Members of the legal profession well represented at under-forty celebration

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Not only were two local lawyers on the list of young leaders named to the “40 Under Forty” list of the Grand Rapids Business Journal, an accomplished and well-known attorney received this year’s  Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Receiving the last honor meant that Patrick Miles, now the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, gave the keynote address.

“It was a very nice speech,” says 40 Under Forty winner Linsey Gleason of Varnum, “but in a way I think he got more than he bargained for. There was an improv group and they did a nice little skit around him, and I’m not sure he knew in advance. He took it well.”

Miles himself says, “The improv group, Pop Scholars, was very funny. They did a good job ‘roasting’ me and weaving some of my personal and professional biography in their show.”

That entertainment was only one of the highlights of the Oct. 27 awards event. “Actually it was really fun,” said the other attorney winner, Ian Kennedy of Warner Norcross and?Judd’s Kalamazoo office. “It was on a Tuesday and my daughter Mary Anne, who’s our fifth child, was born the Wednesday prior. She couldn’t be far away from mom so we brought her with us. We figured she was pretty surely the youngest person there,” he adds.

Gleason agrees. “It had a really good energy, it was a fun light atmosphere,” she says, “and it flowed really well.

“I just think it was a really nice honor,  a way to give back and say thanks to my firm and the organizations I sit on – who deserve the spotlight more than I do.”

Indeed, the designation brings a lot of recognition for the “dynamic professionals who have achieved personal success and made significant civic contributions to the community,” and for the community organizations they serve. This year the designation was a particular honor because 279 applications were submitted.

Gleason, a partner at Varnum, specializes in estate planning, including estate plan preparation and administration, guardianship and conservatorship services, elder law counsel and special needs trusts. A highest-honors graduate of Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business, Gleason received her Juris Doctor summa cum laude from MSU College of Law.

Though she has made substantial achievements in her career, including being named a Michigan Rising Star by Super Lawyers since 2013, Gleason’s contributions to the community have been most impressive, and often align with her legal specialty.
Top of the list is Senior Neighbors; she is currently chair of the board. “I’m astounded every time I have an interaction with them,” she says. “They run dozens of programs for basically everything, home repair services, meals, transportation, and they run five senior centers. Their intent is to make sure seniors are active so they fight off depression and have a network they know cares about them. We do some of it through partnering with community agencies.”

Originally from Montague, Gleason says the first board she joined upon starting at Varnum was Women Lawyers of Michigan Western Region, which she eventually chaired. She was also instrumental in regrouping the Probate and Estate Planning Section of the Grand Rapids Bar Association, and continues on the Heart of West Michigan United Way Finance and Audit Committee.

Another contribution is serving on the Laughfest Cabinet. “That was really just reorganized, and it now has fewer people. We’re trying to be small but powerful and expand the number of people who serve as ambassadors for Laughfest.”

As a whole, Gleason says, she loves serving on community boards. “It’s my passion to sit on these nonprofit boards, I love what I do here and think that Varnum has been the platform that has gotten me involved with a lot of  it, but I also think my clients like to feel I’m making a positive difference,” she says.

Kalamazoo resident (the 40 Under Forty list includes all of West Michigan) Ian Kennedy drew his inspiration to be a positive contributor to the community from attorney Mike Chojnowski.  “He was my mentor, and he’s why I’m the way I am today,” Kennedy says. “When I started working with him, he came into my office and said, ‘Attorneys can be one of two things: problem makers or problem solvers. It’s up to you what you want to be.’ I took that to heart.”

Kennedy went to Alma College and then graduated cum laude from University of Notre Dame Law School. Originally from Traverse City, he practiced at Smith Haughey’s office there and his wife Sarah was a prosecutor. Noting that “Traverse City is a crowded legal market,” the couple decided to move to where she was raised, Kalamazoo. After a stint with Cooper Martin and Chojnowski and a brief two-person practice with John Cooper, he and Cooper approached Warner Norcross and Judd about
helping to develop the firm’s Kalamazoo office.

“I’m very happy to be with Warner,” Kennedy says. “It’s a great firm, with so many resources I can offer to my clients.”

Kennedy serves on the Battle Creek-Calhoun County-Kalamazoo County Inland Port Development Corp., the Friends of Parks and Recreation, and formerly on the Michigan Works Kalamazoo/St. Joseph, but he also contributes to the community through his practice, which is in general corporate, employment and real estate law, including municipal work.

“What I enjoy about my practice most, I can drive through town and really see the fruits of my labor. I love pointing them out to my kids. That’s most rewarding, even though I’m just a small cog in the wheel, I get to work with those who are change agents,” he says.

Former three-time honoree Patrick Miles has indisputably lived up to the promise shown when he was younger. But he called on this year’s cohort to “make the community even better.”

Saying that receiving the designation is “an honor that recognizes not only [one’s] past achievements, but the promise of [one’s] future success,” he noted that when he was first named to the list, he took it as a challenge.

The former Varnum then Dickinson Wright attorney, who pioneered many “firsts” as a person of color,  called on the 40 to work within their  “spheres of influence,” be it career, volunteer work, or friends and neighbors, to address “three critical areas which prior generations either ignored or only gave lip service to addressing.”

Saying that this is a great community which could be made even greater, Miles listed the three areas: “First, do what you can to be as inclusive as possible. Inclusion is more than tolerance – which is passive. Inclusion is active and intentional...”

“The second challenge is to look for ways to support our local minority business community... It is an embarrassment that this robust economic region of West Michigan does not have a single minority-owned business of significant size... I liken it to a jet airplane that needs all of its engines functioning to achieve its full altitude. Without one of those engines working fully, [our Grand Rapids area] will never get there.

“The third challenge is to consider hiring those with felony records who have served their time... One of the biggest reasons returning citizens re-offend is lack of employment opportunities.”

Miles concluded, ““Be the last generation that needs to fix these three things,” he concluded. “Allow a new generation to look forward and reach new heights.”