Former Detroit Mayor May Visit Us Frequently

May 3, 2002
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DETROIT — Grand Rapids probably can expect to see Dennis Archer at least a few times in the next 18 months during his tenure as president-elect and then president of the American Bar Association.

“Of course, one of our big offices is there,” the former Detroit mayor said, speaking of Dickinson Wright, which he has headed since leaving city hall in Detroit at the first of the year.

“Grand Rapids is a very progressive, outstanding community,” the former Michigan Supreme Court justice said. “As mayor of Detroit, I worked a lot with Mayor Logie. We supported funding for Grand Rapids’ ballpark and for its Grand Center when Detroit didn’t have anything on the table.”

But his visits here also will occur as part of a swing through much of the country speaking to legal firms throughout the nation concerning his pet vision — increased diversity in the legal profession.

“Now I’m not a demographer or a sociologist, but today, corporate America is far out ahead of the lawyers in this.”

He said only about 7 percent of the legal profession is comprised of people of color. “That’s well below the percentage of people of color in this country’s population,” he said, and added that as president of the ABA, he plans a great many speeches to a great many local bar associations on just this subject.

“Look, some years ago corporate America paid attention to the work of a demographer and a sociologist who crafted a book called “The Browning of America.”

“The authors showed that by 2050, or maybe even sooner, most Americans would be members of what now are minority groups: Hispanics, blacks, Native Americans or Asians. Subsequent studies showed it might be as early as 2040 or 2030.

“Well, corporate America saw what was coming,” Archer said. “It knew that when that day arrived, it would have to show that it already had made a commitment. It got out ahead of the curve in branding, advertising, you name it.”

Part of his job now, in addition to following up work by his predecessors, is to get the legal profession to move more aggressively in this respect.

Too, as president of the legal profession’s largest association, he wants to find a way for the federal government to help young lawyers ease their education debt burdens so they are able to do more pro-bono work.

“We have some graduates who owe $60,000 to $90,000 when they start practice, and they can’t afford to do legal work for the poor. They’ve got to be turning in as many billable hours as possible. I’d like to see if it isn’t possible for the government to forgive some of that loan in return for doing community service work.”

Archer, also former president of the Michigan Bar Association, never seems to be at a loss for works, but during his law week interview with the Business Journal last week, he seemed to be near the verbal boiling point.

What had him so excited was that he and U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich) had just come from a meeting with students at Cooley Middle School in Detroit.

And what he and the Senator encountered there, he said, was the most exciting thing the former mayor had come across in a long time. (As Detroit mayor, Archer played a special role with Michigan government in rescuing the city’s public schools.)

“These were middle school kids,” Archer said, “and they were holding us there with questions, because they were asking about and talking about entrepreneurs.”

Archer said he had been under the impression that most secondary school students seemed to believe their paths to successful careers lay only in becoming professional athletes or rock stars.

“But that phenomenon seems to have ended. These kids have been reading in Black Entrepreneur about people like (Richard) Parsons of AOL Time Warner,” Archer said.

“Or they were wanting to know about Lloyd Ward, CEO of Maytag, or (Ken) Chenault, CEO of American Express. These men seem to be their role models now.”

Parsons — co-CEO of AOL Time Warner — Chenault and Ward all are black men from humble beginnings who have gotten where they are today the old-fashioned way: by getting good grades, graduating from college and working like beavers.

“I think the school kids are beginning to see that if they want to succeed — no matter what it’s at — they need to get good grades,” Archer said.  

And, he said, the three men’s success is part of what points him, as the bar’s president, to devote attention to what he terms “the celebration of American diversity.”

In case anybody worrying about who’s minding the shop at Dickinson Wright headquarters, Archer chuckled that the firm has a CEO, James Sandborn, who manages day-to-day operations.

Meanwhile, Archer’s job — in addition to his work with the bar and rebuilding his own practice — is to make sure Dickinson Wright clients, those inside and outside of Michigan, are happy. “My job is to see that we’re exceeding their expectations in Dickinson Wright and then to enhance those  expectations.”

Dickinson Wright’s other offices are in the Detroit area, with outlying offices also in Lansing, Ann Arbor and Washington, D.C.

Archer, who is 60, was appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court by Gov. James Blanchard in 1985, serving until 1991. He was elected mayor of Detroit in 1993, serving — as he put it — until 12:01 p.m., Jan. 1, 2002.  BJ

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