Increasing diversity is a 'long game' for Grand Rapids Bar Association and GR law firms

The Grand Rapids Bar Association and area law firms are working to reshape West Michigan's legal world, which has long been lacking in diversity.
Grand Rapids law firms are playing the "long game" to diversify their profession.

In June of 2011, 12 area law firms and the Grand Rapids Bar Association signed onto the Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative to increase ethnic and gender diversity of attorneys in the area.

The MPDC is in its fifth year, and the law professionals behind it are honest in saying that results cannot yet be quantified. But they remain committed to getting minorities into Grand Rapids’ legal world, not only for social justice reasons but for practical reasons as well.

"By becoming more diverse, we become more able to serve our clients," GRBA president Patrick Geary puts it simply.

If greater diversity leads to stronger firms, then firms in Grand Rapids have been pretty weak in that area, even in recent years. In 2010, a National Association of Law Placement study found that, out of the 43 cities in the study, Grand Rapids had the lowest percentage of minority partners, coming in at 1.77 percent.

The NALP study was part of what sparked the MPDC, but a lack of diversity "is something that has been known, obviously, to the bar here in town for some time," Geary says.

In collaboration with the Floyd Skinner Bar Association, a local African American law group, the GRBA has had a minority clerkship program in place since 1991. They have put in the efforts to employ clerks and associates, but another side of the problem is retention — when individuals join the bar, how do you keep them in Grand Rapids?

After four-and-a-half years of MPDC, has the diversity of the Grand Rapids law world grown? "I think that the answer to that would clearly be yes; I don't know if the improvement has yet translated markedly in an increase across the board of minority lawyers in West Michigan at this point," Geary says.

Developing the Pipeline of Potential Lawyers

"She would deny it," Geary says, but GRBA executive director Kim Coleman "has been the glue" of the collaborative.

Coleman does deny this, and points out the other members of the collaborative who've been instrumental — Elizabeth Joy Fossel, of Varnum LLP and GRBA vice president; Mark R. Smith, of Rhoades McKee; and Rodney Martin, of Warner Norcross & Judd.

She agrees that this collaborative won't result in a quick uptick in numbers. "It took us a few minutes to realize that that was the case, it is a journey and not a destination,” Coleman says. “There are pieces that have to be put in place before you can actually count bodies."

The pieces are now in place, she says, all of which are part of a three-pronged plan of pipeline development, recruiting and retention.  

GRBA had to first lay that pipeline, and work on existing lines, that supply a flow of young potential lawyers into the profession. Their targets have been young, and the ninth grade students who've taken the 3Rs Program — which partners the GRBA with the Grand Rapids Public Schools — have yet to pass the bar.

The 3Rs (Rights, Responsibilities and Realities), a multi-session program for the primarily African American students of Ottawa Hills High School, has volunteer attorneys lead teens through lessons in law and civics. Final sessions end with debates held at sites such as the Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

"We have touched the lives of quite a few high-schoolers, and that took time to develop," Coleman says. "When you look at the 150 ninth graders, 35 volunteers who go in each month and assist with helping them learn and understand not just the Constitution, but get them better acquainted with the profession — these are numbers, too.”

"The more exposure we provide our youth, the more options they have from which to choose,” she continues. “The same held true to myself."

When Coleman was young, people told her that they believed in her, that law was a profession she could enter. "But I also observed (what happens in the law field) — I went into the area I went into because I liked what I saw; I liked what I experienced when I was exposed to it."

The firms of the collaborative are "planting seeds" and playing "the long game," Mark Smith says. He leads the implementation of 3Rs, seeing a need for "straight-out civics education, which hasn't really been part of the educational focus of No Child Left Behind,” a federal education bill that has been heavily criticized for its emphasis on standardized testing.  He made sure that "built within it is a very specific mentorship component."

Some may be born lawyers, but they need to be given the chance to discover this, Smith feels. "Most people assume lawyers grew up knowing they wanted to be a lawyer, or they come from a family of lawyers. A whole bunch of us are first-generation lawyers, and the only reason we're lawyers is that someone along the way took us aside and said, ‘Hey, you can do this.’"

Practice Law in Beer City, USA

"Welcome to a Hot City With Cool Lawyers," is how the grabLAW site header greets visitors.

Grand Rapids Achieve Balance is a marketing campaign selling the city to young, diverse law talent. It lists ArtPrize, Beer City USA designations, and even zombie walks as cultural attractions. Videos have young associates bragging about being the envy of their New York City friends by paying cheap rent for nice apartments. There is a Twitter feed that includes links to open positions.

