Minority clerkship program offers win-win for law firms, clerks

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Clerk Kevin Battle, who hails from Muskegon and attends Notre Dame Law School, with Minority Clerkship Committee Chair Sal Pirrotta, at Miller Johnson

LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price

Legal News
 
Students completing their first year at law school are able to gain experience and enjoy new collegial relationships. Law firms benefit from individual expertise as well as a broadened perspective. The Grand Rapids legal community, along with Greater Grand Rapids as a whole, expands its opportunities to attract talented people of color.
 
That is a recipe for a successful program, and the Grand Rapids Bar Association’s Minority Clerkship continues to be a success.
 
Says Kim Coleman, Executive Director of the Grand Rapids Bar Association, “A key element for people considering pursuing legal careers in our community is to allow them to feel Grand Rapids, and this gives them the resources they need to see themselves working — an living — right here.”
 
The current chair of the Minority Clerkships Committee, Sal Pirrotta of Miller Johnson, credits Coleman with working hard to encourage that success. “She’s fabulous. She’s been devoted to this cause for many years, and now some of the things she’s been doing are coming to fruition.”
 
But Coleman in her turn gives credit to the visionary originators of the minority clerkship program, one of whom happens to be the current president of the GRBA, Mark Smith of Rhoades McKee.
 
“It’s hard to remember exactly where the idea came from,” Smith says. “I’d like to claim the little group of us had a crystal ball, but at the time we were in the Young Lawyers Section and it may have been suggested to us. Anyway, we started meeting together and eventually put in a proposal that the trustees accepted.”
 
The illustrious group included Dale Iverson, now of Just Mediation PLC; Valerie Simmons, formerly of Warner, Norcross and Judd and an adjunct professor at Cooley Law School; and Mary Beth Jelks, now the Director of Human Resources for the City of Grand Rapids. They started out by exploring a similar program of the Columbus, Ohio, Bar Association which started in 1987 and continues to this day.
 
Smith emphasizes that one of the most telling innovations the GRBA program made is having the Floyd Skinner Bar Association (FSBA) co-conduct the clerkship interviews. This works to eliminate the potential for business-as-usual decisions. “We wanted to remove every barrier that we could,” Smith comments.
 
Pirrotta explains that GRBA staff members, specifically Karen Flick, send out application invitations to a variety of law schools and their organizations, including the Black Law Students Association. The committee narrows down the applicants to about 15, and then works with the FSBA to interview and place the summer clerks.
 
Mark Smith comments, “The program has waxed and waned over the years,” and Cathleen M. Dubault, Director of Lawyer Recruitment at Warner Norcross and Judd, agrees, considering the cause often to be related to the state of the economy.
 
Pirrotta reports, “In 2012 we had 37 applicants, our highest number ever, but the previous high of 30 was last year’s.
 
The economy notwithstanding, there has been a strategic expansion of the program over the past several years. And while some say that Pirrotta’s leadership has been important in that expansion, he modestly defers to the previous co-chairs, Julie Westra and Ray Littleton.
 
“The put a lot of these mechanisms in place, and helped this really bloom again,” says Pirrotta.
 
Also responsible for its success over the years have been the law firms who participate. Dubault says that Warner Norcross, which has been involved since its inception in 1991, has “always looked at it as an additional hiring tool.
 
“It’s morphed a bit. When the program was started, it was with the intent of giving valuable law firm experience to first-year students, but not necessarily used to help the firms hire, or with the broader view of showcasing Grand Rapids. That’s changed over the years.”
 
61st District Court Judge Benjamin Logan, who has has been instrumental over the years, including as president of the FSBA, agrees. “It started out as a way to help students and to get them acclimated to the Grand Rapids legal community But law firms realized it gives them a leg up in terms of working towards making their law firms and the legal community much more diverse.”
 
Judge Logan feels strongly that the clerks themselves benefit greatly, and have a responsibility to participate fully in Grand Rapids life.
 
Pirrotta reports that this summer, minority clerks will participate in a June reception (which has been held alternately over the years by GRBA and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce) to which all legal clerks are invited; a cookout at the home of Tracey and Kenyatta Brame; and a community tour through the Chamber of Commerce; and other networking opportunities that, Pirrotta says, “we hope will help them see that Grand Rapids and West Michigan have a lot more diversity than they might realize, and a tremendous amount of opportunity.”
 
This year drew participation from Miller Canfield, Miller Johnson, Rhoades McKee, Spectrum Health, Steelcase, Varnum, and Warner Norcross and Judd.
 
Varnum has also taken minority clerkship placements since the beginning of the program, and has two this year.
 
Comments Diversity Partner Joy Fossel, “The program helps us establish relationships with law students who might not otherwise have known about Varnum ... [and] allows us to showcase Grand Rapids and our legal community in general. It operates as an opportunity for the students to connect with their peers..., and hopefully  serves as a springboard for attracting not only the students who come through the program, but through them, many others.”
 
Pretty much everyone involved with the minority clerkships sees this as one of the program’s strengths. Smith says, “We would love to see the clerks come back here as full-time lawyers, but even if they don’t we hope they serve as ambassadors to the city so their peers see Grand Rapids as a great place to practice.”
 
Or, as Rodney Martin, Warner Norcross’s Diversity Partner, puts it, “After spending a summer in Grand Rapids, they return to campus and help us spread the word that the Grand Rapids Bar is inclusive and interested in becoming more diverse.”
 
Applications for next year’s minority clerkship program are available at http://www.grbar.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=68.

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