Attorney awarded for outstanding legal service to those in need

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Varnum partner Joy Fossel — “your typical idealist since high school” — says her main motivation for becoming a lawyer was to help others. That may explain why she has given an astonishing 1500-plus hours of her time to pro bono work.

And it should come as no surprise  to those who know her that Legal Aid of Western Michigan decided to give her its 2010 Michael S. Barnes Award.

That said, however, Fossel was very much surprised by the award. “It never occurred to me they’d give it to me,” she says, with characteristic modesty.

The Michael S. Barnes award was named after a highly committed attorney, a partner at Smith Haughey who was devoted to serving the legal needs of those in poverty, after his untimely death at the age of 44. Barnes served on the board of Legal Aid of Western Michigan from 1973 to 1984, including a stint as President, and was the first chair of its Pro Bono Committee.
The award is given annually to a lawyer who exemplifies Barnes’s mission and spirit, and recognizes attorneys for their “exceptional dedication and relentless pursuit of justice for the underprivileged.”

Fossel fits that profile to an impressive degree, but it is difficult to verify that from speaking with her. She implies that her community service is nothing out of the ordinary.

“I have always felt that I have been very blessed in my life,” she says, “and I was raised by parents who believe that you do give back to your community as much as you can.”

Her father was a civil engineer, and her mother a homemaker who gave freely of her time to community activities in Birmingham Mich.

Fossel attended Stanford University in California, from which she received her B.A. in English. She also met her husband there, who finished up his medical studies in the Palo Alto area.
At that point, Fossel says, “It was my turn to decide where we were going to live.” Having been exposed to West Michigan because she spent her summers at Lake Michigan, she chose Grand Rapids.

“I’d always intended to go to law school, but I was willing to delay for a while,” says Fossel. She is a “proud alum” of Thomas M. Cooley Law School, who graduated magna cum laude in 1987. She attended classes in Lansing.

Fossel then joined Varnum Law and has never practiced anywhere else. She is now a litigation and trial attorney. Her concentration is in complex business and commercial litigation, employment claims, healthcare, including defense of providers and professionals in fraud and abuse claims and malpractice), product liability, and contested probate cases.

Her pro bono work is not the only volunteer service she performs. A sampling of her board service for non-profit organizations includes American Red Cross, the Parkinsons Foundation, Grand Rapids Ballet, the Kent County AIDS Foundation, the Grand Rapids AIDS Resource Center, and Silent Observer. Her involvement with AIDS issues came when she was representing the Kent County Health Department and was asked to serve on the Kent County AIDS Foundation at its beginnings. She has since spoken widely on the topic, including about discrimination and testing legal issues.

The Fossels also raised two children, both of whom are now in college. When they were younger, Fossel was a coach with Odyssey of the Mind, an extracurricular competition encouraging creativity and engineering skills. “It was so much fun I wish I still had small children so I could still coach.”

She now teaches at the Grand Rapids campus of Cooley Law School; her class subject is pretrial skills, which she calls a practice-oriented course.

As far as the pro bono cases themselves, Fossel says that most are small-scale and fairly routine. For example, due to her area of expertise she helps a lot of healthcare professionals with licensing issues and compliance.

However, one case alone required more than 800 hours of her time, involving a suit against a victim of domestic violence by her ex-husband, who also sued the police and the courts. Fossel battled for justice for the woman, and was ultimately successful. “Getting that case dismissed was a highlight of my last five years,” Fossel says.

She is also thankful to Varnum LLP for supporting her volunteer work. At Varnum, every lawyer makes a contribution to Legal Aid each year, with an average of 54 attorneys per year who actually handle pro bono  files.

Fossel says repeatedly that she is honored, flattered, and surprised to be chosen to receive the Michael S. Barnes Award, which Legal Aid of Western Michigan refers to as a “no-brainer.” She hopes it might inspire others to get involved.

“I cannot encourage other attorneys enough to do this kind of work,” she says. “It always gives you a different perspective on what the practice of law is and what it means to people.”