Smith transitions smoothly into G.R. Bar presidency

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

The Grand Rapids Bar Association succession plan ensures that the incoming president has served enough to be familiar with what is going on.

And new president Mark R. Smith has certainly put in some service time over the years.

Smith says he “almost immediately” joined the Young Lawyers Section of the Grand Rapids Bar upon getting his first position at Clary, Nantz, Wood, Hoffius, Rankin & Cooper  in the early 1980s. He eventually became YLS president, but even after that remained involved with the bar on many levels.

“I think there may be only one or two committees of the Bar I haven’t served on,” Smith says. He was a trustee for the first time about a decade ago, and then five years ago started a two-year term as secretary. From there he began the three-year progression (first vice president, then president-elect) to the top spot.

After receiving his BBA degree, magna cum laude, from Western Michigan University, Smith graduated from Marshall-Wythe School of Law, College of William and Mary.

He left his first firm in 1996 to form the current firm of  Nantz, Litowich, Smith, Girard and Hamilton, which has just celebrated its 15-year anniversary. He is a litigator and specializes in employment, construction and commercial law.

“The majority of my partners do management labor relations law and related areas. When things don’t work out and litigation is needed, I step in,” he explains with a smile.
He also is a member of the State Bar of Michigan Litigation Section and the American Bar Association (ABA) Forum on the Construction Industry and Litigation Section.

Smith also practices Alternative Dispute Resolution. He has lectured and written widely on ADR, employment discrimination, sexual harassment, whistle-blower and retaliation claims, construction matters, non-compete/confidentiality agreements, and other topics for local and state, and even national, organizations.

Impressively well-rounded, Smith deejays a music show on WYCE, writes music reviews, especially about the blues genre, and served for years, including stints as president, on both the Community Media Center board and the West Michigan Blues Review board.

He also just completed his tenth consecutive Boston Marathon.

But despite constraints on his time, he has already given a lot of thought to what he would like to work on as president. “I have to recognize that there’s only so much you can do in the course of a year. There’s an awful lot that has to be done just on a regular basis, committee meetings, attending events...”

And he is realistic about the possibility that not everything he would like to accomplish will be feasible in terms of available time, or will meet with the board’s approval.

That said, he is passionate about establishing a civics education program. He envisions it as involving attorneys in an on-going teaching partnership with schools, where the same attorney would visit a classroom once a month or more.

His concerns on the subject have arisen from numerous reports indicating that, with the emphasis on teaching to improve test scores, civics education is getting short shrift.

The May 2011 ABA Journal featured a cover story called “Flunking Civics: Why America’s Kids Know So Little”   (see www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/civics).

Smith encountered some innovative ideas on teaching civics at the American Bar Association’s national Bar Leadership Institute. Both the current ABA president and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor have made rectifying the situation an overriding concern.

O’Connor sponsors a website, www.iCivics.org, that offers games to educate children on civics as well as information for teachers and the general public. In addition, the ABA has established a Commission on Civics Education in the Nation’s Schools.

Smith’s says about his commitment, “I was getting into the subject just coincidentally as the Grand Rapids Bar is making plans for a Constitution Day in the fall, where 60 lawyers will go into fifth-grade classes.”

He feels, if the Bar gets behind it, this program will work toward improving the democratic process by providing the basic tools of citizenship. It may also help with establishing a pipeline of diverse attorney candidates, in that schoolchildren who have increased interactions with lawyers may be more likely to decide on legal careers.

The second area Smith would like to promote is advocacy work on reform in judicial selection. He feels strongly that politics should have no place in that process.

“People view the judiciary as just another political branch of government like Congress, and they give it no respect. That diminishes our profession a lot.”

He also feels that taking the politics out of the judicial branch may give decisions more stability. He points to the 2010 reversal, in McCormick v. Carrier, of the previous Kreiner personal injury standard decision. Fear that McCormick may be overturned in return means a lack of certainty for personal injury lawyers.

Smith still needs to explore what is going on statewide on the judicial selection issue, and get a feel for the “landscape” of such advocacy.

Even so, he is aware that moving forward on such advocacy will require full board approval, and says, “That may just be me talking. But it’s something I can throw some energy behind.”
Smith is also aware that he will need to work on keeping the Grand Rapids Bar Association (GRBA) itself strong. “I hate to repeat the platitudes about how wonderful the Kent County bar is, but it’s true,” he says. “This is a great place to practice law, we have a strong and energetic bar association. Active participation by a lot of people makes it such a great group, where it’s not just five or six people doing everything.”

However, he acknowledges that there are challenges reaching out to a new generation of attorneys. He feels GRBA has been moving in the right direction, where “it’s kind of a buffet line and you can pick out what you want.” The recent 10 Things You Need to Know When Cornered at a Cocktail Party series was Smith’s idea, and he hopes to see it continue.

He also hopes that new lawyers will see the financial (and other) advantages of the networking GRBA provides. “It’s just invaluable. The membership gets repaid countless times,” he says.
Smith takes over the GRBA presidency from Susan Wilson Keener.

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