Anita Hitchcock’s team style of management has resulted in three new divisions within the city attorney’s office. Photo by Michael Buck
Seven months in, Anita Hitchcock couldn’t be happier with her new role as Grand Rapids city attorney.
Hitchcock, who “prays about everything,” said when the city attorney job opened, she decided not to apply for it.
“The availability came up, and there were people who encouraged me to do it, and I thought about it and prayed about it and I never came to the place of ‘I’m doing this,’” she said.
But, as luck or fate or maybe divine intervention would have it, the position was reopened not long after it first closed.
Hitchcock said when she was talking to a friend about the strange turn of events, her friend asked her why she thought the position reopened, and Hitchcock, without even thinking about it, said, “They reopened it for me.”
She said in that moment, she knew she received a response to her prayers.
“I believe we all have certain gifts and callings and assignments in life. I believe it was what I was called to be, hence why I love it so much,” Hitchcock said.
She said the city commission process was exciting and nerve-racking. In July, she was appointed city attorney.
“I was in shock,” she said.
Hitchcock said her roles over the past 15 years have given her the variety of skills necessary for her new job.
The city of Grand Rapids first hired Hitchcock in 2002, as an assistant city attorney, and since 2015, she has served as director of criminal enforcement.
Though she wanted to practice law since she was a teenager, Hitchcock’s path to her current position took some twists and turns.
First, she noted she originally wanted to be a defense attorney.
“I graduated early from (Ottawa Hills) high school and went to the University of Michigan, and I wanted to be a criminal attorney,” she said.
While working on her undergraduate degree, Hitchcock got married and had her daughter. She said she ended up dropping out of college.
Later, she enrolled at Aquinas College and received her undergraduate degree, but she still didn’t know what she wanted to do.
“I tried marketing, computer programming and all these different things,” she said.
A college counselor suggested law school, and Hitchcock said it surprised her, because she’d never mentioned her original intention of becoming a lawyer.
Hitchcock received her law degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing.
At that point, she said she planned to go into estate planning and tax law, but the reality of being a law school graduate with bills to pay meant she didn’t have the luxury of holding out for a specific job.
“A hiring partner at Miller Johnson said, ‘You should go to the prosecutor’s office and get some experience,’ so I did that,” Hitchcock said.
“The (Kent County) prosecutor’s office and the city attorney’s office were hiring at the same time, and I sent résumés to both — the city made the wiser decision.”
Hitchcock said prosecutors often are viewed in a negative light, and she was determined to change that perception.
“People ask, ‘How can you do prosecution?’ I can do it because I can make a big difference in people’s lives. People view prosecutors in the negative. It depends on your philosophy.”
She added, “People who break the law aren’t necessarily bad people; some of them just made a bad decision. There are consequences to breaking the law, but some people are good people, and they just make a bad choice.”
Hitchcock said realizing the positive impact she could have as a prosecutor helped her shift her perspective from wanting to be a defense attorney, and she embraced her burgeoning career as an assistant city attorney.
“The way to make the biggest difference is to be part of the systems and be in the decision-making positions,” she said.
She also noted there is a big difference between a city attorney and an attorney at a law firm.
“Other lawyers know who their client is,” she said, explaining as a city attorney, the job entails balancing the best interests of the citizens, the city at large and the city as an organization.
“It’s a balancing act of what is best for everyone,” she said.
Hitchcock said when she handles a case, it’s not about getting a conviction, it’s about getting the right outcome.
“I pray about everything, and at the end of the day, it’s whatever the right thing was, that is what I want,” she said.
Hitchcock said all those years of litigation are helping her in her new role.
“It is so different than what I used to do, but what I used to do helps me in this, because litigation is a unique skill, thinking fast on your feet and taking a lot of information in at once and assimilating it so everyone can understand it,” she said.
“You gain people skills, and there is no other area of law in our profession where you are in court as much as that one, so it prepared me for this, to have that ease of working with a vast array of people.”
Hitchcock also had a hand in training the next generation of attorneys. From 2009-13, she taught and supervised law students in the Public Sector Law Clinic at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids.
The clinic provides legal services to government agencies.
Hitchcock broke down her new role as having three overarching pieces: working with the city commission and city departments, managing a law firm and managing a team of people.
She said one of the things she is most proud of is the team building she has done since becoming city attorney.
She created civil litigation, municipal affairs and criminal litigation teams within the department, each with its own director.
“I believe in a team concept style of management,” she said.
She also said she believes in work-life balance and people should enjoy their job.
“I enjoy mine and want them to enjoy theirs, too,” she said.
She said when she eventually leaves the city attorney’s office, she will consider it a success if she left it better than it was before her.
“If I can say it’s better, then that is good for me,” she said.
Hitchcock said becoming city attorney has made life richer.
“You are at a higher scale of being able to make a difference,” she said. “I love working for government, and I love being a public servant. It makes life rich, and this is a greater level of that. I don’t mind staying late, and I love coming to work. That is a blessing.”
Hitchcock said the biggest challenge is that her to-do list never shrinks.
“I am a list person,” she said. “As a list person, you want everything off your list, but the list never ends. As a matter of fact, those 10 things you thought you’d get done, not going to happen. My list now says if you can get these two things done today, that would be great.”
Hitchcock said she is glad she never gave up on her dream of becoming a lawyer.
“It was just a dream deferred,” she said of the twists and turns of her earlier years.