Entrepreneurial Spirit

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Eric Williams, assistant clinical professor at Wayne Law, enjoys the opportunity to help create better lawyers.

"I've yet to encounter a student who went to law school because they wanted to get rich," he says. "Being around smart young people who care about the world around them is a refreshing change from private practice."

Williams, who joined the faculty this summer, is director of the Small Business Enterprises and Nonprofit Corporations Clinic, where his students learn the skills and values to represent entrepreneurs and nonprofits -- as well as "atypical entrepreneurs," those in under-resourced or economically challenged communities, or who are taking their first stab at business ownership, or those re-entering society after incarceration.

"There's no better way to rebuild and sustain communities than by empowering residents economically," Williams says. "As the city retrenches, entrepreneurs and small businesses -- as opposed to large employers -- will be the key to growth. I like the idea that I can be a part of it all."

Students get familiar with the substantive law and legal issues they will encounter after law school, and also with the interaction between law and the political, economic, and cultural factors that impact real-world transactional and nonprofit law, he says.

"The clinic posits student attorneys, not as mere providers of commoditized legal services, but as advisors and counselors at law in the truest sense," Williams says. "Just as importantly, it exposes them to the broader contexts that inform law practice and allows them to develop critical perspectives beyond those gained through direct interactions with individual clinic clients."

Williams, who earned his undergrad degree from the University of Michigan and law degree from Columbia University School of Law, previously worked in New York in private practice, as a legal consultant at Labaton Sucharow, as a business litigation associate at Nixon Peabody, and as a managing partner at Coleman and Williams.

He also gained experience in the nonprofit sector as director of development at the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island and as senior program developer at Focus: HOPE in Detroit.

"My first career was in the nonprofit sector," he says. "My experiences with (Focus: HOPE co-founders) Father Cunningham and Eleanor Josaitis are part of what drives me. Whenever I feel frustrated or doubt the possibility of positive change, I think of them. All I have to do is remember their dedication and drive and it shames me into action."

The Detroit native earned a master of philosophy in international relations from Magdalene College at Cambridge University in England.

"I hadn't traveled before I went to Cambridge. I was so excited by the thought of spending two years overseas that I wanted to learn as much about the world as possible and international relations was a respectable way to do it," he says. "Cambridge is a beautiful place, but its traditions are almost otherworldly. It was reassuring to discover that outside of Oxford, the rest of England found Cambridge to be as foreign as I did.

"Magdalene is one of the oldest colleges and also the most conservative. We were the last college to admit women. We were the only college to eat dinner in formal hall every night -- no lights, grace said in Latin, served by teenagers from town in white jackets -- and wear robes to supervisions. It was very different from the west side of Detroit. But it was old and beautiful and full of history. I loved punting on the river Cam and studying in the gardens. It was a life of physical leisure and intellectual exertion."

His U-M bachelor's degree was in English literature, a field of study that does not normally lead to law school.

"My parents are romantics and openly admire the power of words to evoke passions of every sort. By the time I got to college, I simply loved to read and I was too naive at the time to think about picking a major that might lead to a job," he says.

His eclectic literary tastes run the gamut from science fiction to historical fiction to biographies.

"And I still love to pick up books I read in college like 'Gravity's Rainbow,' 'War with the Newts,' and 'The Great Gatsby.'"

After 15 years away from his hometown, Williams returned to the Motor City in June.

"I'm enjoying the process getting to know my city all over again," he says. "I love being back in Detroit. I love working in midtown. The D, more than any other city I've ever lived in, has a heart. If you show the D love, if you embrace the city, it will love you back like no other place on earth. It has its own vibe, its own rhythms and beat.

"Wayne is in the heart of it all. The people here -- faculty and students -- care so much about the city and it shows in the research and practical work that's done here. I love being a part of an institution that is an integral part of the city I love."

Published: Wed, Nov 23, 2011