The 12 firms created the campaign as part of the MPDC. It's a "media initiative that's designed to appeal to a younger demographic that would be inclusive of that minority demographic that we're seeking, but it's also broad enough to be attractive to the general young lawyer population," Smith says.

He hopes that grabLAW counters notions about the West Michigan area, "sometimes misperceived as the land of windmills and wooden shoes, and arch-conservative values," Smith says.

"One of the problems that we've encountered over the years is that we just don't get a look by qualified minority candidates because of their perceptions of Grand Rapids,” he continues. “And by, frankly, a lot of other candidates."

Grand Rapids has a reputation of lacking "a diverse cultural base to make it attractive to a lot of people of various ethnic origins," he says. "If you're a young black professional, do you want to come to Grand Rapids and be one of the (1.77 percent of minority lawyers in the NALP study), or do you want to go to Chicago or Atlanta, where you have a built-in peer group?"

Once here, individuals have to stay and become rooted into the Grand Rapids law soil. "Probably the toughest work, and the most important work, I think is in the third part of the action plan, which is the retention plan,"  says Rodney Martin, a lawyer with Marner Norcross & Judd.

Each firm is working on retention, but in their own way, through mentorship and associate/clerkship development programs.

The recession helped aggravate the problem, Martin says. "It's difficult to become more diverse when you're not hiring a lot of people."

Smith adds that firms fall victim to area corporations headhunting talent.

"Places like Fortune 500 companies that need to have diverse legal staff end up raiding our ranks, because a lot of our firms work for those companies,” he says. “[They say,’] 'Great! You've got minority candidates, and we need some, so we're going to hire your person away from you.'”

"Which is all great,” Smith continues. “When you take the long view of things, the goal is to increase the representation of minority lawyers in Grand Rapids," Smith says. However, that means they leave the collaborative's firms for places like Steelcase, Meijer and Amway.  

Social Justice is Good Business

"None of us are in this because it's going to put another dollar in our pocket...  it's un-billable time. We're not billing clients, but we're doing this because it's a personal investment, it's worth spending the time," Smith says.

The law profession is a "model for society," Martin says. "We should be modeling good things including equal access to justice and equal opportunities."

Coleman adds that law professionals end up in places of power, and include "our president, our governor.They head non-profit organizations; they head up corporations — they are in a lot of different areas.

“It's even more important that we be as inclusive as possible, because they touch the lives of a lot of people in a lot of different settings,” Coleman says.

It may be the right thing to do, but bringing diverse talent into law is also the practical thing to do, Geary points out. Grand Rapids’ legal world needs "a kind of deepening and broadening of a talent pool that will enable the profession to address changes in the broader society."

Though the collaborative's firms may mostly specialize in business law, businesses now want lawyers who can work in a complex and changing society.

Society keeps on changing, "and the legal profession had better keep up; we had better come to the realization — and I think we have — that different people bring different strengths, different approaches, different ideas to achieving traditional goals, but in ways that are responsive to the changing demographic," Geary says.

"Social justice is a component of being a lawyer, no matter who you are or what your practice is. It's part of our ethical responsibilities," says Fossel, of Varnum LLP and the GRBA vice president. They need to look at the communities they serve, and then "we have to ask ourselves, are we engaging in the best service that we can?"

"I do a lot of pro bono work; it's one of my favorite areas of my practice,” she says. When you look at the populations that come to legal aid in West Michigan, you're generally looking at an underserved population, often diverse ethnically and certainly facing economic difficulties. When you don't have an appreciation of their viewpoint, it is hard to completely represent their interests.”

Fossel goes on to stress this point.

"It's one thing to represent a $50 million business in a litigation, which I've done, it's quite another to represent a woman who's been essentially brought here from the Philippines almost as a sex slave, and get her her rights back against her husband's family, which I have also done," she says.

"It's easy for me, as a white woman, to understand the $50 million business' perspective than it is to understand the Filipino woman's perspective, because I don't share her background. So I had to make sure that I had the resources, whether it's other lawyers or other people in the Filipino community, to help me understand what it is she believes."

She adds, "It's the lens we're looking through. We can be great attorneys , but we can't appreciate all aspects of all human conditions. That's why we need a greater lens and more resources."

Mark Wedel has been a Kalamazoo-based freelance writer since 1992. More of his work and contact information can be found at

This story is part of a series of solutions-focused stories and profiles about the programs and people that are positively impacting the lives of Michigan kids. The series is produced by Michigan Nightlight and is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read other stories in this series here.
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