Inside Track: All about the connections
There’s nothing impersonal about Leslee Lewis’ working relationships.
Growing up, Leslee M. Lewis moved around quite a bit. After living the first six years of her life in Breckenridge, her family moved about every two years, by her estimation.
So when she took a job as a summer clerk at Dickinson Wright PLLC’s Grand Rapids office, she made a purposeful decision to stay in West Michigan and try to build a community here. Now, 21 years later, Lewis is managing partner of the Grand Rapids office and a governing board member for the Detroit-based firm.
“What mattered to me was excellence, but also doing the right thing no matter what,” Lewis said. “And the first thing I heard here was that we give the client the Cadillac in terms of the work product and the service, even if they were paying for the Yugo.”
While going to high school in a small town in Tennessee, Lewis grew to admire the work of the town’s lone attorney, whom she likened to lawyers portrayed in old Cary Grant movies: a trusted adviser working in the community — “all the good things you think of in a lawyer, not the bad things.”
Driven by a desire to help people, Lewis set off down the path of a career in law.
After graduating summa cum laude from Alma College in three years, Lewis was admitted to Notre Dame Law School. Recalling stories of professors instructing first-year students to “look to your left and look to your right, because one of you won’t be here by the end of the year,” Lewis steeled herself for the cutthroat and competitive world of law school.
And sure enough, on her first day at Notre Dame, Lewis was ushered into a courtroom with 500 of her peers, where the professor at the front of the room asked the students to look to their left, and look to their right.
“We were all in utter shock,” Lewis said. “And then they said, ‘We expect you to personally make sure all these people are here at the end of your three years.’”
As Lewis recalled, all but a handful of students from that class graduated with her, and the experience at Notre Dame Law School left her with an even stronger sense of the importance of community.
LESLEE M. LEWIS
“I wanted not only to help people, but I wanted to ‘do life’ with them,” she said. “I wanted to help them out of hard situations, to take care of and protect them. And so to be a trusted advisor like that seemed like a good role.”
Early on at Dickinson Wright, Lewis cut her teeth doing transactions, security work and mergers and acquisitions. She was taken under the wing of Stuart Cheney, a senior attorney at the firm who showed her the ropes, letting her sit in on phone calls and giving her opportunities to negotiate and grow as a lawyer. Lewis said Cheney had her back on several occasions and also stressed to her the importance of maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
After a couple of years “trading money across the table,” Lewis decided it was time to do something where she made more of a difference for people. She started by taking small pro bono matters for startup nonprofits, which eventually grew into a large portion of the work she does today.
“We go to the mats with our clients. You’re with them, and they stick with you,” she said. “That’s kind of a nice place to be. You feel like you’re building something.”
And as much as Lewis cares for her clients and her colleagues at the firm, they return the favor. In February, Lewis was in a terrible car accident that broke six ribs, punctured a lung and broke her pelvis in three places. She spent eight days recovering in a hospital room crowded with flowers and well wishes. As she learned to walk again, her colleagues set up a schedule to provide Lewis with meals and bring whatever she needed.
“The people here were phenomenal,” she said. “You think of churches and others in the community doing things for you, but the people here really took care of me. It really changes your perspective on life and the relationships that you have. That’s what’s important, and the ‘stuff’ is completely meaningless, and you learn that in seconds from when it happens.”
It didn’t take long for Lewis to return to work — she was taking calls from the conference room and was cleared to begin driving again in mid-April — and she hopes to be healthy enough to walk the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure with her colleagues in September.
A people person, Lewis has served in a number of management roles at Dickinson Wright. As a practice department manager, she was in charge of the real estate, energy and sustainability departments across 13 Dickinson Wright offices.
“Getting to build bridges between new offices and getting to be a big part of people’s lives was a big privilege,” Lewis said.
As a governing board member, Lewis has a voice in some major decisions, and the responsibility isn’t lost on her.
“The ability to have input that actually makes effective changes that truly can alter people’s lives is humbling, way more so than I ever would have thought,” she said. “It takes a lot of courage to speak up for what you believe in those situations, and there’s a learning experience around every corner.”
A fan of the outdoors, in her free time Lewis hikes, swims, kayaks — “anything near woods or water,” as she puts it — and spends countless hours attending sporting events for her three children. An avid reader, Lewis one day hopes to publish a book. She also writes poetry on occasion, a hobby she has kept up since college.
Lewis is quick to credit the people around her for her success.
“For me, being where I am has everything to do with the people around me,” she said. “And I don’t think anybody reaches any of their goals without the people around them. So much of succeeding in life is being surrounded by wonderful people who care about you and about the trajectory of your life, who will be honest with you and say the right thing and look out for you and make a right path for you.”
In turn, Lewis hopes that she can one day create a path for others the way one was created for her.
“In football terms, the linemen have to block for the quarterback, right?” she said. “So I really just want to do for other people what’s been done for me. I want to be the lineman out front blocking for some of the future quarterbacks. I want to help clients, and I see such promising young attorneys throughout our office here and at the firm, and I want to make a difference for them.
“I think as you look back on your past, you owe it to the future to make a difference for the people who are to come next.”