Pro bono awardee is a reluctant winner but a willing role model

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 LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Attorney Steven L. Williams was reluctant to accept the prestigious Michael S. Barnes Award from Legal Aid of Western Michigan because, in his mind, pro bono work is something done without the expectation of any type of reward. 

“When I was told that I was a nominee for this year’s award, I was very uncomfortable because I never look at pro bono that way,” Williams said. “They produced a list of my cases going back to 1991, and I hadn’t realized how much it actually added up to. So reluctantly I told them I would accept.”

But as a long-time advocate for pro bono involvement, Williams understands that one goal of giving the Barnes Award is to  encourage others to participate. “One of the things I was mindful of as I was telling Legal Aid they should give it to someone else,” he said with a brief laugh, “is that it’s reinforcing for people to see others who’ve given a lot of hours. When I gave my acceptance speech the other night, I was looking out at some of the young faces and thinking, this should be everyone’s goal.

“Of course,” he added, “most of the people there already believe that.”

Many of the past award winners —including Caroline Dellenbusch, Bill Jack, Elizabeth Bransdorfer, Robert Lalley, Tom Clinton and Joy Fossel - along with dozens of interested legal community members, attended the reception and award ceremony held Oct. 30 at the B.O.B. As has become traditional, the firm of Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge sponsored the event.

This is fitting because Michael Barnes was a partner at SHRR before his premature death at the age of 44. Barnes had a tremendous commitment to serving those in poverty and once stated, “It is the unfairness of life that compels us to help others.”

The award named after him is given to a lawyer who exemplifies that spirit, recognizing “exceptional dedication and relentless pursuit of justice for the underprivileged.” The touching video prepared for the event referred to Steve Williams as “the epitome of the values that Michael Barnes displayed in his career.”

Barnes was a board member at Legal Aid of Western Michigan from 1973 to 1984, including serving as president, so Steve Williams overlapped with him when he served as staff attorney there in 1983-1984.

After that, Williams became the administrator of Legal Aid’s Pro Bono Program. “I can’t take credit for the

success of that program, but I was proud to be a part of it,” he said at the award ceremony.

Many of the Barnes Award winners go on to receive the John W. Cummiskey Award from the State Bar of Michigan, but in an interesting twist, Williams has already won it, in 1996. “Cummiskey was a leading light in this town, really dynamic,” Williams said.

“In fact,” he added, “based on my work at Legal Aid,  Cummiskey asked me in 1987 if I wanted to be considered as Executive Director of the State Bar Foundation. I told him no, though, because I really wanted to practice law, as I’d gone to school to do.”

At that point, Williams set up his own firm, where he practiced until 1990, and he did the same again from 1995 to 2006 — two segments of a fairly complicated legal career.

After graduating from Michigan State University magna cum laude, and  receiving his J.D. from Wayne State University Law School in 1978, Williams worked as a VISTA?(Volunteers In Service To America) attorney at Idaho Legal Aid and then at the Fond du Lac Indian reservation. His task there was to draft a Children’s Court Code of tribal court proce-

dures under the Federal Indian Child Welfare Act.

This dovetailed nicely with his next position, as a Legislative Assistant to U.S. Representative Hal Sawyer, the former Kent County Prosecuting Attorney, where he supervised the drafting of legislation and amendments.

Then, following his work at Legal Aid of Western Michigan and his first stint at a solo career, which focused on bankruptcy, probate, real estate law, and other matters, he joined the UAW-GM Legal Service Plan in Wyoming, Mich. His specialties remained the same, as they did when he worked for Dykema, Brenton and Associates from 1993-1995. But while at that firm, he started to take an interest in family law, and after his second period in solo practice, continued that focus at Kenneth T. Saukas, P.C.

He now concentrates in family law at Dykema Law, though he still does estate planning and real estate law.

While his partner, Jayne Dykema, does some mediations, Williams remains committed to litigation. “I know that most divorces settle out of court, and that’s good in a lot of cases,  but troubling in others. I think they settle, unfortunately, for the wrong reasons. Clients don’t want to spend the time, don’t want to hurt others, and they just plain run out of money. Somebody has to advocate for women who’ve been in abusive marriages, so my attitude is that you’ve got to be willing to go the distance, to give them an equal shake.

“And I feel just as strongly about that whether it’s a paying case or pro bono.”

Wife Kim, daughter Stephanie,who is 21 and goes to Michigan State University, and son Alec, 17, a Forest Hills Central High School student, were in attendance to share Williams’ recognition. (Son Zachary, 19, was unable to make the drive down from Northern Michigan University.) 

But, in a moving tribute to the transformative power of pro bono work, one of Williams’ client also wanted to attend, along with her four well-behaved children. She wrote up a brief statement about her gratitude to him, but, he said, “I realized I couldn’t read it that night because I’d never make it through. It’s very emotional for me, since I often hear nothing about what happens to my clients after the case ends. I?enjoyed working with Jen and her kids so much, and I was so happy I was given the opportunity to be protective of them.”

The text, used with the client’s permission, follows: 

“Hi, my name is Jen, I’m a single mother of four kids ages 7 to 10. After struggling in an abusive marriage for many years I sought assistance at Safe Haven. From there I received help from Legal Aid after being served papers from my now-ex-husband.

“That is when God opened the doors and gave the kids and I an amazing gift, a pro bono attorney - Steve Williams. Over the next 10 months Steve was a huge part of my support system. Steve made me smile when I needed it, and became a trusted friend. He went above and beyond to fight for justice and truth within our legal process. My case was not a simple one. We were dealing with multiple professionals and a variety of complications.

“Steve, the kids and I are forever thankful for you. Words cannot encompass the gratitude we have. As you know, I am paying it forward with my single parent ministry where I now get to serve and come alongside of women in tough places. It is my hope that you will be honored with each woman that is served through the ministry. You are a humble and hard-working individual, and I’m thrilled to see you receive this award.”

The website for Jen’s organization is www.singleparentmissions.com.