Golden year: Attorney embraces new legal role amid challenging times

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By Melanie Deeds
Legal News
   
Perhaps it’s the five decades of practicing law that bolsters Joseph Golden’s insight, humor and optimism during these stressful times.

Or it could be those backyard get-togethers with longtime friends.

As restrictions have eased and small social outdoor gatherings are becoming more commonplace, Golden and some buddies from high school have been converging on backyard decks to play poker.

The laughter, banter and good-natured competition help ease the stress of isolation and uncertainty resulting from the pandemic.

“I’m handling my life very well, hunkering down when necessary,” said Golden, who took over this month as the 92nd president of the Macomb County Bar Association, succeeding Jonathan Biernat. “I do meet up in backyards with friends from high school for poker games.”

What helps, too, is that his law office has reopened and he’s back at work part-time.

Golden — who will celebrate his 80th birthday in October and sports an attention-grabbing, full white beard — is senior counsel to The Sharp Firm in Clinton Township. His specialty is representing individual employees in wrongful discharge and workplace discrimination claims.

During these past several months, Golden has become familiar with the new workplace requirements and restrictions.

“As we all are, I’m learning to adapt with masks and social distancing,” he said. “We can all do this until we are positive it is safe to be around others.”

Golden also has spent a good deal of time “getting more familiar” with Zoom.

“From the standpoint of practicing law, Zoom certainly has its limitations,” he said, “not only when it comes to meeting with clients, but networking and sitting down with the loyal opposition.

“Personal contact in this profession is so important.”

It’s been four months since courts shut down and they are gradually reopening as officials attempt to draw up blueprints to get the justice system back on track.

It will be a long, slow process, Golden said, adding that it’s unlikely proceedings will appear much like they did in the past.

“A manageable plan to all of this seems a long way off,” he said.

Golden launched his legal career with Wayne County Neighborhood Legal Services in 1968.

Not long after that, while vacationing with his family on Cape Cod, he started growing a beard.

In a recent interview in the MCBA’s “Bar Briefs” magazine. Golden said he gradually became more comfortable with the full facial hair in the early stages “and felt it was an advantage in trial.

“The beard got the attention and the substance of my presentation kept the attention...” he said.

Prior to establishing his own firm in 1978, Golden was a partner in the Southfield firm of Fieger, Golden and Cousens, serving as general counsel to the Michigan Federation of Teachers.

For the past 40 years, Golden has focused on establishing himself as a civil rights lawyer specializing in employment discrimination.

He is a founding member of the National Employment Lawyers Association and served a decade on its executive board. He is a co-founder as well of the Michigan Employment Lawyers Association.

Prior to the pandemic, as Golden approached the start of his tenure as MCBA president, his focus in leading the organization became clear — improving the image of attorneys and furthering the work of a panel he recently pushed to create, The Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

“I see my role as trying to improve not only the quality of the practice, but to address education and mentoring problems and improve the image of the attorney,” he said.

“All we heard about for a while was Michael Cohen, then Rudy Giuliani,” Golden said, referring to former members of President Donald Trump’s legal team.

Such examples, Golden suggested, might not serve as inspirations to take up a career in the legal profession.

Meanwhile, he recalled recent graduation ceremonies of two grandchildren from area high schools. For each class, there were some three dozen valedictorians, Golden said, and those top-performing students were asked about college plans.

“Just one out of 34 in the first class was pre-law; the next year, none,” Golden noted. “It used to be you wanted to a doctor or a lawyer. The sciences got all kinds of play as did medical research. The image of the lawyer is becoming distasteful.”

He said the establishment of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee “raised the opportunity to expand the bar’s organizational and individual relationships, including seminars and social gatherings.

Members of that panel already have met with Greg Conyers, director of diversity for the State Bar of Michigan.

Committee members have reached out to leaders of other bar associations and hope to organize a seminar — hopefully face-to-face, but “with Zoom as a backup” — in the spring.

Although he has lived in the Macomb County community of Sterling Heights since 1979, Golden never really practiced much in the in the county, which was perceived as being less diverse than Detroit and other nearby areas.

Golden changed his mind several years ago when he realized just one firm in Macomb County practiced employment law. At that point, he became active in the MCBA.

“I think there are improvements to be made and I’m willing to work at it,” he said. “I do want to work at diversity; we have a lot to offer.”

Regarding the social aspects of the MCBA, Golden said the persistent virus means “we’re going to have to go to Plan B.

“Because of the pandemic, we won’t be able to raise funds as before and will have to consider smaller events,” he said. “This may be the model we have to go with for some time.

“If you can’t have the personal contact that you had before, you may not be able to establish the close personal relationships you once had. But that’s the reality. And if you can’t, then you get as close as you can.”

The MCBA is “an organization that has to function,” Golden said. “This may not be the optimum year and people need to be open to change.”

Golden said he’s confidant people are going to adapt to the changing environment that is still rather new.

“Look at the past four months. First off, you didn’t see anybody or go anywhere. No groups could gather and people couldn’t even drive up north,” he said. “Then, people started to open up and adapt. It was me going over to your yard for a visit. Changes like that became more of a thing to do. It’s all about change and flexibility and willingness to adapt.”

Golden was dismayed when he heard news reports that some 30 percent of those responding to a recent poll said they would refuse a COVID-19 vaccination. He is puzzled as well by those who resist wearing masks.

“When a certain number of people don’t see this as a problem,” Golden said,” we have a real problem.

“It’s about compromise. And you can’t be that afraid. You need to take the necessary precautions. People have been getting sick forever. Life continues with certain limitations.”

Golden said Americans “just need to deal with the pandemic and all of the changes that the virus brings.

The recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Golden said, was a real tipping point.

“This is the perfect storm; people are so anxious to get out and express themselves. Being part of a group is important even if it isn’t safe. I understand why people are out on the streets protesting.”

Despite all of the unrest and upheaval, anxiety over the increasing number of cases of the virus and stress over masks and meetings, Golden is steadfastly optimistic.

There’s “a core of people who are now more committed than ever and the violence is taking away from that,” he said.

“We certainly are resilient enough as a nation; politics have just divided us at a time when we need to be united and people have died because of it,” Golden said. “Still, I remain hopeful for the future.”

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