Benedict joins elite group as newest Michael Barnes award winner

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

A solo practitioner specializing in family law has joined the ranks of dedicated attorneys who have won the Michael S. Barnes Award from Legal Aid of Western Michigan.

Mary Benedict was the “unanimous” choice of the organization’s selection committee, based not only on the more than 700 hours of time she has donated to pro bono work through Legal Aid, but also on the many other good works she has done in the community on her own time.

Benedict graduated from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 1991, and started volunteering her professional time in 1993. Since then she has handled more than 55 cases for Legal Aid, and she also contributes many hours outside of that work. She often serves as a Guardian Ad Litem for the courts, for which she is paid but not at her regular hourly rate; it is important to her to “try to help the kids, try to keep them safe,” she says.

When she was presented the award last Thursday during a lovely banquet at the B.O.B., Benedict joined the ranks of others who have chosen the same self-sacrificing path.
The full list of these winners, which includes so many who are still leading lights in the community, is (consecutively, starting with 1991): Diann Landers, Lawrence Mulligan, Thomas Clinton, Richard Roane, Melanie DeStigter, Jensen & Stuart, Norman Kravitz, Robert Lalley, Jr., Dale Iverson, Susan Wilson Keener, James Rinck, Randall Velzen, Caroline Dellenbusch, William Farr, Ronald Kooistra, Elizabeth Bransdorfer, and Elizabeth "Joy" Fossel.

In addition, several Michael Barnes Award winners have gone on to win the John W. Cummiskey Pro Bono Award from the State Bar of Michigan. The award’s namesake, Michael S. Barnes, was the first recipient of that coveted award, in 1983.

Barnes was a partner in Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge, a firm which continues to encourage pro bono commitments and which still co-hosts Legal Aid’s awards banquet. He was on Legal Aid’s board of directors from 1973 to 1984, serving as president.

A video shown at the awards ceremony honored Barnes as an attorney with a unique personality and an overwhelming commitment to providing legal services to those in need.

In the video, Smith Haughey attorney William Jack, himself an award winner, tells how Barnes once showed up unannounced at his doorstep offering to accompany him on a painful road trip to Florida after Jack’s father became ill. Jack was ever grateful for Barnes’s company.

That video also gave moving witness to the good works of Mary Benedict, and indicated why she was such an easy choice. Benedict says she was delighted when Legal Aid gave her a copy of the video as a keepsake.

Benedict is in general practice, covering divorce, juvenile abuse and neglect, delinquency, adoptions, contracts, probate and real estate purchasing, title, and inspection document review.

Benedict started her educational career with an Associates Degree from Grand Rapids Junior College and a B.S. from Michigan State University, both in criminal justice. After her graduation from Cooley, she served as interim executive director and contract attorney for Children’s Law Center in Grand Rapids, including as Guardian Ad Litem for children in contested custody and parenting time matters.

Subsequent to starting her own practice in 1993, Benedict has served as chair of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Grand Rapids Bar’s Family Law Section, as a representative on the Western Michigan Area Commission on Aging,  and as Vice President of the West Michigan Chapter of the Michigan Counsel for Family and Divorce Mediation, among other related activities. She is currently on the Keene Township Zoning Board of Appeals, and served for many years on that township’s planning commission.

Her work in the family law area extends not just to legal advocacy, but also to acting as a spokesperson for people of lower income who must deal with domestic legal issues.
But she says her greatest satisfaction comes with helping someone find resources to get out of a bad situation. “Often as family lawyers our job is a thankless job – nobody who sees us is at a very good time of their lives. But if they want to make a change and we can help them do that, that’s rewarding.” In Benedict’s case, she is very pleased about helping those who are at a low point in self-esteem find out that they can be successful. “I remember a case with a person who really had no self-esteem; by the time we got her divorce done, it was really building her self-esteem, and I feel like in some way I helped her get some self-confidence.”

Benedict is a strong proponent of mediation; she studied with Ann Arbor’s Zena Zumeta, now designated as a trainer by the Supreme Court Administrative Office, “before mediation was as popular as it is now.”

Benedict comments, “I see it as the clients’ opportunity to control their own destiny.” She adds that in Kent County family law practitioners are very fortunate in that the judges are willing to give them input along the way when it is in the best interest of the parties.

On a personal note, Benedict was accompanied at the awards banquet by her husband of less than six months — “the man of my dreams” — and one of her four children by marriage (a term she prefers to “stepchildren”), a 13-year-old son.“I think it’s something that a young man his age needs to see — that there are rewards that come with hard work,” Benedict says, though she adds, “Of course, we do it not for recognition but because somewhere along the way we help somebody.”