At the helm: SBM president champions 'civility' in public discourse


By Linda Laderman
Legal News

Dennis Barnes, a business litigation attorney and a member at Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker, became the 85th president of the State Bar of Michigan in September. As part of his 2019-20 agenda, Barnes said he intends to build on the State Bar’s existing strengths, while pursuing initiatives that streamline the group’s governance.

“The State Bar is doing so many good things, and doing them well, that it is tempting to say that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. But, we are constantly looking for ways to make the wheel faster and more efficient,” Barnes said at his inaugural ceremony. “Through the SBM’s governance task force, we are evaluating ways to streamline the State Bar’s governance structure and scope with a view toward improving its efficiency and effectiveness, enhancing member engagement, and furthering SBM’s ability to fulfill its mission.”

An issue that could affect the State Bar’s mission is a lawsuit filed by Lucille Taylor, former legal counsel to then Michigan Governor John Engler. Taylor claims the State Bar’s membership requirement that all practicing lawyers belong to the SBM violates an attorney’s First Amendment right to free speech.

As for the State Bar’s legal strategy in the case, Barnes defers to the organization’s attorneys for guidance. “I’ve been a lawyer long enough to know that I should rely on our attorneys to argue the case,” Barnes said in a phone interview.

“This is what we do as lawyers,” Barnes added. “If we have a dispute, we reason through it. To the extent that we can’t come to an accommodation, our lawyers will argue our case to the court in a civil and professional manner. Lucille Taylor and her counsel have conducted themselves in the same way, and everybody should appreciate that.”

In an era where social media platforms affect a number of professions with often unvarnished messaging, the State Bar stands steadfast in its commitment to civility, Barnes said.

“The way we communicate in public spaces today, with social media and a 24/7 news cycle, has affected the practice of law, but probably less than in other areas of society,” Barnes said. “Most lawyers are professional and civil, while uncivil conduct in society in general appears to be rising. Even a casual observer of our current public discourse can see a growing political polarization in our society.”

Attorneys are in a position to help mitigate the rancorous conversations that characterize several segments of the public dialogue, Barnes said.

“In this environment, lawyers have an opportunity and are uniquely qualified to provide constructive leadership toward a significant public good – improving the tone and quality of our public civil discourse.  To that end, we need only remember who we are and what we do,” Barnes said. “Our training and experience have taught us to do so through thoughtful consideration, dialogue, reason, and persuasion.  The very best lawyers express themselves well, but they also listen well.”

While lawyers are expected to listen to the concerns of their clients, Barnes hopes members of the profession, in particular new lawyers, also will keep in mind the importance of finding the proper work-life balance for themselves.

“Finding the right balance between work and personal life requires a game plan. Lawyers should plan a strategy for balance just as they plan a winning strategy for achieving a client’s goal,” Barnes said. “Too often, lawyers with personal issues just seem to wake up one day and wonder how things got to where they are.  We all need to remember that our work-life balance is the sum of the choices that, as lawyers, we make every day.”

Barnes credits his wife Beth and their four children for having helped him find the work-life balance that is essential to his personal and professional life.

“Three of my children are out of college and actively engaged in their careers, and our youngest is in her junior year at the University of Dayton. They are all good people, and I have a fabulous, inspirational, supportive, and beautiful wife,” Barnes said, noting that their relationship began in the neighborhood where he was raised. “It was my good luck when her family moved to the house across the street from us while she was still in high school. I was going off to the college, but we would flirt back and forth and eventually started dating. The rest is history.”

Barnes grew up in Detroit, where he followed in his father’s footsteps by attending Catholic Central High School, then going on to Hillsdale College and University of Notre Dame Law School.

“Catholic Central has always been an important part of my life. My dad and my sons went there. For years, I was an active member of their Dads’ Club and I’m currently on the board of directors,” Barnes said. “For whatever reason, there is a wealth of lawyers and judges who’ve come out of Catholic Central. There is a very strong bond in a school like that.”

Despite not having much time to pursue outside interests, Barnes is an avid golfer and photographer.

“When I’m not working, I love to golf. In the fall, I enjoy getting outdoors for a little bow hunting. And I’m a not too bad of an amateur photographer. I do outdoor and sports photography mostly, and I’ve shot pictures for Catholic Central for years. It’s fun and rewarding to contribute to the school where I made so many lifelong relationships.”

A belief in the power of relationships is something Barnes has championed throughout his 33-year career in the law.

“Life is about your relationships, it’s what adds value to life, and that includes your personal and professional life,” Barnes said. “It makes me a better lawyer to have relationships with the people in our legal community.
To be able to help people individually and globally gain access to justice is something I care about. It is a reflection of how I was raised.”

For Barnes, leading the State Bar is a challenge that he says he couldn’t have taken on without the full support of his colleagues.

“This is an opportunity to lead the over 46,000 Michigan lawyers who are members of the State Bar and to make a positive impact on our system of justice and the people we serve,” Barnes said. “The scope of this commitment is broader and more significant than any previous voluntary position I’ve held. I could not do this without the full support of my firm that has always made service to the community a priority. It’s a collective effort.”

As he looks forward to his year as president, Barnes said he is confident the State Bar will remain at the forefront of a legal landscape that is constantly evolving.

“The business side of the practice of law has changed more in the last 10 years than it has in the last 100, and the pace of change is not slowing down,” Barnes said. “To that end, we’ll continue the State Bar’s work as a national innovator in moving the legal profession into the future, to better serve our core mission of advocating for an open, fair, and accessible justice system.”


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