'Trailblazer' honors presented at annual event


 By Paul Janczewski

Legal News
D. Augustus Straker would be proud.
Not only does the pioneering African-American attorney, author and jurist have a bar association and foundation named after him, but also a ceremony that recognizes trailblazers in the legal profession.
This year, at the 19th in a series of Trailblazers Awards Dinners, three attorneys were recognized  as “pioneers in the legal community” based on their continuous individual contributions in advancing the profession, said Straker Bar Foundation President Shirley Kaigler.
“The award acknowledges outstanding lawyers who have had a significant impact on the practice of law and their contributions to civil rights and representing the underserved over the years,” she said. “They stand as role models for other attorneys in our area.”
The awards dinner also recognized two law school students with a $2,500 scholarship apiece, Kaigler said. Since the first Trailblazers Dinner in 1999, some 25 law students have been awarded more than $60,000.
This year’s event was hosted on Thursday, June 21, at the Westin Southfield, 1500 Town Center.
The bar foundation and association were named after Straker, who was born in the West Indies but came to the United States to educate former slaves and received his law degree from Howard University in 1871.
After working as a customs inspector in South Carolina, Straker was elected and re-elected twice to the state’s legislature, and later became Dean of Law at Allen University. After his tenure there, Straker moved to Detroit to practice law, and became the first African-American attorney to appear before the Michigan Supreme Court, successfully arguing that the state’s “separate but equal“ doctrine was unconstitutional.
Straker was later elected as Michigan’s first African-American jurist, and in 1892 became a Wayne County Circuit Court Commissioner, serving two terms.
The Straker Bar Association was formed in in 1990 as a proactive organization of diverse attorneys with a mission of promoting legal practice opportunities for minorities and women and to facilitate equal justice for all citizens, according to its website. Membership includes a racially diverse collection of attorneys, judges and other legal professionals. The Straker Bar Foundation is a nonprofit organization established for charitable and jurisprudential purposes to provide educational scholarships.
Besides the Trailblazers Dinner and awards ceremony, the Straker Bar also puts on other events, such as the Corporate Counsel Breakfast for minorities and women attorneys to interact with corporations, and programs to increase membership, mentor law school students, and provide financial resources to the community.
The 2012 Trailblazer honorees are attorneys Vernon Baker, Reuben Munday, and Antoinette Raheem. Those who have been honored in the past have included Dennis Archer Sr., Cornelius Pitts, and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith, Sixth Circuit.
The two law students who will receive the $2,500 scholarships are LaToya McBean from the Cooley Law School and Randall Tatem from Michigan State University College of Law.
“These students have carved out time for their community service while staying involved in school bar activities,” Kaigler said. “And they are already showing their commitment to public service by having a positive impact on the general public and representing minorities in the law.”
Kaigler said the scholarship is meant to encourage minority law school students to excel in legal scholarship, which will increase minority representation in the legal profession.
Those selected must demonstrate scholarly dedication, involvement in school and community activities, and state a vision for a successful future in law in Michigan, especially in the representation of minority viewpoints.
McBean, 36, who came from New York via the Caribbean, is a third-year law student at Cooley.
“I’ve wanted to become an attorney since I was 12 years old,” she said. “I’m very analytical, loved problem solving, and the aspect of providing service to a company or an individual,” she said.
After graduating with a master’s degree in public policy from Regent University, she moved to Washington, D.C. and worked on Capitol Hill for the House Judiciary Committee before moving on to the Council of State Government’s Justice Center working to reduce the size of prison populations.
That brought her in contact with Michigan policy work and led her to continue her goal of a law degree at Cooley.
McBean spent her first two years there working full time with the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency on a project called Inner City Neighborhoods, which addressed crime, the high unemployment rate among high-risk parolees and probationers, and neighborhood blight in several high-crime areas in Detroit, Saginaw, Benton Harbor, and Grand Rapids.
“When I first started this process, I thought one job opportunity led to another,” McBean said. 
But she realized it was more than that, and soon found herself wrapped up in more than number and data-crunching.
“I didn’t really understand how the criminal justice system worked and who it was really impacting until I realized some incarceration trends among African-American men. And once I learned a little more about that, I wanted to be part of the system to work with these men and help them get back on the right track,” she said.
She became involved with prisoner re-entry work, heard their stories about what drove them to prison, their lifestyle of criminality and why they now wanted to turn their lives around. 
“And I learned it’s better to be on the positive end, so I have a passion now to reform the system in anyway I can as an attorney,” McBean said.
At Cooley, she is in the top 11 percent of her class, carries a 3.43 grade point average and is the scholarly writing editor of the school’s Law Review. She consistently appears on the dean’s list and honor roll, has received the Honor’s Scholarship and twice earned the Certificate of Merit, as well as serving as a senator on the Student Bar Association and placing runner-up in the first year mock trial.
McBean is a summer associate at Howard and Howard Attorneys PLLC and has also interned for a federal magistrate and two Court of Appeals judges.
“I’m tremendously excited about this award,” she said. 
After reading about Straker and his accomplishments, she has a clear vision of the spirit of the association and foundation and their deeper meaning. 
“I also have the responsibility to go out there and help others after me,” she said.
She dreams of having a career strong in community involvement, pro bono work that serves the population, and continuing in commercial litigation work and arbitration.
Tatem, 25, was born in Norfolk, Va. and graduated from Morehouse College, magna cum laude, with a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy. He worked as a law clerk in Atlanta for three years and is now a second-year law student at MSU School of Law. He wanted to become an attorney because of his love for reading, writing, research, and public speaking.
Tatem serves as vice president of the Black Law Student Association, and is a senator for the Student Bar Association. He is working as a summer associate at Barris, Sott, Denn, & Driker PLLC and said he will be practicing intellectual property, entertainment and business law after graduation, and eventually plans to open his own firm.
“This scholarship is truly an honor,” Tatem said. “And it means a lot to be receiving this award at the Trailblazers Dinner because that’s something I hope to become later on in my career, a trailblazer,” he said. “As we continue to excel in this profession, we must make sure we respect the past, and create a future program that influences our youth.
“I want to open my own firm after I learn the ropes and show people that you can build your own business and law firm and be successful.”
He said Straker does an excellent job of promoting diversity and showing minorities success is very possible. He also wants to “hold the door open” for others in the legal profession.
“Mr. Straker was a pioneer for minorities, and I want to honor and represent this award with the work I do and will continue to do with my achievements,” he said. “Each day you want to work to get better, and be an example for others.”