Attorney turns being helped to life of helping others

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Attorney Ben Symko in his office at Jensen DeHaan and Symko

LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

For Ben Symko of Jensen, DeHaan and Symko, life has always provided just the right mentor or guide at just the right time.

A person who struggled throughout his teens with emotional pain and behaved in ways that were far from constructive, Symko says, “I’ve been very blessed to run into all these people who carried the same set of values and were willing to help me.

The path many of these good people helped pave for Symko did not lead directly to his current career in the law, but they provide strong motivation for him to return the favor to his clients.

Symko devotes his practice to Social Security disability. Though appeals are his primary work, he says, “I represent clients at all phases: the application stage, once they’re denied, at administrative hearings, and I also sue the Commissioner of Social Security in court if a case goes that far.”

He started in 2010 as an associate at Jensen and DeHaan, which concentrates in the same field as well as personal injury and workers’ compensation. He made partner at the beginning of this year, for which he credits his clients. “It’s really through them that my practice has done so well,” he comments.

Social Security disability representation is a field that helps people who, Symko emphasizes, have often worked all their lives and are in need of temporary help; it provides him a brisk business. “I grew up thinking that disability meant totally incapacitated, but most have worked their whole lives before something has caused them to need assistance.”

Moreover, Symko says that approximately 10% of his caseload is pro bono, and other cases are taken at reduced fees, helping people who have been denied benefits from the state or former prisoners with disabilities. “Working with recently released prisoners can be difficult,” he says. “I’m willing to take risks on these guys, but I expect them to do what they can to treat their illnesses. There are so many helpful places, free clinics like Heartside and Cherry Street, and the Wege Center, even places like Network 180 and Arbor Circle. A lot of these places have amazing physicians who are willing to help people who may have mental health issues not treated in prison.

“They can be the most rewarding. I recently helped a guy prevail for benefits who had been in 17 and a half years. The amount of money may not sound like a lot, but it meant the world to him.”

Symko is dedicated and prides himself on really listening to his clients, finding out the specifics of their stories — returning the favors once done for him. And, he adds, “It’s humbling that they’re willing to come in and tell me everything that’s going wrong for them.”

The turns Symko’s own life has taken also make for a fascinating narrative, one that a list of his mentors starts to tell.

Says Symko, “From my dad to Judge [Donald] Passenger to Sister Elvira to Mrs. Bren Simon to Joe Klock to Dick Hillary to, now, my partners, the path of mentors has been incredible. And,” he adds, “my wife Jessica has been a true blessing the whole way through.”

After his parents divorced when he was 14, Symko acted out his pain and anger by dropping out of school, behaving defiantly, and getting in a lot of trouble, mixed with liberal doses of alcohol. This eventually brought him before Judge Donald Passenger.

“He basically said, it’s time to sink or swim, time to change the path I was on. That’s a hard concept to learn if you don’t want to listen to it. I had isolated myself from my family and what I was raised believing, but the judge’s words resonated at that time – little did I know that I would ever see him again.”

When Symko was admitted to the bar, a little after others who took the bar  exam with him because he had to go through a state Character and Fitness hearing, Judge Passenger swore him individually.

“He didn’t have to care. He suggested to my parents that I go to Comunità Cenacolo, which my mother had heard of. Judge Passenger really didn’t have the jurisdiction to order that, but he could suggest it.”

Enter Sister Elvira Petrozzi, the founder of the Catholic recovery “boot camp” community in Florida that Symko went to next.

The community describes itself thusly: “Comunità Cenacolo is not a program; rather, it is a School of Life. The Community offers an authentic and concrete proposal of life based on Jesus Christ. We live a simple life based on prayer, sacrifice, authentic friendship, truth, work, and faith.”

This monastic regimen was, of course, difficult for Symko, but he made the best of it. “It was hard manual labor, we built the buildings we lived in, we milked the cows each morning for the milk we drank.”

Towards the end of his stay there, Sister Elvira met with him privately — Symko says, “She’s a great orator, she can captivate crowds, but when she sits down with you one on one she can make you feel like you’re the only person on earth” — and told him she felt he should go to help out a related effort in Italy, which specialized in heroin addiction.

Symko agreed, and found himself in a place among strangers. He was able to make friends through his actions, but only a couple of the Croations there spoke English. (He eventually learned to speak Italian.)

It was rewarding for him to make his way among people who were so desperately in need of help, but again it was a painfully Spartan life. When he decided to go home, Sister Elvira told him that instead he needed to go to the Dominican Republic. He turned her down.

“Then ... we were required to eat everything on our plate, but I had a tomato and part of it was rotten so I’d pushed the whole thing aside. She reached across and ate the part of it that was rotten, and said, ‘I want you consider again going to the Dominican Republic.’ It was that kind of a gesture, I knew what she was doing, and that was the first time I was taught the lesson that actions speak louder than words, even though I’d been living it for the past year.”

His stay at the Dominican Republic’s Boystown-modeled compound, where he counseled the cabin full of boys who were considered the worst of the worst, made him what he is today. He was successful in turning many of their lives around — including literally convincing a visiting physician to do life-saving heart surgery on one of them — and is still in touch with some of them today.

During a trip back to Grand Rapids when his grandfather was undergoing surgery, Symko met his future wife. She visited him in Dominican Republic, and seeds were planted that he might want to come back to the U.S. and go to college.

He says he still might not have gone in that direction except for the philanthropist Bren Simon, with whom he came in contact through his expanded responsibilities working with Sister Elvira’s foundation. She believed in him so strongly that she agreed to pay for both his undergraduate degree from Grand Valley State University (with a major in Spanish and a minor in philosophy) and his three years at Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

“It was a tough decision, and not only because it was hard to accept that charity. I was happy there and didn’t necessarily want to leave, but I knew I had to make some decisions about my future.”

His last months in the Dominican Republic were spent working closely with well-known attorney Joe Klock, which pushed him in the direction of practicing law. For the first time since leaving Michigan he was paid, through Klock’s law firm in South Florida.

Symko says Klock was an admirable financial contributor to the school in the Dominican Republic who would find out and remember the names and stories of the children he encountered.

During his time at Cooley (where he says Dean Nelson Miller was also a role model), Symko interned at the Kent County Office of the Public Defender, and after his graduation, Dick Hillary offered him a job there. Symko found the work difficult, challenging and “gratifying,” and he has nothing but praise for Hillary. “His sense of humor, his openness — he’s very approachable – really allowed you to thrive in an environment where things are very sad for many of the people you’re defending.”

Benjamin and Jessica Symko have two wonderful children: Benjy, 7, and Sophia, 3. He credits his wife with keeping him on track and his whole family with keeping him sane. “They’re my shining stars,” he says proudly.

Along the way Symko has won some highly impressive awards, including as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Americans (TOYA) in 2010 (an award also won by people like Presidents Kennedy, Ford, and Clinton), and this year a designation of Rising Star by Super Lawyers. He plays down these honors, but is happy to tell you a few stories: how Elvis Presley superstitiously took the TOYA award with him everywhere he went, what it was like to meet other inspirational award-winners in New Orleans...

“Everyone has a unique story,” Symko says.