Inside Track: Personal experience guides attorney’s career

Migrant lawsuit and foreign adoption nudged Varnum’s Kimberly Clarke toward practice choices.
Kimberly Clarke grew up on a 500-acre farm in Ottawa County. Courtesy Varnum LLP

The backbone of Kimberly Clarke’s legal career was what she calls her advantageous rural upbringing on a 500-acre family farm in Conklin in Ottawa County.

Clarke is an immigration attorney and a partner at one of Michigan’s largest law firms, Varnum LLP. Her career spans nearly three decades. She focuses on nonimmigrant petitions for both employment and family-based permanent residence applications, expatriation and foreign visa issues.

Clarke’s specialty practice includes offering consultation services to her agricultural clients. She handles various agricultural labor and employment issues such as compliance with migrant labor laws, H-2A worker issues, wage and hour laws and anti-discrimination laws.

The sixth of eight children, Clarke’s profession mirrors her family dynamics that took root in the United States when her great-grandparents came to the country in the mid-1800s. She was born into a close-knit family that owned a large farm, which served as a focal point for the community and a source of employment for some people outside of the state.

Within the 500-acre chicken farm, Clarke said there were 50 acres they called “the garden” where her family grew produce such as tomatoes, broccoli and cabbage, and sold them at the Fulton Street Farmers Market in Grand Rapids.

“My siblings, cousins and I would spend all day Mondays and Thursdays picking together and some of us would go to the farmers market and sell Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays,” she said. “Those were some of the best memories we had because it was actually a treat to go to the farmers market. If you were home, you had to work in the fields all day while some of us were at the farmers market under tarps and working, but not in the same kind of way. That was a fun way to grow up and connect with my siblings but also with my cousins.”

At one point, Clarke said they had about 85,000 chickens on their farm and they would pack the eggs and sell some through Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch, now the largest egg producer in Michigan and the 10th largest in the United States. Clarke’s family also sold some of their eggs on the farm, allowing local people to visit and purchase them.

Varnum LLP
Position: Partner and attorney
Age: 51
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Husband, Mike, and daughters Kate and Christine
Business/Community Involvement: Chair, Saint Mary’s Foundation
Biggest Career Break: “The opportunity to work for Varnum and take my practice to a larger platform and add the immigration piece to my practice. I had the agriculture portion and immigration so nicely complemented my personal ambition and connected with things I like to do.”

“The chickens were laying eggs so we would pack eggs every day,” she said. “It is crazy now how the industry has developed because now it is all cage-free, but that was not what happened in the ’70s. That was not advertised, I can’t even imagine 85,000 chickens in a cage-free environment, but that is just the development of the times and it is so good to see agriculture develop.

“But when we had the chickens, we had to go out in the coop on Sundays to gather the eggs because we didn’t have our regular crew,” she said. “Our family would go in for a few hours because, like any other animals, they needed to be cared for. There were automatic feeders but we still had to collect the eggs so that was what we would do — the bare minimum to get us through Sunday and the bigger crew would come in on Monday.”

Clarke said they would have up to 200 seasonal workers, many of whom came from Florida and Texas as part of the migrant labor force that gradually moved its way north through the Carolinas and California before reaching Michigan to work in the warmer months.

All of Clarke’s childhood and family livelihood revolved around the agricultural sector, but what would follow while she was in high school oddly proved to be beneficial for her future career.

In her senior year of high school, Clarke said a class action lawsuit was filed against her family farm by the employees who worked there.

The lawsuit spanned more than 10 years, and during that time Clarke had gone on to Michigan State University, where she earned her B.A., and later her J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School.

After graduating during what Clarke described as an economic downturn in 1993, she took a clerkship with the federal magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Hugh W. Brenneman, Jr.

Clarke worked with Brenneman for a year and a half. Clarke family attorney Dick Van Orden worked at Tolley Vandenbosch Walton Korolewicz & Brengle PC in Grand Rapids, and he later arranged a job for her at the firm. That firm is now known as Foster Swift Collins & Smith PC in Grand Rapids.

“I was fortunate because the lawyer who represented my family did not have an associate to work with him, so he allowed me to do a lot of the research and drafting for him even before I went to law school,” she said. “It was a great opportunity and of course he looked over it and made it all appropriate. It was a great opportunity to work on that. There were motion hearings along the way, and litigation takes a tremendous amount of time sometimes to work its way through. The judge who was handling the case kept on breaking pieces (of the case) off and we would have motions over that, so that is why it stretched over 10 years, but when we got to the end there was only a trial left on one claim for four plaintiffs. Everything else was dismissed so my family decided to settle for a small amount in order to get it over with and finish the litigation.”

Clarke said what drew her to Tolley Vandenbosch was the opportunity to work on agricultural labor issues.

“I really feel like, especially working with my family’s litigation, I can relate to the farmers and what they are going through because I was there myself, so I feel like I have walked in their shoes,” she said.

Although she had that expertise, Clarke said farmers are very self-reliant and they don’t always call lawyers to seek assistance initially when they encounter a legal problem. As a result, Clarke said she didn’t have enough business with just agricultural clients to fill her caseload.

A Varnum immigration opportunity became available and she interviewed for the position, and just like agriculture, immigration became personal.

“I ended up interviewing the day I came home from bringing our four-and-a-half-month-old baby from Korea,” she said. “We adopted our little girl from South Korea and through that adoption process we went through immigration and, as crazy as it sounds, there was not much help from the agency on filling out the paperwork. They just kind of handed it to us to fill it out but there was a notary block that needed to have a special stamp on it and we didn’t know, so it cost us 10 days to go back and forth and try to get this extra stamp. You think 10 days, no big deal, but when you have a four-month-old sitting in Korea and you are sitting here wanting to get to the four-month-old, 10 days is a really long time. So, immigration speaks to me because I have experienced it.

“Now when I represent my immigration clients and they are calling for the fifth time in one day because they are so anxious about it, I get it because I was in their shoes at one point. I can really relate to what they are experiencing.”

Clarke has been a practicing attorney at Varnum for over 20 years. Five years into her practice at the law firm she became a partner at the firm.

Within the last few years, immigration and agriculture — especially with trade retaliations between different countries and the debate over what’s now the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement — have been thrust into the national spotlight.

In partnership with the Michigan Farm Bureau, Clarke has developed an online Agricultural Employment Compliance Guide that is continuously updated to keep Michiganders informed about the state of the agricultural sector and changes to federal and state employment laws. She also offers in-person employment seminars each year to agricultural employers.

Clarke said the terrorist attacks on 9-11 dramatically changed the way U.S. immigration laws are enforced nationally and internationally. More recently, those same laws are being scrutinized both within the U.S. government and among the American population.

“As an immigration attorney, I believe in America being the land of immigrants,” she said “Certainly, we need national security, we need to secure our borders. I understand all of those dynamics, but I hope that overall we remain a land welcoming of immigrants. My predecessors were not born here and when I look at American history, some of the greatest achievements have been by immigrants and I hope that we continue that.”

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