Criminal defense/juvenile delinquency attorney enjoys collegiality, flexibility



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Steven R. Simkins, whose practice now consists almost exclusively of criminal defense and juvenile neglect and delinquency cases, sees only positives in being on his own.

“I really am happy,” he says. “I enjoy the freedom that I have, I’ve got a lot of flexibility. Yes, it means I don’t take very many vacations, but it also means I can schedule work so that I’m at my kids’ sports events, and spend a lot of time with my family.”

On the flip side, he also found there were not a lot of barriers once he decided to pursue the solo course.

That was, however, after he had tried going down a number of other paths.

After the Lowell native received his B.A. in Criminal Justice from Michigan State University, he applied to police academies in large cities, but while he waited to hear took a job at St. John’s Home. His position working with boys 12 to 16 who had nowhere to go or were placed there by the court system consisted primarily of supervising the youth and providing structure for them as part of St. John’s services. “I wasn’t providing therapeutic counseling, it was more like role modeling for these young guys,” he explains.

The position dovetailed nicely with work he had done during college as a Volunteer Probation Officer, developing a year-long relationship with  an individual young man that involved mentoring and serving as an example.

Enjoying that type of work, Simkins debated going to graduate school to get his Masters’ in Social Work, but he had already taken the LSAT?and done well, so he decided to pursue the law.

While at Wayne State University Law School, Simkins participated in the Moot Court; worked at its Free Legal Aid Clinic, which exposed him to a variety of types of law; and then  interned at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office.

There he was assigned to a drug specialty unit, and his supervisor was Todd Flood — the same Todd Flood who is now heading up the special prosecutors’ team on the Flint water crisis investigation, working out of Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office.

“Todd was just a charismatic, energetic guy who gave me a lot of opportunities to get into court under his supervision,” Simkins says. “And I think that getting your feet wet in court is really the best way to learn how to really practice law.”

Indeed, Simkins next went into a small private practice with Flood,  staying in the Detroit area. “I was a very junior associate for him, doing a lot of research and writing, but I still went to court at times,” he says. After a few years, Simkins joined another Detroit-area attorney, Ben Gonek, who occasionally takes on associates in his well-known solo practice.

Then Simkins started missing West Michigan.

“I thought I was going to come back and things would be a breeze,” he says, laughing, about his decision to start a solo practice here. “I thought I’d jump right in, but it was like starting all over. I had to get to know the judges, the other attorneys... I was starting from scratch.”

Famliarizing oneself with the lay of the land and the people who populate it is an aspect of solo practice that Simkins emphasizes. He says there is no substitute and it just takes time.

“I’ve been doing this here for I guess almost 14 years now, and I’ve found I learn a lot every single year. My dad taught me from a very early age you can’t know too many people. I used to not take him seriously, but it’s completely true. The more attorneys you get to know, and who get to like you, the more time you’re in front of these judges and get to know them... it just makes things so much better,” he comments.

While he is a member of the Grand Rapids Bar Association Criminal Law and Juvenile Law Sections, he says he wishes he had more time to increase his involvement. “It’s a very good resource,” he says. “So is the State Bar of Michigan — they can give you a list of companies and agencies that help. I get my health insurance through them.”

Initially working out of his home, Simkins first moved to an office in Cascade, and later took up an offer to rent space from a group of four attorneys who were striking out on their own. Their office is right near the police station downtown.

He started out getting his name added to the Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel System list and applying to do court-appointed representation. He was also a Special Acting Attorney General, working contractually with the Michigan AG after an approval process. As he has gained more experience, Simkins now relies on word-of-mouth and occasional advertising, but he still takes court-appointed juvenile neglect and delinquency cases.

As far as his website, which he regards as critical for driving business, he had a friend do it when times were lean, and then borrowed a bit of money to get a more professional site, Now he maintains it himself.
Another hurdle for solo attorneys is finding coverage for times when, for example, there are cases scheduled in different courtrooms at the same time, but Simkins has managed to make arrangements for such coverage. The four attorneys he rents from provide some help along with others he has met along the way; and he returns the favor.

“I try to do that as little as possible,” he says, and adds, “Even when I’m on vacation, I’ll be fielding phone calls.”

Simkins has represented clients in a few high-profile cases and says that that he finds the work very interesting. “I have a policy that the first consultation is free, and what I’m looking to do is review all the reports and the evidence, watch the videos, and see if there’s a reason to get the case dismissed. After that, my secondary goal is damage mitigation,” he says.

Acknowledging that most cases result in resolution out of court, Simkins says, “The older I get the more I enjoy litigation. I really do enjoy being in court.” In fact, he says, there is a downside: he struggles to make time to come back to his office and do paperwork or prepare for his next case.

He often works into the evening, avoids traffic, and still gets home in time to have dinner with his wife, children aged 9, 7, and just over a year, in Lowell — he has come full circle and moved just north of his home town.

Simkins’ key advice for those considering a solo career is that it always pays to be civil and kind. “There are attorneys  who really don’t want to talk to you, but the majority are really nice and willing to help you out. It’s the same with prosecutors: if you come on too strong they’re harder to deal with, but if you’re nice, it’s just easier.

“Like most, I’m going to remember the people who are good to me.”