West Michigan firms make strong showing in pro bono excellence

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Kevin Dougherty of Warner, Norcross and Judd


By Cynthia Price

Legal News

The pro bono spirit is alive and well in West Michigan firms — a fact acknowledged by the 2012 State Bar of Michigan (SBM) Pro Bono Circle of Excellence.

Firms that have either their main or a branch office in Grand Rapids represent nine of the 23 large firms and four of the 20 small firms on the list.

In order to qualify, a law firm must demonstrate that all of its attorneys, taken overall:

—Provide free or, in some instances, reduced-fee representation to low income individuals or to “organizations providing direct services to low income individuals;” and/or

—Make at least a $300 contribution to specific organizations approved by the Access To Justice (ATJ) Fund; and

—Fill out a written application; and

—Comply with the Voluntary Standard for Pro Bono participation adopted by the State Bar Representative Assembly.

That standard reads: “All active members … should participate in the direct delivery of pro bono legal services to the poor by annually: providing representation without charge to a minimum of three low income individuals; or providing a minimum of thirty hours of representation or services, without charge, to low income individuals or organizations; or providing a minimum of thirty hours of professional services at no fee or at a reduced fee to persons of limited means or to public service or charitable groups or organizations; or contributing a minimum of $300 to not-for-profit programs organized for the purpose of delivering civil legal services to low income individuals or organizations. The minimum recommended contribution level is $500 per year for those lawyers whose income allows a higher contribution.”

Therefore, in order to qualify for the Circle of Excellence, a law firm must have total contributions, divided by $300, and total free legal service hours, divided by 30, equal to or greater than the number of its attorneys.

SBM will take into consideration reduced-fee programs if a firm is close to the eligibility requirement. The service must be legal in nature, and neither community service nor Lawyer Referral Information Service time counts.

For the Circle of Excellence, only donations to ATJ Fund-eligible programs will be counted. These include Legal Aid of Western Michigan and the other Legal Aid offices around the state; the Access to Justice Fund Statewide Endowment, American Civil Liberties Union Fund of Michigan, Elder Law of Michigan, Farmworker Legal Services, and Michigan Indian Legal Services, as well as other statewide organizations; and such local agencies as the Legal Assistance Center (in Kent County) and Justice For Our Neighbors.

Despite the stringent standards, the number of those recognized by admission into the circle has remained strong. The number of small and large firms combined remained in the mid-thirties until 2008, when the total jumped to 45 and has been in that range ever since. The 2012 Pro Bono Circle of Excellence, which reflects 2011 service, stayed high at 43.

Comments Robert Mathis, Pro Bono Service Counsel at SBM, “Even during the economic difficulties that Michigan has been facing over the last few years, the number of firms that have continued to make a commitment to pro bono has remained fairly consistent.”

Current SBM President Julie Fershtman comments, “In these challenging economic times, Michigan’s poverty population – and those with civil legal needs – has seen a significant increase, while our basic legal aid structure has faced unprecedented cuts in public funding. The Circle represents the finest of our profession in addressing the tremendous unmet legal needs of the poor.  It inspires other lawyers and firms to strive for similar contributions.”

Kevin Dougherty seems somewhat matter-of-fact about the Warner Norcross and Judd’s inclusion. He coordinates the pro bono program for the firm, which also has an office in Muskegon. “At Warner, we view that as the bare minimum,” he says, though that is not to imply that Warner takes its lawyers’ contributions lightly.

Dougherty sings the praises of such pro bono heroes as Weldon Schwartz. “Weldon is a great example. He was a securities lawyer, but when he retired he decided to get into doing pro bono cases through probate — guardianships and adoptions, cases referred to him by the court involving kids in less than ideal situations.”

Then there is Sarah Riley Howard, about whom Dougherty says, “It seems hard for her to turn anybody down.”

Schwartz and Howard are not the exception, however. Dougherty explains that Warner makes an aggregate cash contribution covering every one of the lawyers in the firm, generally to Legal Aid of Western Michigan, but the time contribution is up to each individual attorney.

As coordinator, Dougherty acts as a clearinghouse for pro bono opportunities at Warner. “Legal Aid of Western Michigan’s Pro Bono Program, run by Paul Abrahamson, is the most prolific agency to make referrals. Then I make them available to lawyers with the specific expertise required, and they decide if they have the time and the desire.”

Dougherty emphasizes that he does not then “look over their shoulders” to see the results of their pro bono work. He himself has taken some family law cases, since divorce is part of his specialty focus, which also includes products liability defense and commercial litigation.

About the impressive number of area firms on the Circle of Excellence list, Dougherty comments, “It doesn’t surprise me. I think we have a very strong commitment to pro bono here in West Michigan.”

Miller Johnson has been on the list since the beginning — not surprising for the firm whose founders included John W. Cummiskey, the person for whom the SBM’s highest pro bono award is named.

Jon Muth and J. Michael Smith supervise Miller Johnson’s pro bono activities currently.

Law Weathers is also on the list, and attorney Alan Bennett was not only in charge of the pro bono program there but also engaged in a significant amount of community service himself.

Other area law firms qualifying for inclusion are Clark Hill, Dickinson Wright, Dykema Gossett, Gruel Mills Nims and  Pylman, McGarry Bair, Miller Canfield Paddock and Stone, Pinsky Smith Fayette and Kennedy, Rhoades McKee, and Varnum,  in addition to Willis Law (with a Grand Rapids office) and Honigman operating out of Kalamazoo.

Ford Motor Company is the sole corporation qualifying this year, which does represent a decrease from the two or three that were routinely recognized in previous years.