Theyre Three Of A Kind

May 31, 2002
| By Katy Rent |
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GRAND RAPIDS — On the way to a time when a woman leads the free world and commands the armed forces, locally there are women at the head of all three major law organizations.

The Grand Rapids Bar Association (GRBA), The Women Lawyers Association of Michigan-Western Region (WLAM) and the Floyd Skinner Bar Association all currently have female presidents. Dale Iverson has led the GRBA for the past year and will end her term at the end of this month. Elizabeth Welch Lykins has been on the board of WLAM for four years and is president this year. And Angela Roth leads the African American Minority Lawyer Association of Floyd Skinner as president this year.

All three juggle career, family, volunteering and free time, and they all face some of the same difficulties in law and in life. While working for different law firms and participating in different projects, the three women are united through various projects that their respective organizations work on together.

Practicing law for 19 years, raising a young son, working as an attorney with Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge and juggling time for herself, as well as being president of the area’s largest bar association, Iverson faces many of the challenges other women lawyers face. Although she is not the first woman president of the GRBA, she noted she is the first president not named Janet and not married to a man named Dave.

“We have had three woman presidents, but I was the first one to be different,” Iverson joked.

In her year as president she has worked to establish links between the three organizations, helped the GRBA to be more inclusive and conducted a national search for a new executive director.

One area where the GRBA and the Floyd Skinner Bar have partnered is the clerkship program that brings law students to Grand Rapids. The program began when Iverson and Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge’s managing partner read an article in 1989 about a program at an Ohio bar association aimed at helping young minority law students find summer jobs as clerks with law firms.

“We asked the Bar if we could take the idea to other law firms in the area, in the Bar’s name, and that was the beginning of what is called the Grand Rapids Bar Association’s Clerkship Program. And this year it is celebrating its 13th or 14th year,” Iverson said. “It is a partnership between (GRBA) and the Floyd Skinner Bar. Floyd Skinner really does all of the interviewing and selecting of the students, and they are assigned to the law firms at random.”

The program gives law students the opportunity to work in a law firm, which they can then put on their resumes, which in turn, helps with future jobs.

“It has really worked out beautifully,” said Iverson. “A lot of the people that were in the program have ended up back at the practice. And in terms of how we have worked together, the clerkship program has been the bedrock of the Floyd Skinner relationship.

“Without Floyd Skinner’s help we honestly couldn’t complete this project or carry it through,” Iverson said. “They do so much, practically all the work, to go to colleges and look for people that are interested in the Grand Rapids area and that want to clerk for the summer. Then they interview them and place them in law firms all over the city.”

Lykins said the program works for the entire community.

“We have a very hard time retaining minorities. The clerkship program is a big thing. We get them here, they work here for a few years, and then they go home. That is something that we have a stake in as well, and so we are getting into attracting candidates and keeping them, to get a more diverse bar,” said Lykins.

Established nearly 100 years ago, the GRBA originally served primarily as the location of the law library for the city. Now, with most major law firms having libraries of their own, the GRBA has moved its library to Grand Valley State University, which is contemplating having a law school one day.

“The law library is available to everyone, and over the years has become much more established,” Iverson said. “We just weren’t able to keep it at the Bar and maintain it to the extent to which it had grown, while allowing everyone to use it and still carrying on with our other functions.”

Two years ago the members of the GRBA approved the transfer of the association’s large collection of legal resource materials to the Steelcase Library at GVSU for the mutual benefit of the association’s members and GVSU.

Another joint effort arose as the GRBA and WLAM partnered to honor Grand Rapids’ third woman lawyer and the first to start her own law practice: Rosemary Scott. The two groups worked together to host a luncheon for 180 area lawyers, judges and community members interested in wishing the 85-year-old Scott well on her retirement.

“It started out with talks between Dale and I and we thought a few people would show up. One hundred eighty people came so it was a huge thing. It really showed that the organizations valued each other and it was a complete joint effort. It was impressive — the number of senior lawyers — and it was great to get these people together and see them interact and hear her story.” Lykins said.

