Diverse group of lawyers adds to Barnes & Thornburg Grand Rapids expansion

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

The growth of Barnes & Thornburg’s Grand Rapids office has quietly continued apace, now including over 30 attorneys in a wide variety of practices.

As of January, four more attorneys joined the prestigious firm, adding significant expertise and a diversity of interests.

With a long history, Barnes & Thornburg counts as its beginning a small firm in South Bend, Indiana. Through many mergers, B & T became the powerhouse it is today, a 600-plus-attorney firm with offices in such cities as Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago and Washington, D.C., numbering 13 in all.

The number 13 has played a deliberately large role in the firm’s history. Founders of the Indianapolis firm Barnes, Hickam, Pantzer & Boyd believed 13 was their lucky number; they started in 1940 with 13 people and secured 1313 as their telephone number and 1313 as their address.

Grand Rapids is the sole Barnes & Thornburg office in Michigan.

One of the most interesting areas of the recent expansion is reflected in the addition of Jeff Davis as Of Counsel and Erika Weiss as an associate.

Davis and Weiss will be working together to develop the firm’s American Indian law practice.

Jeff Davis was an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Western District of Michigan for over 20 years, during which he was that office’s tribal liaison. Though he notes that his role as an AUSA often focused on pursuing criminal violations, he learned a great deal about Indian Country and the compli-

cated relationship of tribal law to Federal law. He was on the Indian Law and Order Commission from 2010 to 2013, helping to develop a report which reviewed tribal justice systems in the U.S.

For all of his work, Davis received the Tecumseh Award from the State Bar of Michigan American Indian Law Section, as reported in the Oct. 17, 2014, Grand Rapids Legal News. At the time, the award presenter referred to Davis’s grace, humor, and humility.

Himself a Native American, hailing from the North Dakota Turtle Mountain tribe (Chippewa), Davis attended the University of North Dakota for his B.A. and the University of New Mexico School of Law for his J.D. He says he is looking forward to reaching out to the 12 tribes in Michigan to find out about their legal needs.

“Michigan tribes are very sophisticated and they have very seasoned in-house counsel. Our approach is to meet with them and talk to them, let them know about all the resources we have here that might help – and there are quite a few,” Davis comments.

Though Weiss is also a Native American, a descendant of the Little Traverse Bay Band in Petoskey, she grew up in Belding. “It’s a very Dutch community, so I obviously stood out,” she says. “My friends would ask me, ‘What are you?’ and as soon as I answered, I’d get the response, “So you get a whole bunch of money from the casino.’”

That is one thing Weiss feels is ripe for change: she would love to counsel tribes on how to diversify their economic base. Though she is currently part of the B & T Litigation practice (as is Davis), she is anxious to work with tribes to increase community self-reliance.

Though she has only been out of WMU-Thomas M. Cooley Law School since 2014 (graduating magna cum laude), Weiss had the opportunity to work for the Kalamazoo office of Rosette, LLP.  That national firm, majority-Indian-owned, represents tribal governments and entities in broad focus areas, including economic development with an emphasis on e-commerce.

Weiss, who did her undergraduate work at Grand Valley State University, attended both the Ladies Environmental Tea and the Grand Rapids IP Women Professionals groups featured in recent issues. She observes, “Working with tribes, you’re not confined to just environmental law or IP law. If you’re going to work with tribes generally you get a good mix everything from ICWA?[Indian Child Welfare Act] cases to helping negotiate and review contracts.”

Though she adds, “Litigation has always tugged at my heartstrings,” Weiss says she will be happy to contribute her talents in any way she can. “I’m driven to help the tribes develop.”

And Davis notes that Weiss’s time at Rosette, which included commercial litigation, was a good training ground for the wide range of activities the two plan to undertake.

“I want to use the knowledge I attained when I was an AUSA to provide opportunities that will focus back on the Indian communities, especially the juveniles and children,” Davis says.

Both the other recently-added attorneys are seasoned in their fields.

Charles Becker has more than 30 years of corporate legal experience, particularly in business taxation. Born in Kalamazoo, he received his J.D. from Wayne State University and his B.B.A. from Western Michigan University.  As a child, he frequently visited his grandmother in Southern California and always knew he wanted to live there, so to increase his marketability, he went to New York University for an LL.M.

There, he gained expertise in the very new Tax Reform Act of 1986, which brought him “a slew of offers.” He practiced at a couple of firms in San Diego before going in-house at International Telecommunications Corp. there.

Interestingly, after he concluded that he wanted to make changes as his youngest daughter went off to college (he was a single parent), Becker joined the Peace Corps. He found himself as a youth development volunteer in a small town in Morocco. “It was an experience of a lifetime to say the least,” he comments. He met and married a Moroccan woman there.

Once they returned, Becker, with no idea of what he was going to do, met up casually with a Barnes and Thornburg partner friend, leading to joining the firm.

The fourth new attorney, Scott Dienes, has more than 20 years of experience in municipal and local government law, focusing on finance and land use, including serving as counsel to an emergency manager for a city during its financial crisis.

“I have always enjoyed the satisfaction of helping communities,” he says, noting that he also receives a lot of satisfaction from pro bono cases.

He recently helped Macomb County address the massive 2016 sinkhole in Fraser, which displaced residents and disrupted service. “Ultimately, the project... came in under budget and ahead of schedule. [Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller’s] leadership style that drove the project was refreshing – honesty, integrity and accountability,” he comments.

Dienes, who graduated from WMU-Cooley Law School (after receiving his B.A. from Siena Heights University), has served on the boards of both institutions. “Cooley’s policy of ‘access’ is important to me,” Dienes says.

His practice has its roots in Southwest Michigan, and he is a former Berrien County Bar Association President. But he feels the move to Grand Rapids will be smooth, especially since his wife works nearby. About B & T, he adds, “The depth of talent and footprint of the firm elevates my ability to serve my clients substantially.”
 

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