Bryan, Ohio, may sound like a sleepy Midwest town. But every fall during football season, owing to its location just across the Michigan border, it becomes a town divided.
“Our town was half Ohio State and half Michigan,” said Sue O. Conway, a partner with Warner Norcross & Judd LLP, who grew up in Bryan.
“You can drive through there the week before the Ohio State/Michigan football game and it’s pretty funny to see all the flags and the signs.”
Conway would eventually join the U-M side, but not before making a stop at Vassar College, where she graduated magna cum laude in 1968 with a degree in economics. In the last half of her senior year, Conway was working on her senior thesis about a stock market issue. While researching, she went to the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C., and began to develop a relationship.
“I was fortunate enough to get to talk with some of the folks there, and they said, ‘You ought to consider applying here after you graduate,’” said Conway. “I did that and worked as a financial analyst.”
Conway worked at the SEC for about a year and a half before moving to South Carolina in 1969. There, she began working for the Berkeley County Council of Governments around the same time the 1970 census results were coming in.
“I started with the planning agency when the 1970 census was just being completed, and with my economic background, I was hired to analyze the population and demographic trends in that three-county area that the census was showing, which of course was very interesting,” said Conway.
“After that, with some on-the-job training because I only had a bachelor’s in economics, I moved into some other planning areas.”
She focused mainly on housing planning, before becoming assistant director of the council in the late 1970s. She remained as assistant director until 1981, when she made the decision to attend law school.
“Meanwhile, I had a number of friends who were lawyers and I was always very intrigued by their war stories. I thought this might be a good time to make a career change.”
Conway began to investigate going to law school and asked her friends for advice. Initially, she thought of attending the School of Law at the University of South Carolina. But when her friends asked if she was planning to stay in South Carolina to practice law, and she said no, they suggested she consider more nationally known law schools.
Sue O. Conway
“(A friend) gave me a list of schools and (University of) Michigan was the one I was most familiar with,” she said, because of the fact of having grown up not too far from Ann Arbor.
“I was pretty familiar with Michigan and I had considered going there for undergrad, but I ended up not applying because it’s a pretty big place,” she said. Besides, she said, “It gave me the opportunity to be close to my family again.”
So Conway applied to U-M’s law school and nowhere else — and it turned out she didn’t need to. She was accepted and moved to Ann Arbor in 1981. She took a full schedule of classes and also worked part-time at a local law firm.
Compared to Vassar, University of Michigan was huge and vastly different. The university opened the door for some new experiences for Conway — like football games, for example.
“My mom said to me, ‘You’re going to the University of Michigan. It’s M Go Blue.’ I had no idea what that meant. She said, ‘You need to buy a football ticket.’
“I had gone to Vassar College — I never had gone to a football game,” she said.
Her mother twisted her arm a bit and Conway splurged and paid the $36 for a season ticket.
“The first game I went to, it was incredible. I was just blown away. The band comes marching down the field playing the fight song — and 105,000 people! It was an amazing experience.”
After that first game during her first semester at U-M, Conway met a man named Stephen and they shared a couple of drinks — and soon developed a relationship that would lead to marriage. At the time, Stephen was working for Comerica Bank in Detroit, but then was transferred to the bank’s Muskegon location in 1982.
When Conway graduated from law school in 1984, the two were married, she moved to Grand Rapids, and she started her first job — all in the same month.
Conway was only the third woman to join Warner Norcross & Judd LLP. During every lawyer’s first year at Warner, their name is entered into the “Job Jar,” which is run, of course, by the “Job Jar Czar.” The “czar” is typically a senior partner who makes sure every new lawyer is exposed to a variety of projects and types of law.
“By doing that, you meet a lot of the lawyers at the firm, and it makes you a better lawyer,” she said.
“We couldn’t concentrate (on one aspect of the law) at that time until our second year.”
Conway attended several practice meetings to learn about the different areas of law. The one that struck her as most interesting was employee benefits.
“The attorneys there were looking for an associate to work with them. They were very welcoming to me, gave me projects and made sure that I could go to all the meetings,” said Conway.
“I think that’s probably, more than anything, the reason why I started working in that area.”
Since she began working in employee benefits two decades ago, the field has changed tremendously, she said. Focusing primarily on the health and wellness section of employee benefits, Conway said the amount of products available has grown.
“That’s an area that’s changed so much in the 25 years I’ve been here, mainly because of health care costs and the rise of the HMOs, and now with more consumer-engaged programs — just a lot of changes in the programs that’s really been quite exciting.”
Conway volunteers her time, in particular with two local women’s organizations. She was one of the founding members of the West Michigan Chapter of Inforum, a professional women’s alliance, and was recently named to the Inforum state board.
She also is involved with the Women’s Resource Center, whose mission is to improve women’s workplace and economic opportunities. She hopes to become even more involved with the organization in the near future.
“I think that’s an excellent organization, and I so believe in what they’re doing,” she said. “I’ve served on their board, I’ve served as their president, and I’ve financially supported them for a number of years, but I think it’s time to get more involved.”
In her free time, Conway enjoys bicycling with her husband.