Annual Washtenaw County Bench-Bar conference and luncheon honors pro bono work of 30 attorneys


Tish Lee (left), managing attorney at Legal Services of South Central Michigan, presents the Darrow-Harris Award to Teresa Killeen (center), judicial attorney to presiding probate Judge Julia Owdziej accepting on the judge’s behalf, and Catherine McClary, Washtenaw County treasurer at the Washtenaw County Bench-Bar conference and luncheon.

Home for Generations assists families living in inherited homes or homes purchased informally during segregation and discriminatory lending. Attorneys and family mediators work pro bono to provide targeted assistance to clear title, establish ownership and create property wealth for families, often for the first time. This exceptional partnership stabilizes housing options; preserves homeownership; and has transferred, to date, more than $1.3 million in wealth to families in Washtenaw County.

Catherine McClary, Washtenaw County Treasurer, and Teresa Killeen on behalf of presiding Probate Judge Julia Owdziej, accepted the prestigious Darrow-Harris Award for the Home for Generations program. The award recognizes the generous contributions of 30 local attorneys and family mediators for their extraordinary pro bono work. The Award was presented at the annual Washtenaw County Bench-Bar conference and luncheon on Friday, May 6, 2022. The attorneys provided 662 hours of pro bono service for Home for Generations.

McClary, county treasurer since 1997, oversees the receipting and accounting of a billion dollars each year for Washtenaw County. She manages the county’s investment portfolio of $275 million and collects delinquent property taxes. She initiated the program with Owdziej to prevent property tax foreclosure.

Owdziej started her legal career as an assistant Michigan attorney general. She began working for the county in 1991 and presides over juvenile delinquency matters and probate cases. Elected as judge in 2014, Owdziej is a member of the State Drug Treatment Court Advisory Committee and a long time 4-H leader.

The Darrow-Harris Award, named for Peter Darrow and Robert Harris, is bestowed annually for significant contributions to pro bono or public service work in Washtenaw County. In giving this award, the Washtenaw County Bar Association, in collaboration with Legal Services of South Central Michigan, remembers in memoriam the generous personal contributions of Peter Darrow and Robert Harris to individuals in need of legal services.

Attorney General Dana Nessel served as the keynote speaker and 150 attorneys attended the Bench-Bar conference. Other dignitaries included Ann Routt, executive director of the Michigan Advocacy Program; Tish Lee, managing attorney of Legal Services of South Central Michigan; Kyeena Slater, executive director of the Washtenaw County Bar Association; Charles W. Borgsdorf, the 2020 Darrow-Harris Award recipient; Belinda Dulin, executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center; Sue Bos, deputy treasurer; Eli Savit, county prosecutor; Victoria Burton-Harris, chief assistant prosecutor; and Sue Shink, chair of the Board of Commissioners.

Each of the chief judges provided updates on the County’s courts: Chief Judge Karen Quinlan Valvo of the 15th District Court (City of Ann Arbor), Chief Judge Erane C. Washington of the 14B District Court (Charter Township of Ypsilanti), and Chief Judge Carol A. Kuhnke of the Washtenaw Trial Court and 14A District Courts (Cities of Saline, Chelsea, and Ypsilanti and Charter Township of Pittsfield).

Thirty attorneys were honored for their pro bono service: Laurie D. Brewis – The TGQ Law Firm; Virginia A. Cardwell – Ferguson, Widmayer and Clark, PC; Kathleen M. Carter – Kathleen M. Carter, PLLC; Peter C. Clark – Ferguson, Widmayer and Clark, PC; Michael C. Crowley – Conlin, McKenney & Philbrick, P.C.; Bradley S. Defoe – Varnum Law, LLP; Charles R. Drabik – Suzanne R. Fanning, PLLC; Jailah D. Emerson – Varnum Law, LLP; Suzanne R. Fanning – Suzanne R. Fanning, PLLC; Paul C. Fessler – Fessler Law, PC; Joshua R. Fink – Fink & Fink, PLLC; James W. Fraser – Fraser Legal, PC; Joelle L. Gurnoe-Adams – Chalgian and Tripp Law Offices, PLLC; Bryce C. Harrison – Ferguson, Widmayer and Clark, PC; John A. Hohman – John Hohman Mediation and Arbitration; Tyler J. Kemper – Dykema Gossett, PLLC; Mara E. Kent – Ferguson, Widmayer and Clark, PC; Sarah M. Meinhart – Pear Sperling Eggan & Daniels, P.C.; Hannah R. Muller – Conlin, McKenney &Philbrick, P.C.; Samuel E. Nuxoll – Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, PLC; Elizabeth M. Petosky – Conlin, McKenney & Philbrick, P.C.; Steven A. Reed – Reed Law Group PC; Miriam Saffo – Nichols, Sacks, Slank, Sendelbach, Buiteweg & Solomon, PC; Paul C. Schultz – Dennis M. Mitzel PLC; Michael D. Shelton – Ferguson, Widmayer and Clark, PC; Eileen J. Slank – Nichols, Sacks, Slank, Sendelbach, Buiteweg & Solomon, PC; Eric F. Sloat – Ferguson, Widmayer and Clark, PC; Kyra D. Sims – Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, PLC; Robert P. Tiplady – Dykema Gossett, PLLC; and Christopher J. Wallaker – Conlin McKenney & Philbrick, P.C.

Home for Generations was initiated by McClary and Owdziej to assist families living in inherited homes. The project establishes ownership, allowing homeowners access to tax code entitlements, financing, and other benefits. Many families in need of probate assistance live in homes purchased informally during times of racial segregation, red?lining, and discriminatory lending.

White Americans have seven times the wealth of Black Americans on average and the majority of their wealth is in their primary residence. The racial wealth gap today, codified into law and public policy, is a legacy of American slavery. The federal government actively excluded Black people from government wealth?building programs. The Veterans Administration and the Federal Housing Administrations, for example, guaranteed bank loans only to whites. Without access to conventional loans and formal property transfers, Black families often resorted to land contracts and informal sales and inheritances. Title can become clouded which reduces resale value and further limits access to conventional transactions. Clearing title and establishing ownership secures property wealth.

The success of Home for Generations is due to the pro bono assistance of 30 attorneys, led by Teresa Killeen, judicial Attorney to Judge Owdziej, providing legal assistance to return $1.3 million in property wealth to families in Washtenaw County.