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GRBJ: Law firms pitch in to promote DEI

Twelve attorneys will be performing 1,200 pro bono hours, which amounts to approximately $1 million in legal fees.
Credit: Miller Johnson
Stephen J. van Stempvoort, co-chair of Miller Johnson’s Pro Bono Committee

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Law firms in Grand Rapids such as Miller Johnson and Varnum are using their resources to assist different organizations and institutions that serve underrepresented people.

Miller Johnson recently launched a new initiative called Project Giveback, which is designed to provide pro bono services to Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) West Central Michigan and Rende Progress Capital. Twelve attorneys will be performing 1,200 pro bono hours, which amounts to approximately $1 million in legal fees.

“Project Giveback is intended to serve as part of the firm’s response to the numerous cultural and political events that we have witnessed and participated in throughout 2020 and into 2021,” said Stephen J. van Stempvoort, co-chair of the firm’s Pro Bono Committee. “Miller Johnson has played a key role in our communities’ response to the COVID crisis, and many firm clients have commented on the excellent and valuable work that arose out of the team-based initiatives that Miller Johnson rolled out in response to the pandemic. Project Giveback is intended to build upon those experiences and leverage Miller Johnson’s resources in a way that will enable us to continue to serve our communities.”

The YWCA West Central Michigan focuses on intervention, prevention and support for women and girls who suffer from domestic violence and sexual assault.

Charisse Mitchell, CEO for YWCA West Central Michigan, said the organization serves approximately 4,000 people per year. Services include emergency shelters, advocacy resources, therapy, supervised parenting time and custody exchanges, counseling, long-term housing and support, rape exams and medical help.

Mitchell said although YWCA West Central Michigan provides legal advocacy and support, it doesn’t have an attorney on staff. As a result, six attorneys from Miller Johnson who specialize in litigation and family law will perform pro bono services.

They will help YWCA clients prepare and file personal safety and protection orders, and employment and harassment protection; serve as a representative in child custody proceedings; and advise on housing issues.

“I think when a lot of people think about legal support for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, they may think about criminal court. And that may certainly be a part of it if they are participating in a case in court, but there are quite a bit of civil and family law issues that domestic and sexual assault survivors need legal assistance with,” Mitchell said. “Some of the issues may involve personal protection orders or poorly negotiated judgments because a person didn’t have an attorney in divorce or custody proceedings when there were questions about parenting time. Having legal representation is hugely important.”

Founded in 2018, Rende Progress Capital (RPC) is a racial equity loan fund and emerging community development financial institution.

It focuses on eliminating the racial wealth gap through providing small business loans and technical assistance services to African American, Hispanic Latino, Asian, Native American and immigrant entrepreneurs who are excluded from traditional lending and investing opportunities for a variety of socioeconomic reasons.

“Miller Johnson is a law firm that has a commitment to inclusion and diversity,” said Eric Foster, co-founder, chair and managing director for RPC. “Like other firms in the area, I have noted their journey with respect to these issues and given that we are a racially equity-focused lender, we just had discussions on what are the many different things, ranging from capital and business technical assistance to other resources — in this context, social capital — that are all important to help entrepreneurs of color continue to thrive and sustain in this challenging time. Those discussions were brought about by mutual belief that an inclusive economy is equitable for all parts of the community, all organizations. This then led to the idea of providing very critical and important pro bono legal services to our clients and future clients.”

Six attorneys from Miller Johnson will provide RPC clients with pro bono hours in corporate, tax, real estate, environmental, employment and litigation matters, including COVID-19-related legal issues and Paycheck Protection Program loan issues.

Some of the items attorneys will be assisting RPC clients with are entity filing and maintenance; RISE loan applications and compliance training; preparation and review of standard contracts for day-to-day use; reviewing vendor agreements, purchase orders, and terms and conditions; drafting and reviewing leases and purchase agreements; zoning and other land-use approvals; advising on environmental compliance issues; preparing employee applications, handbooks, policies and procedures; employment law compliance training; day-to-day employee issues, pay disputes and leave issues; litigation avoidance, de-escalation and resolution; contract disputes, regulatory compliance or employee disputes; preparing demand, cease-and-desist and similar letters; reviewing corporate structure and related tax issues; and required state filings and permits.

“We wanted our initial step with this project to target individuals who fall within the justice gap — that is, those who may not qualify for free legal services from organizations like Legal Aid, but who nevertheless cannot access professional legal assistance, often due to other socioeconomic factors,” said Miller Johnson’s van Stempvoort. “The YWCA is an excellent fit for this project, as many of the individual clients served through the YWCA lack equal access to the justice system through a combination of these factors. Rende Progress Capital, similarly, is expressly dedicated toward empowering individuals and small businesses that are historically underrepresented and underprivileged. Our partnership with Rende allows us to join in Rende’s efforts by ensuring that these businesses and individuals have access to a high level of legal representation that may otherwise be unavailable to them.”

Like Miller Johnson, Varnum also is using its experts to provide free legal services to the community.

Last year, the firm provided 1,518 hours in pro bono services on 78 files. Varnum’s pro bono files are through referrals from the Pro Bono Program of Western Michigan, the Mel Trotter Ministries Legal Clinic, and other entities that refer matters for veterans to the firm.

In addition to providing free legal services, Varnum has a steep history of promoting diversity, equity and inclusion within its staff and also in the community. The firm established a DEI committee more than 20 years ago.

Luis Avila, chair for Varnum’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, said the group focuses on four main pillars: recruiting and retention, education, communication and community impact.

After the events of last summer, Varnum reached out to the community in an impactful way by donating $20,000 to four Michigan-based organizations that “focused on ending racism, eliminating racial disparities in health, education and access to capital, and ensuring social justice.”

The four organizations were the Grand Rapids Urban League, Focus: HOPE, Grand Rapids African American Health Institute and Durfee Elementary-Middle School. They each received $5,000.

In addition to performing pro bono services and giving donations to the community, Avila said the firm launched a book club and started trainings to tackle issues that were the focal point of last summer’s protests throughout the country.

“One of the things that was imperative was internal education, helping our attorneys, helping our staff work through these issues. They are tough issues — racism, implicit bias and all these things,” he said. “They are not easy topics to discuss so we did a few things. We launched internally a book club focused on race, equity and inclusion. We are now a couple of books in, and it has been very well-received. Every iteration has had about 50 attorneys and staff that read the books and participated in discussions that are facilitated to talk about these issues. We’ve also launched a couple of trainings. We recently finished one training that we offered in a few different instances in February on structural racism, and specifically in the legal profession.”

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