New book shows that what lawyers do greatly benefits the economy

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Most attorneys recognize that there is widespread economic benefit from their work, but may not have given it a lot of thought, particularly in terms of their own practice areas.
Now a new book makes the case for them.

In Lawyers as Economic Drivers: The Business Case for Legal Services, co-editor Nelson P. Miller, the associate dean of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School Grand Rapids Campus, has asked a wide variety of contributors to give considered answers to the question of how the legal profession promotes prosperity.

Miller was joined in editing chores by Cooley colleague James Robb, Associate Dean of Development and Alumni Relations, and John Crane, a Cooley student who founded the non-profit Legal Entrepreneurs Alliance, which “assists lawyers and law students with practice development.”

Miller was the prime mover behind pulling together attorneys from around the country to share their thoughts in the volume’s 29 articles.

The initial impetus behind Lawyers as Economic Drivers was a negative one. Appalled by a story in the October 2010 State Bar Journal called “Too Many Hungry Crows Pecking at a Smaller Pie,”
Miller wrote a counterpoint article, “Legal Education as a Pie-Maker,” featured in the same issue.

But as he continued to mull the issue over, Miller concluded that there are too many lawyers who themselves feel that, as the book’s foreword states, “lawyers compete with one divide an ever-smaller American pie, to the detriment of one another and the nation.” At the same time, he saw the counter-trend: more and more lawyers understanding that what they do benefits the community, supports the rights of the individual regardless of his or her status, and adds value to the business world.

Miller decided that a book devoted to supporting the latter group was in order. It is his twelfth serving as either author, co-author, or editor since joining Cooley Law School. His titles include The Faithful Lawyer: Flourishing from Law Study to Practice; The Practice of Tort Law; and the 2008 book he co-wrote with Amy Timmer, Reflections of a Lawyer's Soul: The Institutional Experience of Professionalism at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

Most were published in 2010, 2011, and 2012.

About Lawyers as Economic Drivers, Miller states, “Any lawyer who thinks of his or her work that way — as a hungry scavenger fighting with other scavengers to pick over a shrinking carcass — should not be a lawyer.  We are the most productive of professionals, helping clients and communities be ever more productive. Lawyers have such good stories to tell of the value of their work that I just had to do something about it.” 

The contributions are delightful and widely diverse, and the contributors more than prove the legal profession’s worth. Some treat the question as a simple puzzle to be solved, some focus on  statistics, others include a number of personal-interest anecdotes, and still others approach the issue with incisive humor. There are a lot of lawyers jokes.

In fact, “A Good Start” by two Varnum members, Harvey Koning and Larry Murphy (who is also the Managing Member) derives its title from and plays its text off the punchline to a lawyer joke. (It answers the question: “What do you call 10 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?”) That article mentions Varnum’s MiSpringboard program with the state of Michigan, where qualified new and expanding businesses may receive free legal services from the firm — a clear illustration of the type of economic benefit lawyers provide routinely.

Miller says one of the most obvious attorneys for him to contact seemed to be Jeff Ammon of Miller Johnson, who was the 2011 Chair of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Ammon’s article focuses on the great service attorneys can offer when they understand their roles and what a client wants of them. For example, if a client asks him to review a lease, he asks
why before starting to rack up billable hours. Sometimes, all the client needs is the answer to a single question, something that can be handled quickly over the phone.

“I think about this stuff all the time,” Ammon says. “I’ve been a lawyer for 34 years, and I often think about what the client regards as excellent service, what will be valuable to them. Asking ‘why’ so I can define my role often catches clients off guard, but if you can save them money by narrowing that down, then they’ll be back.”

He says he welcomed the opportunity to give that some focused thought. “It was fun to write this piece because it helped me crystallize my opinions on the subject.”

Lisa Hall, a civil litigation attorney in the Grand Rapids office of Plunkett Cooney, wrote a straightforward analysis of how the work of a creditors’ rights attorney helps grow the economy. She lays out a number of the methods by which a company may work out its debt to move that company forward; she concludes that even if the lawyer’s assessment determines pursuing collections as the preferred route, the result is taxes brought current and resources coming available to another business, which helps the economy in the long term.

Hall, an active Cooley graduate who has taught Introduction to Law for the college, says, “I’d always been aware that lawyers contribute to the economy, but hadn’t really thought it through for my particular field before sitting down to write this article.

“And reading the rest of the book, it was fascinating to find out about all the other practice areas. I found everybody’s perspective really interesting.”

Indeed, the contributors make for an impressive list. The thoughts of many Grand Rapidians are included: Judge Christopher Yates writes about the Kent County Business Court; Phil Admiral at Alticor, Holly Jackson at Durrell Jackson, and Mark Rysberg at Hilger Hammond discuss their own specialties. There are also authors drawn from firms and companies around Michigan, as well as Cooley professors including Gerald A. Fisher and Paul Carrier. But the book also includes reflections by attorneys with leading national law firms, including Pamela Curtner of Chapman and Cutler, whose article is entitled, “Using the Law to Help One’s Neighbor Prosper.”

The article “Lawyers Not Only Drive the Economy, They Build the Highway,” by David Galbenowski, founder and chairman of Lumen Legal, uses an extended metaphor to indicate that the infrastructure of modern society, and its economy, relies on lawyers. In another chapter, co-editor James Robb quotes Lawrence M. Friedman as saying, “A giant economy — an economy measured in trillions not an economy that floats in a sea of lawyers.” The book also includes research on such topics as attorney satisfaction.

Comments Miller, “The contributors’ reflections frankly inspired me, and I hope that they will inspire other lawyers.”

The first 100 attorneys signed up to attend next week’s Law Day Luncheon will receive a free copy of the book.

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