One will be a private ceremony for members of the legal community, many of whom were actively involved in transforming the three-year project from concept to reality.
A public ceremony will also be held that same day. Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm has agreed to be one of the featured speakers at the public event.
Both ceremonies, however, will have the same focus: dedicating the center to John W. Cummiskey — a founding member of Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey PLC, who has been widely recognized for his pro-bono service.
“He is probably the most honored lawyer in this state for his work on behalf of Access to Justice,” said GRBA President Dale Ann Iverson of the statewide program that helps the poor with their legal problems.
Iverson said the GRBA board of trustees chose to dedicate the center to Cummiskey, in respect to his long list of past achievements and for his ability to see future triumphs.
“Other folks brought it to reality here,” she said of the center, “but it is the realization of a vision that John Cummiskey had.”
Two years ago, the State Bar of Michigan honored Cummiskey with a resolution that recognized his continuing support of pro-bono work and his efforts to increase access to justice for all Michigan residents.
Called the “Father of Pro Bono,” Cummiskey was then made Chair Emeritus of the state bar’s Access to Justice for All Task Force.
In 1982, the state bar named its pro-bono award in honor of Cummiskey. Each year since then, the award has been given to a member who excels for a client that can’t afford legal counsel.
Cummiskey has also had a major impact on the local pro-bono honor. Legal Aid of West Michigan sponsors the award, which is named after the late Michael Barnes. Barnes was the first attorney to receive the Cummiskey Pro Bono Award from the state bar.
In 1997, Cummiskey was given a special presidential award for his lifelong commitment to providing access to justice.
Cummiskey graduated from the University of Michigan law school, was admitted to the bar in 1941, and is past president of the state bar. Cummiskey is retired from Miller Johnson.
As for the Legal Assistance Center, it began serving low-income residents on March 4.
“We make referrals to social service organizations within the community, and also make referrals to legal service organizations for those people who qualify,” said Laurie Parks, the bar’s development director.
According to the GRBA referral service, only half of the residents who call for legal advice actually need the services of an attorney, as many inquiries can be resolved by a social organization. Of those calls that are referred to lawyers, only 15 percent ever result in a fee being paid to an attorney. The rest are resolved through a free, half-hour consultation.
The center can also advise those who want to represent themselves in certain matters such as landlord-tenant disputes, wage garnishment cases and small claims issues.
“The bar association also has its information service there to make referrals to private practicing attorneys for those individuals who want to hire an attorney,” said Parks. “We also have information for people who want to handle certain types of cases on their own.”
Private dollars support all the services offered through the Legal Assistance Center. Local bar members made individual donations to the center. The GRBA and state bar foundations are also supporting the center through grants. Parks estimated that the center’s budget would be close to $200,000 annually.
The Legal Assistance Center is located on the fifth floor of the county courthouse on the corner of Ottawa Avenue and Lyon Street NW.
In addition to Granholm, other notables from the legal profession will speak at the public ceremony. But none will outshine Cummiskey on that day, as he plans to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
“John’s efforts statewide as a lawyer have a lot of meaning to us,” said Iverson, “so we think it’s appropriate from the bar’s perspective to dedicate this to him.”