Grand Rapids rolls out red carpet to state Young Lawyers Section



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Members of the State Bar Young Lawyers Section who attended last weekend’s fourth annual Summit availed themselves of all that is wonderful about Grand Rapids.

In fact, the keynote speaker at Saturday’s luncheon, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Brian K. Zahra, introduced his address by noting that he would be gentle on his listeners, having heard that many of them were out until 2:30-3:00 Friday night.

The Summit participants also enjoyed the beauty and services of the Amway Grand Plaza which hosted the event.

On Friday evening, May 20, the attorneys trickled in to a welcome reception, and got to know each other better through an ice-breaker where  a sign with the name of a celebrity was pinned to each person’s back. They then questioned others, generally in groups, to determine the name of the celebrity. Many were somewhat obscure, entailing lots of questions, and everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Saturday morning brought the opening speaker, Elizabeth Jolliffe, who is founder of Your Benchmark Coach. Jolliffe is a “lawyer coach” who provides help to attorneys through giving support and advice and acting as a sounding board.

Following that were breakout sessions, many of which featured Grand Raids and Kent County attorneys and judges. A session on family law included Marie Kessler, Referee for Kent County’s Seventeenth Circuit Court and David Sarnacki of the Sarnacki Law Firm in Grand Rapids, as well as Judge Edward Sosnick of the Sixth Circuit Court in Oakland County. “Hot Topics in Criminal Law” included Matthew Abel of Cannabis Counsel in Detroit speaking on the medical marijuana law and its complications.

State Bar professionals were in evidence throughout; for example, Joann Hathaway, SBM’s Practice Management Advisor talked about “2011: Paperless and Beyond.”

Additional informational sessions followed Saturday’s luncheon, but a high point of the day was Justice Zahra’s presentation, given after an elegant lunch in the mirrored Pantlind Ballroom.

Young Lawyers council member James Low gave Zahra a detailed introduction, noting that the Dearborn High School graduate  has only been serving on the Michigan Supreme Court since the beginning of 2011.

Justice Zahra worked his way through Wayne State University by opening a health and beauty-aid store, which later became a grocery, in downtown Detroit. He graduated from  the University of Detroit Law School in 1987; during his schooling, he not only was on the Law Review but also served the State Bar as Articles Editor for its Corporation and Finance Business Law Journal.

After clerking for U.S. Judge Lawrence Zatkoff, Zahra worked in the Detroit offices of Dickinson Wright. Governor Engler then  appointed him as a Wayne County Circuit Court Judge in 1994, and a judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals in 1998. After a failed bid in 2004 to serve on the Supreme Court, Zahra received the honor of appointment to the Court from Governor Rick Snyder earlier this year. He will have to run to retain his seat in 2012.

A quiet and thoughtful speaker, Justice Zahra said that he found it difficult to choose a topic when asked to speak at a Bar function. He joked that — in light of Chief Justice Robert Young’s quick designation of Zahra as the “technology justice” — he first considered talking about technology in the courtroom, but changed his mind when he considered that his young audience might be more tech-savvy than he was.

But his eventual choice was something that has developed into an important issue for him: the results of the recently-concluded jury reform pilot project.

The pilot project was the result of widespread opposition to sweeping changes in the jury rules proposed by the Supreme Court in 2006. Justice Zahra commented that when he was a young lawyer he always liked to see rule changes. “It put me on the same footing as the older guys when rules changed,” he commented.

Most people in the legal community did not respond quite so favorably in their comments on the jury reform rule changes. Opposition included the Michigan District Judges Association as well as individual attorneys and judges.

Zahra said that the good news coming out of the pilot project, which ended Dec. 31, 2010, is that judges of the 11 districts chosen to pilot the reforms have changed their minds.
Members of the jury also indicated overwhelming support of the changes, but in most instances attorneys were split about evenly.

Popular jury reforms included provision of written preliminary instructions on the law at beginning of trial so jurors know what they should be looking for; allowing them to take notes and to submit questions for witnesses, through the Court; giving jury instructions in writing, as well as potentially an entire reference book to which attorneys for both sides as well as the court officers would contribute; allowing juries to engage in mid-trial discussion as long as all jurors were present; and innovative ways of presenting expert testimony. Some of the practices are allowed under current court rules but not used much, and Justice Zahra said that he always supplied written jury instructions when he was judging in Wayne County.
What will happen next? Zahra said that as the “rookie” on the Supreme Court, he has no concrete idea of how long it will take to revisit the rule reforms, but he has observed that the administrative wheels turn slowly.

In the late afternoon, there were  “speed networking sessions,” followed by a cocktail hour and banquet. There Michael St. John of Kitch Drutchas Wagner Valitutti and Sherbrook in Detroit received the Regeana Myrick Outstanding Young Lawyer Award.

Maureen McGinnis, an attorney in the law firm of Donald McGinnis, Jr., JD., P.C. Attorney at Law and chair of the State Bar of Michigan Young Lawyers Section, spearheaded
the hosting of the Summit. Her youth was no barrier to putting on a smoothly-run, interesting, enjoyable conference.