Simmons Law And Community

February 6, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — If there’s one thing that Valerie Pierre Simmons would change about her life, it would be to take it slower.

But Simmons, a partner at Warner Norcross & Judd LLP, is far from slowing down. She is active in the community, guardian of her great-niece and great-nephew, and grandmother of an active 2-year-old whom she occasionally cares for while her daughter attends law school.

Simmons is also vice president of the Grand Rapid Bar Association and president of the Floyd Skinner Bar Association.

“I do think I’ve had a very interesting and, I think, fulfilling life,” said the 51-year-old. “There are so many things that occupy your life.”

Simmons was the first African-American attorney in a major law firm in Grand Rapids and became the first local African-American partner there. Though she is no longer the only African-American partner in Grand Rapids, Simmons said the area badly needs more minority lawyers.

“As a city the size of Grand Rapids, we simply don’t have enough minority representation in the bar,” she said. “A lot of times, minorities have a difficult time finding legal help when they need it.”

Simmons, who has been at Warner Norcross for 18 years and is chair of the education law practice group, said she views her role as an attorney as that of a facilitator.

“We help others achieve their goals,” she said. “It’s really probably where I get the most satisfaction.”

She has been active for the past eight years with the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, including two years as chairwoman.

“I can’t even describe what a rewarding experience that was,” she said.

Simmons has also been active as the co-chairwoman of the Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes. Though Michigan is ranked third in the country in the number of hate crimes committed, Simmons said this shows the state’s commitment to the cause, rather than casting a negative light. Many other states do not acknowledge hate crimes the way that Michigan does, she said.

“They are actively involved in this initiative,” she said of the state and local police in their fight again hate crimes.

Simmons said the “culture of service” at Warner Norcross is important to her and has allowed her to be civilly involved in the community and the state.

“Community service is an expectation,” she said.

Simmons was born in Alaska while her father was stationed there and spent her childhood between Texas and Louisiana, specifically in New Orleans. With many family members still living in the area, Simmons said Hurricane Katrina was a tense time for her. Though her relatives lost material possessions and some are still displaced, Simmons said she was thankful none of them died in the disaster. She played host to three of her relatives during the crisis.

“It’s been a very traumatic time for our family,” she said. “This is unlike anything any of us had ever experienced.”

In view of the disaster, Simmons said she was glad that her whole family, including her granddaughter, was able to make it to Mardi Gras last year. Simmons said her granddaughter learned that being a 2-year-old and adorable will get you a bunch of beads.

“You don’t have to raise your shirt to get a lot of stuff,” she laughed.

Family is important to Simmons, who is raising her late sister Barbara’s grandchildren, Sean and Stephanie. Their grandmother raised them after their mother died, and when she also passed away, Simmons said Barbara asked her to take over. The two teenagers are active at different area high schools, keeping Simmons very busy.

“We’re always going in different directions,” she said.

Multi-tasking is nothing new to Simmons, who was a nurse in a cardiac unit before deciding to become an attorney. One of her patients was Leon Jaworski, special prosecutor during Watergate. She and Jaworski would debate and argue, and he suggested that Simmons consider law, just as she was starting to look into a career change.

Two years later, Simmons was traveling with a cardiac team and decided to take her LSATs during a stay in Saudi Arabia. After passing the test, she enrolled at the University of Houston, where she was simultaneously a student, full-time nurse, wife and mother. Her daughter, Tisha, was 7 years old when Simmons started law school.

“She has lived this whole experience with me from law school to the present,” Simmons said. “That has been a commitment that she also made, whether she volunteered for it or not.”

Though Simmons said she did not steer her daughter toward law school, she does support her choice and hasn’t hesitated to steer her toward becoming one of the much-needed minority lawyers in Grand Rapids.

“I’m going to be very interested to see just how that all shakes out and what she does with it,” she said.

Simmons graduated from law school in December 1986 and planned a career in teaching law. But first she felt she should have some experience practicing the profession. A faculty position was held for her at the University of Houston, but she never claimed it. After coming to Michigan and joining Warner Norcross, she stayed on.

“I love practicing law and I love litigation,” she said. “Warner Norcross is really the only reason that I’ve stayed in Grand Rapids. There are many people just like me who feel the same way.”

The late Tom McNamara, a partner at the firm when Simmons joined, took her under his wing, she said, and taught her by example how law should be practiced.

“It’s invaluable,” she said of his mentoring. “You can’t put a price on that.”

Simmons said she was drawn to the firm after seeing McNamara, who she calls the “epitome of what a lawyer should be,” at trial. During a major hearing, McNamara asked a first-year associate to explain a legal concept, because he had a better grasp of it. Simmons said that showed her what kind of attorney he was.

“That’s the type of person that I want to work with,” she remembered thinking at the time. “When I got here for my interview, it was just like coming home.”

One of the highlights of her career was being one of the trial lawyers when Joseph Shields and Thomas Rinks, owners of local company Wrench LLC, sued Taco Bell for breach of contract and failing to pay for use of the Chihuahua dog character made famous in the company’s commercials. The pair won $30.1 million after five years of being in and out of court.

“I felt very privileged to be a part of that whole case,” she said. Simmons said she was also pleased with the outcome of that case.

“They deserved every penny of it,” she said. “You couldn’t have had better results for better clients.”

Doug Wagner, managing partner at Warner Norcross, said some of the characteristics that stand out about Simmons are her genuine concern for her clients and the people in the community, as well as her legal analysis and energy.

“When you genuinely care about your client or your case and you are as fair minded as she is, it leads to results,” he said. “We’re lucky to have her.”

Wagner said her interest in the community does not stop when she comes to work.

“She’s a great mentor to our young associates and young lawyers,” he said.

“She’s just a very, very valuable partner in a lot of ways.”    

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