco’s brother Kevin, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2008 while serving in the armed forces. It’s a loss that remains hard for Grieco and her family to fully comprehend, and yet his sense of service continues to motivate her everyday.

“And with a grandfather, father, and uncle who were all career-military and a brother who made the ultimate sacrifice for this country – service and patriotism is the foundation of my family and I believe was the reason that the law was my calling,” Grieco said. “I need to serve – to defend the rule of law, in defense of the constitution and in service of the public.”

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