Profile in Brief

 Megan Norris

Labor of Love

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News
 
Employment cases are a slice of “real life,” according to Megan Norris, chair of the Employment and Labor Group at Miller Canfield in Detroit. 
 
“Everybody has some knowledge of the workplace environment, so my job is to really understand the facts and tell the story in a persuasive manner. While details matter, it’s only because they are part of the narrative. We don’t spend too much time bogged down in fine print or the placement of a comma.”

Norris — a managing director and senior principal at the firm and a nationally recognized expert in her field — enjoys training employers on employment matters, whether sexual harassment, discipline and discharge, or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  

“I feel like I can really make a difference helping employers understand why what’s good for their employees — an environment free of discrimination and harassment, an environment that accommodates disabilities, and an environment that makes expectations and the ramifications for failing to meet them clear — is also good business.”

Absenteeism is one of the most difficult challenges facing employers, she notes. 

“Understanding what kinds of policies help foster good attendance, knowing when time off must be granted as leave under the FMLA or as an accommodation under the ADA and communicating
appropriately with employees on these matters are all critical.”

There are plenty of challenging cases, such as one where Norris defended a nonprofit organization that had terminated an employee for violation of policies regarding communications with children who participated in the organization’s programs. 

“The judge understood that while the employee had not broken any laws or actually harmed any children at all, the organization had legitimate reasons for setting up safeguards and terminating employees who violated them,” she explains.   

She represented a law school that had been sued by a professor who did not want to teach the courses assigned to her.  According to Norris, there were numerous legal issues - did this professor have a disability as defined by the ADA?  If so, was giving her whatever course assignment she wanted a reasonable accommodation? Was she entitled to any damages if her termination was confirmed through the tenure process? 

“But at its core the case came down to explaining to the faculty — which generally would be predisposed to support another faculty member — that this professor was trying to avoid doing what they had all been doing for years, namely teaching whatever was needed whenever it was needed in order to provide the best education to the students.”

Norris represented a university that had been sued by a medical student, claiming the university failed to reasonably accommodate his dyslexia and attention deficit disorder.  

“The accommodations requested would have greatly altered the medical education process, which attempts to simulate the medical environment — which requires gathering facts from a patient and quickly applying a vast storage of knowledge to the situation at hand,” she says. “The judge understood that the medical school had good reasons for its processes and that the student’s requests would fundamentally alter the educational experience. 

“In each case, I believed my client had important reasons for its actions, even though the employee might be very sympathetic, and my job was to help the court understand the case from my client’s point of view.”

Past president of the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association and former president of the Detroit Barristers Association, Norris previously served on the council for the Labor and Employment Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan. She currently serves on the Labor Advisory Board for the Michigan Institute of Continuing Legal Education, the Advisory Board for the National Employment Law Institute, and the Board of Trustees of Wesleyan University. 

She has wielded the presidential gavel for the Board of Trustees for the Deaf, Hearing & Speech Center; the Board of Trustees for the Wayne State University Episcopal Chaplaincy; and the Board of Directors of the Whitaker School of Theology; and served as chair of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners.

“The more real-life experience I have, the better I am as a lawyer to my clients,” she says. “So working with nonprofit organizations with strict funding and budgetary restrictions, working with varying constituencies as a police commissioner, and serving as a leader in bar associations all give me insight that helps me at my day job. I’m also incredibly fortunate to have the position I have at Miller
Canfield, so it’s important for me to spend some time giving back.”

An author and frequent speaker, Norris also provides pro bono services to several organizations. 

“I generally deal with clients who are knowledgeable about the law, sophisticated, and have excellent legal representation. Sitting with my husband at the INS when he was getting his green card, it was painfully obvious that most people are really frightened by the legal system,” she says. “Everybody deserves the same chance.  As a practical matter, they won’t all get it. But every time I serve a less fortunate client, the gratitude for the assistance is overwhelming.”

A Fellow of the prestigious College of Labor and Employment Lawyers, Norris has been recognized by Best Lawyers in America; Chambers USA: America’s Leading Lawyers for Business, Labor & Employment; International Who’s Who Legal; LawDragon 500, New Stars, New Worlds; and Michigan Super Lawyers. It’s a far cry from her major in music - and American politics - at Wesleyan University, where she specialized in West African drumming. 

“West African drumming is taught by playing — there’s no music — and it rewards a good ear and rhythm, which I learned many trained musicians don’t have nearly as much as you would think, so I could distinguish myself,” she says. “And it sounds like one big party, so it’s really fun to play!”  
The downside?  

“Not a great job market in that field,” she says with a smile. “With my general liberal arts background, love of logic, and the ability to talk a lot, law seemed like a solid profession suited to my skills.” She went on to earn her J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School.

A native of Minneapolis, Norris now lives in Indian Village in Detroit. 

“I love cities like Detroit, Boston, and New Orleans — cities that have a real history, have lots of culture, and have some grit to them,” she says. “Detroit has a beautiful river, historic teams in every major sport, wonderful cultural assets such as the DIA and DSO, and numerous remarkable entrepreneurs and volunteers who give us minor league soccer, fabulous hole-in-the-wall restaurants, wonderful civic institutions — Mosaic Youth Theatre and Singers are as good as any you’ll find anywhere in the country — and neighborhood organizations. We’ll survive with or without functioning governmental
institutions. But if we could fix the schools and city government, imagine what we could be.”

Norris’ husband, a citizen of Antigua and an avid skier, rides his bike every day to his work as a chemical engineering professor at Wayne State University. The couple’s daughter, a freshman college student who shares her father’s interest in science, is learning Chinese and Spanish, loves scuba diving, and enjoys traveling with her parents.

“As a family, we love to travel and bike, preferably both at the same time,” Norris says. “For many years, I volunteered as a youth leader through our church, and I’ve taken many high school kids on international pilgrimages to places like Greece, Italy, Ireland and Scotland.  Lately, I’ve been staying closer to home, volunteering at Gleaners Food Bank and the Spirit of Hope Soup Kitchen, among other places. And now that we’re empty nesters, I hope to get back to maybe my 10th grade musical abilities, but that will take a lot of work.”