After four years on the board of WLAM, Lykins became president this year. In addition to being an associate attorney with Miller, Johnson, Snell and Cummiskey PLC, Lykins has been involved in many projects as president of the Women Lawyers Association.

The first — and what she is concentrating most of her efforts on currently — is the annual lawyers vs. judges softball game on June 18. Last year the event raised more than $10,000 for the YWCA, which is always one of the organizations that benefits, and also for the new Legal Assistance Center, which opened two weeks ago. The event includes door prizes and corporate sponsorships, and this year the association is repeating an event that was new last year by bringing in cheerleaders — but not just any cheerleaders.

“Last year we had about 12 guys out there, mostly former bar presidents, that were cheering. They had pom-poms and we convinced them to go out there,” Lykins said. “They alone raised $5,000 for us. They get sponsorships and pledges because people want to see them out there cheering, so we are right now in the process of recruiting cheerleaders.”

At the annual state meeting the organization recently won an award as an outstanding region.

“That was a great award that we were really pleased to get because our group has really been working hard the last couple of years. We have a really active membership, about 90 women lawyers in West Michigan that are members of what is called the western region,” Lykins said. “We have 12 women who sit on our board, very active women who work in all different firms, some who are general practitioners, some work in large firms, some stay at home, but are still lawyers and want to keep up with the pulse of what is going on.”

Lykins said there are two issues the association continually focuses on: retention and business development. She noted that when looking at the more executive, higher law positions, women aren’t there — they are leaving the practice of law. WLAM wants to find out why and how it can work to keep them there.

“I think Grand Rapids is a very friendly place to practice law; it is an extremely family-oriented bar association. People go home and they are involved in their family or what is important to them … and you don’t see that much other places,” Lykins said.

She said that offering that type of balance is crucial to a law firm.

“As a professional you have to be flexible. I see most of the firms are becoming more flexible in family time and flex time; all the big firms have it,” Lykins said. “Attitudes have changed very much. Women were leaving. (Firms) were putting all this time into training them and then losing them.”

Lykins herself works a reduced schedule to have time with her 3-year-old and 15-month-old, but finds she is accomplishing the same amount of work. It just happens in smaller amounts of focused time that leaves time to attend field trips and play groups. “The Bar Association is very important as a career, but I think you are a better lawyer and a better person if you are balanced,” she said.

On the other hand, building a business can be a challenge for women lawyers. One event Lykins hopes will help is the annual holiday reception.

“That is where all the trustees from the Bar and the judges come, and then our membership gets to mingle and meet judges from the area,” she said. “A lot of us work in different areas of law where we are all over the state, in all different court rooms, and would never cross paths with these people. So it is good to get your name out there and meet people in the area.”

Business development and retention are also two issues that Roth, an attorney with Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge, faces as president of Floyd Skinner. After six years of practicing family, criminal and general litigation and juggling the roles of wife and mother, as well as the obstacles she faces being an African American woman lawyer, Roth has made strides with Floyd Skinner.

“We want to actively promote retention and recruitment as well as promote the city to African Americans from other areas,” said Roth. “We can do this through scholarships, the clerkship program, recruiting in high schools and area colleges with law schools. When we get young law students or young lawyers in here, we then need to make the city wonderfully appealing so they stay.”

Roth said that being from this area made coming back here after law school an easier choice. But that isn’t the case for young lawyers who did not grow up here.

“It is harder to have someone here for the summer and then get them to come back when they graduate. They are more likely to go back home,” she said. “We want them to see this as a diverse place to work and one where their needs and interests will be met.”

Together the three organizations will continue to work together to make the Grand Rapids law community more diverse and appealing.

“I think that we can learn and grow from volunteering. When we are supported by the entire law community — men, women, minorities, as well as the community in general — it makes it more appealing to work with,” said Iverson. “As a client and as a new member of the law profession, you want to work with someone who is inclusive and supportive of the group around them and someone who is understanding, so you know no matter what you will have a voice.” 

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