While working in Florida as an assistant U.S. attorney, Ronald DeWaard worked on a case that involved drug kingpin Rickey Brownlee. Courtesy Mitch Ranger
Ronald DeWaard’s opinionated nature, coupled with a compassionate heart, has been a guiding compass throughout his life.
Those innate characteristics have led him into a career of legal service that has stretched over decades. Throughout those years, he has held many titles and positions, but this year, a new title was bestowed upon him.
He was appointed chair of Varnum in January, more than 30 years after he first walked through the doors of the law firm’s Grand Rapids office as a law student.
Along with being chair of the firm, which has multiple offices across the state, DeWaard is a managing partner and has been a practicing attorney at the firm for the last 18 years after rejoining it in 2001. He is a trial lawyer who specializes in white collar defense and government investigations, criminal, intellectual property, banking and finance, data privacy and cybersecurity law.
Since he became a managing partner in 2001, Varnum has increased its presence throughout the state. The firm opened its eighth office in Birmingham last month and soon will move its Ann Arbor office. Its autonomous vehicle practice and data/privacy practice have grown. An emphasis on diversity and inclusion within the firm and in the community is in place. Three new women associate attorneys were hired at Varnum’s Grand Rapids office in fall 2018.
As chair, DeWaard said the firm will continue to grow its presence in the southeastern part of the state, attract and retain more attorneys through its health and wellness platform that creates a fun working environment, expand the diversity and inclusion initiatives throughout the firm’s multiple locations and grow its client base.
DeWaard’s path to becoming chair of the regional firm was first manifested as a child. He said he always wanted to be a lawyer before he even knew what an attorney did.
RONALD G. DEWAARD
“I always wanted to be a lawyer for some reason,” he said. “We never had any lawyers in our family. My grandfather, who was a farmer, wanted to be a lawyer, and I don’t know when it got put into my head. I think it is because I like to argue. I was in the middle of two brothers, and I just argued all the time. I was a problem for my parents, certainly for my older brother. I think someone said, ‘You should be a lawyer. You like to argue.’
“In third grade, I wrote one of those essays you have to write, and I said I wanted to be a lawyer and everything else, including the president. I am not going to accomplish everything, but that was my goal (of becoming a lawyer) from third grade on. I didn’t really know what it was. There were no lawyers in our family; I really didn’t know any lawyers. (I had seen) lawyers on TV, like in the ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ movie and things like that, but I always had it in my head and, it turned out, by happenstance I think, the right thing for me to do. It really fit my personality, and I was always geared to it even though I never met a lawyer until I was in law school.”
The Kalamazoo native attended the University of Michigan Law School after he graduated from Calvin College — now Calvin University — in Grand Rapids.
As a law student, DeWaard did his first clerkship at Varnum in the summer of 1988.
“Varnum appealed to me because it was a product of a merger in 1983 where two smaller firms came together and immediately became a large firm, one of the three largest firms in the city,” he said. “Five years after that merger, it was an exciting place because now they were hiring young lawyers, a lot of young lawyers, and there were a lot of young partners, late senior associates and there were a whole group of people, senior lawyers, who led the firm.
“It just had this vibe of being cutting edge and fun. It was a very fun place; there were a lot of fun lawyers. That was my experience here, and I fit in well and I felt like I was a part of it, even as a law student.”
DeWaard did another clerkship at a large law firm in California before he graduated. After graduation, he began his legal career at Varnum in 1990 as a trial attorney. He also participated in a trial clinic program that was dedicated to teaching trial practice to young attorneys that was held in a federal court. That was where he realized he wanted to try jury cases.
After practicing at Varnum for over four years, DeWaard headed south to pursue his dream of becoming a federal prosecutor. He went to Miami, where he became an assistant United States attorney at the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of Florida.
He prosecuted drug trafficking, money laundering, robberies, fraud and criminal cases, some of which involved cartels from South America and the Caribbean.
DeWaard said his biggest case involved a drug trade run by Rickey Brownlee, who dealt cocaine and heroin to the Opa-locka, Florida, community and major cities in the country.
“He had been convicted by the state numerous times,” DeWaard said. “He had been convicted federally, but he had gotten out and he had always kept his network going. He was controlling the drug trade pretty much, local drug trade in cocaine and heroin. He had a crack house in Grand Rapids, Chicago and all the northern cities. (The drugs) would come into Miami from Colombia. He would take large loads, cut it up, sell it locally and then send kilo-size loads to (other cities.) No one could ever touch him because he controlled the whole neighborhood, everyone was working for him. There were kids on bikes to make sure no one got around. He would give the money to someone locally. He was buying up the whole town, basically, in false names because he would launder all the money, and they would buy it, but it really would be his. He had a private gym. He had a restaurant. He was basically taking the town over.”
DeWaard said Brownlee also was controlling the local government and police, and no one would speak up against him because he was associated with numerous murders. According to DeWaard, the neighborhood association appealed to the federal government for help.
The case took four years that eventually led to the capture and, later, the conviction of Brownlee, who got life in prison. The case was proven through the collaboration of different agencies, including the Metropolitan Enforcement Team, which worked as undercover drug dealers, different methods of surveillance and flipping some witnesses, among other things. Throughout the four-year ordeal, DeWaard said he had death threats on him, so he needed protection.
After seven years, DeWaard said he no longer wanted to be a prosecutor; he wanted to try something different.
“It was an enigma because (Brownlee) was loved by many in the community,” DeWaard said. “He would give bikes to kids and turkeys to people for Thanksgiving because he understood the community relationship. It was a complicated issue with the socioeconomic (makeup). I was naïve about that, and I got an education over time, and it became a complicated issue for me, and ultimately, I didn’t want to do those types of prosecutions anymore, but it was a unique, intense experience that probably not many get to do.
“What I do now is important for the clients, but it is hard to put someone in (prison) for the rest of their life, and I did that with a few people. (Brownlee,) I felt pretty good about because he clearly was never going to change. He was just going to keep pedaling drugs and getting kids involved in drugs after being convicted so many times. So, I felt good about that, but some of the other ones, it is hard to see where people come from in life and they don’t have the same opportunities that I had. It kind of bugs me now. So, I think about that a lot now.”
DeWaard and his family moved back to Grand Rapids to be closer to other family members and with calls from Varnum to re-enter private practice, he returned to the law firm in September 2001.