New Leadership For GR Bar

GRAND RAPIDS — The Grand Rapids Bar Association recently voted to select the team of leaders who will build the group’s policies and, hopefully, membership in the next year.

Following the traditional succession pattern, current GRBA President Patrick A. Miles Jr. will step down in July, yielding the top spot to the president-elect, Judge Paul J. Sullivan. Current Vice President Paul T. Sorensen will move up the ranks to take Sullivan’s spot as president-elect.

Sullivan has recently taken on the role of chief judge for KentCounty. He was initially elected a district court judge in 1988. After just six years in that position, he was appointed by then-Governor John Engler to fill a vacancy on the 17th Circuit Court bench. He has been re-elected each subsequent term and hopes to stay in the position for the rest of his career. “I like what I do and I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to do it,” he said. “It’s challenging and keeps life very interesting.”

As Sullivan moves into his leadership position with the Grand Rapids Bar Association, he hopes to reinforce the relevance of the group to the area’s 2,000-plus lawyers. Currently the association’s membership represents approximately two-thirds of the attorneys in greater Grand Rapids. While he admits that is an impressive total, Sullivan would like to see that number increase.

Historically, the GRBA boasted a near-100-percent membership figure. That number has fallen for several reasons, Sullivan believes. First, one of the main reasons to join the bar in decades past was the access it provided to the law library. For many lone practitioners and small-firm lawyers, this library was the only one of its kind available. But “the manner and method of legal research has changed dramatically,” Sullivan said. Now, most attorneys access WestLaw and Lexis-Nexis from their desktops, making the law library a much less persuasive selling point.

Even with the diminished importance of the law library, Sullivan feels that the association has plenty to offer. It offers a pool of expertise that is particularly attractive to young lawyers. In fact, the GRBA just instituted a highly successful young lawyers’ orientation program. The three-session orientation classes introduce new attorneys to the inner workings of the local court system and provide valuable insight into the local legal community. This educational program is just one of many that the bar association offers. But apart from the formal training opportunities, the simple opportunity for a lawyer to interact with his or her colleagues is a critical part of the bar’s importance.

That said, Sullivan feels that the local bar association seems to have lost some of its strength as a networking pool. “Over the years, the bar has perhaps become less socially important,” Sullivan said. Like the dip in membership figures, that is something Sullivan hopes to change. “The bar should be — if Paul and I are doing our jobs — a highly relevant activity for any lawyer in and around Grand Rapids,” Sullivan said, with Sorensen’s agreement.

Sorensen is a partner at Warner Norcross & Judd. He specializes in litigation of employment issues. After graduating from Duke’s law school in 1977, Sorensen clerked for a federal judge for one year and has been with his current firm ever since. According to Sullivan, Sorensen is held in “very high esteem” by his fellow members of the bar. He is also the president of the board of directors for the Legal Assistance Center, a unique nonprofit entity set up to help connect individuals in search of legal assistance with members of the legal community. The center is unique, not because of its mission, but because the majority of its funding was raised by donations from lawyers.

The creation of the LegalAssistanceCenter illustrates a point that Sorensen emphasizes about the practice of law. Like Sullivan, he would like to see a return to the days of the bar association as a social network, but more importantly, he would like to see a reinvigorated pride in the identity of the legal profession. He feels that modern law is too often seen as strictly a matter of business. “As a profession, we have certain obligations that go beyond ‘just business,’” he said. Raising $1.3 million within the legal community to fund the assistance center is an example of the kind of pride in profession that Sorensen hopes to inspire in his term of leadership with the Grand Rapids Bar Association.

During the association’s April elections a number of other positions were filled. Valerie P. Simmons, also of Warner Norcross & Judd, will take Sorensen’s place as vice president. Timothy K. McMorrow, chief appellate attorney for the KentCounty prosecutor’s office, takes over for Treasurer T.J. Ackert. David C. Sarnacki, a family attorney with The Sarnacki Law Firm, will replace Secretary Miles J. Postema. The association also elected three new trustees: Jennifer L. Jordan of Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey; Kevin J. O’Dowd of Dickinson Wright; and sole practitioner Michael B. Quinn.    

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