Attorney gives commencement address to MSU law graduates

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Frederick Dilley, who comes from a long line of lawyers, received an honor that many would envy in December: he was asked to give the commencement speech at the school which granted him his Juris Doctor.

At the December 17 Michigan State University College of Law ceremony for fall graduates, Dilley delivered an understated message that indicates he has carefully observed what it takes to succeed in the legal profession.

Dilley’s grandfather and his uncles founded the firm of Dilley and Dilley in 1913, and at one point there were no fewer than seven Dilleys practicing there. Fred Dilley says his father is 90 years old and now retired.

Dilley received both his undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, with a B.A. from James Madison College in 1971, and his J.D. in 1975.

Dilley went from his grandfather’s firm to Boyden, Waddell Timmons, and Dilley, and then to Dilley Haney,  P.C. However, he is delighted to be working at Rhoades McKee now. “It’s a wonderful group of lawyers and the firm is very community-oriented,” he comments.

Dilley’s practice is in the areas of complex civil litigation, environmental and natural resource protection, family law, and alternative dispute resolution, especially mediation. He a certified mediator in both the federal court and state court (Kent, Grand Traverse, Ingham, Ottawa, Cass and Berrien counties).

Dilley serves as a trustee of the Michigan State University College of Law, but he said he is not sure why he was accorded the honor of speaking at the commencement.

It is likely, however, that Dean Joan Howarth, who made the decision, took into account the great body of professional and community service Dilley has performed over the years. He is a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers and the International Society of Barristers, both of whose membership is selected by professional peers. He is an Associate with the American Board of Trial Advocates and a life member of the Judicial Conference of the U.S.Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. He is also a former president of the Grand Rapids Bar Association, and former chair of the State Bar Environmental Law Section Council. He served as president of the Federal Bar Association, Western District of Michigan. He gives educational seminars for the Institute of Continuing Legal Education.

Another likely factor is his sterling reputation, as evidenced by highest ratings in Martindale Hubbell and designation as a Best  Lawyer in America® and a Michigan Super Lawyer®. This reputation extends to  courtesy and civility toward his colleagues, which he regards as mandatory for successful practice, and a hallmark of the Grand Rapids Bar.

“There’s no question about it,” he says, “we have a bar association that we can be very proud of. The level of professionalism and civility is really unmatched anywhere in my experience. It becomes increasingly important as the number of attorneys in West Michigan grows. As we interact less frequently with one another there’s a tendency to not be on our best behavior, but I think we will continue the way we have been.”

The need for civility and professionalism was a key point in his address to the 26 fall graduates of the MSU College of Law. “It was a pretty solemn occasion and one that was very important to the 26 graduates and their families. I’m so impressed by how happy the families are at these ceremonies,” Dilley said.

He focused his remarks in three areas: the great significance of the legal work the graduates were about to undertake; the need for the highest standards of excellence, integrity and professionalism; and the great joy that practicing law can offer.

Dilley began his remarks on the significance of legal practice with “There is a saying in the theater world” ‘There are no small parts, only small actors.’  Nothing you do in the law is inconsequential.” He gave several examples of cases they might handle which could have results that reached far beyond the immediate facts.

Dilley comments, “I think my point was that everything you do as a lawyer is tremendously important to your client. There may be other cases in which the significance goes beyond your client’s concerns, but we need to remember that each case is critical in our clients’ lives.”

He told graduates the story of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for whom a white Anglican priest tipping his hat as he passed him and his mother on the street made all the difference in the world.

Dilley listed examples where achieving excellence might take a lot more time or effort, but said the need to do so was not negotiable “While pursuing professional excellence, personal integrity must guide the execution of your professional responsibilities. It is the heart of every legal career. You cannot get integrity from the law library, an online search or an inspirational speech from a commencement speaker. You have to live it and practice it every day with every client, with every lawyer, in front of every judge and with every public and private body that you encounter.” Noting that “an error doesn’t become a mistake until you fail to correct it,” he cautioned the graduates not to cross lines they know they should not cross, and if they  find themselves heading that way to take a step back.

He closed by saying, “Above all, find happiness. Indeed, find joy in the practice of law,” advising them not to settle for less.

Dilley has lived in the Grand Rapids area all his life, including 35 years married to his wife Beth. Dilley believes their son, in the family tradition, plans to be a lawyer.