PHOTOS COURTESY OF MARIKO WILLIS
by Cynthia Price
The Willis family sticks together.
The two brothers who formed Willis Law, Shaun Patrick and Michael J., recently added their father to the firm. The Hon. Frank D. Willis was a judge in Van Buren County for approximately 39 years before joining his sons at their Kalamazoo-based firm.
Next in line is recent WMU-Cooley Law School graduate Mariko Willis, their younger sister.
Though she was actually the legal assistant for Shaun Patrick Willis’s first firm in 2002, and has assisted at Willis Law for several years, she will be starting in August as a Law Clerk and will be an attorney there once she passes the bar.
There is another member of the Willis family who, though deceased, never seems far from the family’s thoughts.
Christopher Kelly Willis was killed in a car accident in 2003, six weeks after returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he was a corporal working in logistics for the United States Marine Corps (USMC). He was still on active duty, and died right before a big party the family had planned to welcome him back.
Shaun Willis notes that his brother was responsible for transporting the service members who, in an iconic moment, tore down the statue of Saddam Hussein.
The repercussions from Chris Willis’s death are multiple. First, Shaun, who went directly from receiving a B.S. in Aviation Flight Science from Western Michigan University to what was then called Thomas M. Cooley Law School, convinced his brother Mike, who was working as a Certified Public Accountant (but who also worked as an attorney for Varnum), to form a law firm with him.
They kicked off in 2004 on Christopher’s birthday, March 2. The firm has grown to approximately 15 attorneys and has opened a Grand Rapids office, which has now moved to a renovated building on Jefferson.
Second, Mariko Willis was inspired to joined the USMC. She spent eight years on full-time duty, many in Djibouti, Africa.
A staff sergeant, she was able to serve in the same main unit as her brother Chris. “I took a few years off after the birth of my son,” she says, “but I went back into the reserves when I started law school. I just reenlisted, so I’ll continue doing my obligations on weekends.”
The third significant result rippling out from Christopher Willis’s death is the founding of the Christopher Kelly Willis Foundation, which will have a positive effect on the world for decades to come.
“It was started really to just contribute to the things he cared about,” Mariko Willis comments, explaining that it took a while to narrow down the focus to one main activity: giving scholarships to the children of those who were either killed or severely disabled in the military.
Mariko serves as the Chief Operating Officer of the Foundation, as well as on the board.
She notes that everyone associated with the foundation is a volunteer, and her brothers fund an administrative assistant to keep it running “basically out of their own pockets.”
Interestingly, the Willis Foundation does not wait until the children are of college age to approach them. Based on recommendations or on actively seeking candidates, they reach out to families who have suffered a loss and invest the money.
According to Shaun Willis, the hope is to fill in for the portion of college education that the government does not pick up, and therefore give the scholarship recipient confidence throughout their lives.
But ultimately, a greater significance in the lives of these children is the message that someone cares, that their parents (thus far, their fathers) were heroes and that someone has their backs as they struggle with the pain of loss.
Although people can donate anytime (at www.willisfoundation.org), the main fund-raiser is something called the Warrior Ride, a bicycle trip which covers 280 miles of the state and ends with a reception honoring the scholarship recipient. All of the Willis siblings participate.
“We do it over three days and a lot of veterans and marines who served with my brother come out each year. This year we brought in over $100,00,” she said.
She is grateful to WMU-Cooley for its flexibility, making law school possible with her schedule. “I really loved the staff and faculty,” she says. “I’ve got nothing but good things to say about the professors and Dean Miller. David Terrien had a really great impact on me, and so did Professor Chris Trudeau. All of them went above and beyond.”
Another advantage for Mariko was the ability to get to know the Grand Rapids market better. As she returns to Willis Law, she would like to practice out of the Grand Rapids location.
Shaun Willis, who is the managing partner, says one of the firm’s distinguishing features is its fixed pricing, which allows corporations and individuals to budget for legal costs.
Referring to his father, former Judge Frank Willis, he observes, “His role is to be a mentor and to basically know everything — and he does a good job of that.”
Mariko Willis did not specialize at WMU-Cooley but instead took electives in a variety of subjects. But, she says, she has definitely considered being a litigator.
Her brother Shaun approves. “She’s pretty feisty so she might do OK,” he says, but adds more seriously, “We’re really proud of her and we expect great things from her.”