WMU-Cooley Grand Rapids student takes leadership role despite family responsibilities

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

“I thought about going to law school many times – after undergrad, when I came out of four years active duty in the Navy. But my family kept growing, and I had honestly given up on the idea of law school. But then I went to a Cooley open house because I saw a billboard,” says Mary Anne Simmering, “and I saw how flexible they were.”

So, at the age of 41, Simmering started down a path that many footloose and fancy-free 22-year-olds find difficult: she went to law school.

Not only did she and her husband, who is vice-president of regulatory, quality assurance and compliance at Stryker Corporation, have a large family of five children – all boys – but their second-born son is on the autism spectrum. She vowed that she would not pursue a full-time job until he had graduated from high school, but when he did, Simmering was able to return to her dream.

“In September 2015, he started junior college and I started law school,” she says.

Very active at the Grand Rapids campus, Simmering was as generous with her fellow students as she is with her family. One sign of the esteem in which they hold her is that Simmering was chosen by her classmates to give the “valedictory address” at the all-campus commencement ceremony held on a very snowy day in January (the 19th). She emphasizes that she was not the valedictorian, however. “I really don’t know why they call it the valedictory address,” she says.

On the way to WMU-Cooley, Simmering traveled far from her birthplace in a town of 1,000 or so in Wyoming. She confesses that when she received an ROTC?(Reserve Officer Training Corps) scholarship to Tulane University in New Orleans to study communications, she was very naive.

“I just hopped the plane and landed in New Orleans,” she says. “It was quite a culture shock. I did love it, it’s a beautiful city with so much history – but I was not very globally aware and I saw things that were really heart-wrenching.”

Shortly after her arrival, Simmering took a city bus to a mall near the French Quarter. “A bunch of kids got on the bus, all dressed the same in uniforms after getting out of school,” Simmering says. “We stopped at what I thought was an awful abandoned building, and all the kids got out because it was their home. I just thought, those poor kids, and we’re going shopping at the mall. It feels somehow unjust.”

Simmering met her husband at Tulane, and then both served in the Navy. They lived in a number of places. “He’s from Maine,” she says, “and we got married in Florida. Then, because he was a submarine officer, we lived in Connecticut. Then, after he got the job at Stryker, we moved to Kalamazoo. And I’ve come to really love it here.”

It was while Simmering was in the Navy that she got her first taste of the law. Her first assignment was as both an administrative officer and a legal officer, but the legal aspect was a “collateral duty.” For her second command she had enough work to be the legal officer full-time. “I would work with the attorneys bringing the charges, essentially like prosecutors. You never quite knew what the job was going to entail,” she adds, smiling.

Before her return to law school, she worked for an attorney in Kalamazoo, Glen Smith. And during her time at WMU-Cooley, she interned for federal Judge Janet Neff, and later for Circuit Judge Paul Bridenstine in Kalamazoo.

Simmering was much-honored at the awards convocation of her class, called the Benjamin Robbins Curtis class after a notable Supreme Court Justice. She received the Alumni Association Distinguished Student Award and the Leadership Achievement Award, among others. During her schooling, she also served as the Managing Associate Editor of the Thomas M. Cooley Law Review;  she was a WMU-Cooley Ambassador, on the Moot Court board, and in the Student Bar Association; she was also a teaching assistant for a professor she greatly admires, Tonya Krause-Phelan.

Perhaps Simmering’s most telling contribution while at WMU-Cooley was in starting the GR campus mentorship program, along with a few others. She and the other mentors helped students with matters both large and small. She tells of recognizing, because of her son, that a fellow student likely had Autism Spectrum Disorder. When she emailed to make sure that someone was aware, she says, “I got an email back saying they already had a whole team of support ready for him.” Simmering herself ended up tutoring him for over two years.

Simmering, who definitely wants to practice in Kalamazoo and is leaning towards criminal defense, says she “loved” her experience at WMU-Cooley. “I really think that the professors are the best kept secret about Cooley, one of the things that sets the school apart,” she says. “It’s just a genuine community of people who really care.”

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