OCBA Update: Heroes and champions

By Jennifer A. Grieco

During his tenure, past president Michael Sullivan highlighted the volunteerism of many of our members in his columns, in a section entitled, “Lawyers Giving Back.” That monthly feature could have continued for years without recognizing all of our members’ tireless volunteer efforts – individual efforts that go a long way to dispel any negative stereotypes held by those who are impacted by that lawyer’s time and talents. Importantly, one of the benefits of membership in a bar association is the opportunity to work together “as lawyers” to give back to the community. Such efforts are not only personally satisfying; they help to shape a positive image of lawyers in our community. Despite our profession’s largely unfounded stereotype as greedy and selfish, we know that attorneys routinely give of their time and resources. In fact, wanting to help people and make a difference is the reason many of us were drawn to the law.

Through the OCBA’s community outreach efforts, we are able to work toward improving our reputation on a macro level as we give back “as lawyers.” Of course, the more members who actively participate in our outreach efforts, the greater the impact we can have “as lawyers” on the community and our reputation. Our collective effort to handle more pro bono cases through the OCBA Pro Bono Mentor Match Program, for example, is one such effort that must be broadcast to the public at large. You may recall that one of the board’s strategic planning goals is to play a recognized role in serving the Oakland County community. A sub-committee of our board is developing recommendations for raising the visibility of our community service offerings to both members and the community-at-large. It is the OCBA’s obligation not only to encourage more community outreach as a profession but also to promote our efforts and gain valuable positive exposure when we do so.

Community outreach is an especially important initiative in these economic times and as demand for assistance increases. Our Veterans Committee is a wonderful example of our membership’s desire to answer that call for service. The Veterans Committee was created by past president Michael Schloff in 2009 and was the recipient of the OCBA 2010 Committee of the Year award. The committee’s 26 very active members are currently led by Don Orlandoni and Charles Brown. While other committees took a much-deserved hiatus over the summer, the Veterans Committee continued to meet, focused on its service agenda.

Since its formation, this dedicated group has successfully implemented multiple outreach programs. They have partnered with the 52-1 District Court to mentor veterans whose circumstances have unfortunately led them into the court system. Judge Brian McKenzie established the Veterans Court to specifically assist veterans with their drug and alcohol dependency issues, unfortunately too common in the brave men and women who return from war. The first 52-1 Veterans Treatment Court graduation took place on September 21, 2010, with our Veterans Committee in attendance to support and encourage the graduates.

Last November, both Michael Schloff and then-President Kurt Schnelz spoke on the air with Paul W. Smith of WJR about the importance of Veterans Day. This year, the committee has formed a Speakers Bureau of lawyer/veterans who are available to educate students in the Oakland Schools about their service. The committee is also collaborating with WJR on the production of a DVD to be shown throughout Oakland Schools on Veterans Day 2011. And, the committee hopes to utilize this relationship with WJR to educate the public about the various obstacles that are commonly encountered by veterans and/or their widows in obtaining benefits.

In addition, the Veterans Committee continues to provide pro bono training in partnership with the University of Detroit-Mercy’s “Project SALUTE” and Cooley Law School’s “Service to Soldiers” programs. Any lawyer who attends such a training session will be qualified to provide pro bono assistance to our veterans and those being deployed to Afghanistan. These programs are also perfectly suited for those who wish to mentor a law student or a new lawyer in the context of a pro bono case.

And finally, you may recall that the Veterans Committee partnered with the Ford UAW, the Washtenaw County Bar Association and Cooley Law School to collect donations (both goods and money) for packages sent to deployed soldiers. Last year, 3,100 pounds of toiletries, personal items and food were shipped to the Michigan Medivac Helicopter Unit in Afghanistan as well as a Marine Helicopter Unit in Afghanistan and Camp Striker in Iraq. The committee has decided to undertake this project again in March, after the soldiers have used up all of the holiday goodies sent from their families and other charitable organizations. I can certainly tell you that packages or mail of any kind meant the world to my brother when he was in Afghanistan and I can only imagine the impact that will be felt by these Michigan soldiers in receiving packages from the OCBA in March. I hope that you will consider either making a donation for this effort and/or volunteering your time to either purchase, haul, and sort the goods or to assist in packing the boxes. In fact, this effort presents a unique opportunity to network outside of the typical cocktail party or golf outing setting while also demonstrating our compassion and appreciation for those who serve.

As we recognize Veterans Day, we should all be extremely proud of and thankful for the OCBA veterans who have not only served our country but who continue to serve the community on behalf of our profession. They make us look good.

And, speaking of those who make us look good, a number of our members were recently recognized as Champions of Justice by the State Bar of Michigan. The Honorable Wendy L. Potts, also an OCBA past president, received a Champion of Justice award for her work in creating the RESTORE Foundation to fund the drug courts. Cooley Law School Associate Dean John Nussbaumer received a Champion of Justice award for his efforts in increasing diversity in the legal profession. New member John Conway also received a Champion of Justice award for his efforts in championing the cause of autistic children to obtain insurance coverage for applied behavioral analysis therapy. And finally, our wonderful Executive Director, Lisa Stadig Elliot, received the Family Law Champion for Justice award from Common Ground and the Family Law Assistance Project (FLAP) for her tireless efforts advocating for pro bono representation. Congratulations to our award recipients!

We are all fortunate to be part of a profession and a bar association, whose members routinely and selflessly give back.

Jennifer A. Grieco, a partner with Neuman Anderson PC, is the 78th president of the Oakland County Bar Association.