Miller Canfield, with offices statewide, is recognized for its pro bono work


 by Cynthia Price

Legal News
A law firm that has been around  Michigan for over 160 years has won an award for continuing its tradition of generosity and public service.
Legal Aid and Defenders Association (LAD) has honored Miller Canfield, which started out in Detroit in 1852 and has had an office in Grand Rapids for 30 plus years, as its Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year.

LAD is the largest provider of free legal services to the indigent in Michigan and one of the largest in the United States, according to its website. It is almost as old as Miller Canfield, and was also established in Detroit — in 1909.

Serving Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties, LAD is part of the same group of Legal Services Corporations as Legal Aid of Western Michigan, which also includes Legal Services of Eastern Michigan, Legal Services of Northern Michigan, Legal Services of South Central Michigan, and Michigan Indian Legal Services.

Miller Canfield (formerly Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone) has its roots firmly planted in public service. According to Thomas Linn, Chair of the firm’s Pro Bono Committee, “We did a lot of pro bono service early in the 20th century. In the thirties, we were important arguers of some key Supreme Court cases, and part of that was done pro bono. We also had a strong public finance practice for much of our history, which has helped us serve the community.”

Michael McGee, current Miller Canfield CEO, issued this statement about the recognition: “We are honored to receive this award and appreciate the privilege of working with Legal Aid and contributing to their important work. The firm is proud to continue its long history of supporting local communities by providing pro bono legal services.”

Miller Canfield is also named in the State Bar of Michigan Pro Bono Circle of Excellence this year, as it has been for over 20 years. “We were one of the original signatories to the pro bono challenge,” says Linn, who is chairman emeritus of Miller Canfield after serving as CEO for nearly eight years and managing director for 20.

The SBM Circle of Excellence has broad representation from Grand Rapids or Kalamazoo law firms,  some of which are statewide firms with local offices. Membership on the Circle of Excellence means firms are in full compliance with the SBM Voluntary Pro Bono Standard: on average, attorneys contribute “at least 30 hours of counsel or representation to low income individuals and families or to organizations that provide legal services,” or donate at least $300 to such organizations, recently increased to $500 for those with higher incomes.

In addition to Miller Canfield, which has offices in both Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, area firms meeting the State Bar’s Pro Bono standards are Clark Hill; Dickinson Wright; Dykema Gossett; Foster Swift Collins and Smith; Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn; Miller Johnson; Rhoades McKee; Sinas, Dramis, Brake, Boughton and  McIntyre; Thrun Law Firm (soon to open); Varnum; Warner Norcross and Judd; Gruel Mills Nims and  Pylman; McGarry Bair; Pinsky Smith Fayette and Kennedy; and Willis Law.

Linn says he was asked by the current CEO to chair Miller Canfield’s pro bono committee because of his passion for community work and expertise in coordinating activities firmwide. The committee consists of a pro bono coordinator from each of the Michigan offices, including Andrew Blum in Grand Rapids and Leo Goddeyne in Kalamazoo.

Miller Canfield, Linn says, “gives our attorneys an automatic 50 hours of billable credit for pro bono work.” He says he works with community partners to find cases that are likely to take 10-30 hours to complete.
“We’ve trained our people to do expungements for Legal Aid and Defenders of Detroit, and divorces,” Linn says. “That’s most of what we do, though we also encourage veterans’ appeals work.”

Indeed LAD chose Miller Canfield this year specifically for its representation of indigent clients in expungement hearings and for contributions to family law.

Blum says that in the 15-attorney Grand Rapids office, “We work with Legal Aid of Western Michigan, and we’ve done a lot of landlord-tenant matters, divorce, government benefits, and we also help with expungements here. We’ve successfully done a prisoner rights case, a quiet title case, and even a wrongful death.” Blum, who specializes in disputes in the automotive industry, adds that he enjoys being on the pro bono committee and participating in conference calls with Linn and others around the state. “I’m the coordinator for this office and also one of two liaisons with Legal Aid.”

Antitrust and tort litigator and Electronic Discovery expert Jay Yelton and others in the firm’s Kalamazoo office have represented the Fair Housing Center of Southwest Michigan in a couple of discrimination suits against landlords who avoided renting to families with children. “Both of them resulted in court-ordered injunctive relief where the apartment complex has to change its policies,”?Yelton said. “They also have to allow the Fair Housing Center to look at their records for the next two to three years.”

Yelton says that the case taught him a lot about the struggles faced by single parents with low incomes. “The landlords would insist that they could only rent a two-bedroom apartment if they had children, which is often not possible on what they make.” He adds, “I do really find it satisfying. Once you start talking to the victims you really do appreciate the importance of it.”

Comments Blum, “Lawyers have a less than stellar reputation generally, but with this work we hope to try and change that. And,” he adds, “it makes us all feel really good.”

Yelton adds, “I’ve been with Miller Canfield since 1990 and I’ve been very impressed by our pro bono efforts – and Thom Linn gets a lot of credit for that. If you put someone at the head of the pro bono work as highly respected as Thom, it’s hard not to want to get involved.”

Linn himself comments about the award, “It’s nice to be recognized, but I don’t think getting publicity is the primary reason we do so much pro bono work. It’s because it’s the right thing to do.”