Barnes Award winner Damon accepts his honor on behalf of all pro bono attorneys


Photo 1: This year’s Michael Barnes Award for pro bono excellence winner Jonathan Damon, second from right, stands behind friend and colleague U.S. District Court Judge Janet Neff, with staff and volunteers from Legal Aid of Western Michigan, left to right, Executive Director Juan Salazar, Fund Development Director Lacy Cook, local attorney Paul Jensen who served as emcee for the evening, and, at far right, Paul Abrahamsen, Director of the Pro Bono Program.

Photo 2: Proud members of the Damon family attended in support; they are, left to right, daughter-in-law Molly and son Reed, wife Linda, Jonathan Damon himself, daughter Carrie and son-in-law Brian Jacoby.


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

The 2016 Michael Barnes Award winner from Legal Aid of West Michigan told the crowd gathered last Thursday to honor him that he had actually been kept awake nights since receiving notification he had won. Why, he wondered, would he get an award for helping people for free? Many people do the same, and why would he be singled out for such recognition?

Then, he said, a few hours before the well-attended reception at The B.O.B, the answer came to him.

“It’s an award given to one person, but it’s really given to all the attorneys who do pro bono work,” he said.

Very much disinclined to draw attention to himself, Damon confessed later, “Up until then, I really didn’t know what to say. I kept hoping maybe somebody else could speak – or maybe I’ll get sick, and my wife can just accept it,” he said, humorously. “But then I didn’t get sick.

“And when it came down to it, I’m glad I went. It was really an enjoyable evening.”

Judge Janet Neff of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, who counts Damon as a friend, said in the video prepared for the evening that she was never even aware that he had represented people for free. “I said to him, ‘I never heard you mention that you do pro bono work.’ But it would make sense; he’s the type of person who would never mention it,” she added.

At the reception, Judge Neff introduced him and sang his praises. “There are lots of reasons to respect and admire Jon. He’s one of the smartest and best-read people I know. He’s a highly competent lawyer and very honorable. But he’s also given so much of his time. Lacy [Cook, the development director at Legal Aid of Western Michigan] told me that when they looked it up, it’s been the rare year when he hasn’t had at least two pro bono cases.”

Originally from New England and having moved around the country in his school-age years, Damon attended Beloit College in Wisconsin, following up by getting his law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School.

“My folks had moved to Grand Rapids in 1963. My father was in the furniture industry and worked for?John Widdicomb Company, which made high-end furniture. So I figured rather than starving in Wisconsin, I’d come here and look for work.”

From 1973 to 1975, Damon was a pre-hearing research attorney with the Court of Appeals, working from the Grand Rapids offices.

He then joined Dilley Dooley and Waddell, where he stayed until 1996. “The firm changed its name a few times, but Dilley and Dooley were always part of it. It wasn’t a very large firm, and it closed in February 1996,” Damon says.

At that point he made the decision to  to go it alone, which he has done ever since, focusing on insurance defense work which now occupies about 95 per cent of his time.

Damon says one case stands out for him, making him know he had chosen the right path when he chose the law.

A lawyer from a small town in Wisconsin called him  in the 1980s about a woman client. She had gotten divorced and had a young daughter — “really little, around six years old,” Damon says. The child’s father lived in the local suburb of Wyoming, and he had failed to send the daughter back to her mother when his summer visitation ended, so the Wisconsin lawyer wondered if Damon would help.

“She didn’t have much money so I told her, send in a couple hundred bucks and I’ll take it on. The hearing was in front of Judge Hoffius, so that’s how long ago it was,” Damon related. “The mother came in early in the morning on a bus from Northern Wisconsin, so I picked her up and bought her some breakfast. I’d prepared an order, and the hearing went well.

“The mom had a ticket back for her and the little girl, so we went to Child Haven to pick her up. There was a long hall and we made a left turn — for some reason, I’ll always remember that — and when she and her mom saw each other, they were so happy, they were crying and they ran to each other.

“That actually probably was the high point for me — feeling like I actually made a difference.”

Damon says he had many other memorable cases, including one where someone sued his client, a sheriff, for libel, and the jury came back wanting to know if it could award punitive damages to the sheriff.

Another incident which the Internet seems destined to associate with Jonathan Damon had to do with an attempted crime on Monroe Center.

What turned out to be a young woman on a bicycle — though the victim and Damon himself thought it was a young man at the time — tried to grab a woman’s purse as she sat in an outdoor cafe. Damon and others wrested the woman to the ground, and Damon sat on her until the police came, suffering a bite on the wrist from the perpetrator which broke his skin.

“People bring it up and I just

grimace,” he said. “If someone from Mlive hadn’t just happened by... if the iPhone hadn’t been invented, it wouldn’t have been that big a deal.”

As several others mentioned at the award ceremony, Damon is a dedicated family man and grandfather of three who relaxes by spending time fishing. Friend Bill Darooge says in the video, “The only time I’ve ever seen him get upset is over his leaky waders.”

Former Barnes Award winner Rob Lally, who could not attend because he was out of state, comments, “Jon has been a lifelong friend. For me, he personifies the term ‘attorney and counselor.’ He takes cases other lawyers, including myself,” Lally laughs, “don’t want to.”

As has become a tradition, Legal Aid of Western Michigan showed another video, this one honoring the man after whom the award is named, Michael S. Barnes. A strong advocate for those who cannot afford representation, Barnes tragically died before his time.

Along with his sons Max, an attorney  at Miller Johnson, and Tony, now at Varnum, the video features many members of Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge where Michael Barnes practiced. Bill Jack sums it up by saying, “I think Mike Barnes would be proud not because there’s an award in his name, but that we continue to honor the ideals that he cared so much about.”

Every year, Smith Haughey generously co-sponsors the reception, which is attended by many of the attorneys who have won the award in the past.

“This award has been going on for 23 years,” Damon said at the reception. “It’s been awarded to so many and it will be awarded again next year, and for as long as people need this kind of help.”