Rebecca Strauss, Miller Johnson, joins Legal Aid of West Michigan board



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Miller Johnson attorney Rebecca Strauss’s philosophy about how to make change is a constant in her work, in her position as the firm’s diversity officer, and in the near future as a board member of Legal Aid of Western Michigan.

“You impact one individual at a time,” she says. “The legal profession is one of the least diverse professions, but I believe that one person’s career at a time is how you start to correct that imbalance,” she says.

“The same with Legal Aid: if you try to look at how many people can’t afford a lawyer, it’s overwhelming. But you can impact one individual at a time, solve one client’s problems at a time.”

Strauss says she follows the same approach with her own employment and labor practice as well as in her personal life as the busy mother of three children: Nathan, 11; Madeline 14; and Julia 16.

“If you just think, what do I have to do today? you’re much more likely to get things done. Of course, you do have to keep the bigger picture in mind, so that what you do every day fits in. If you don’t know why you’re doing something, you’re going to find your days are meaningless. If you understand the bigger goal, then life’s meaningful,” she says.

At Miller Johnson, based out of the Kalamazoo office, Strauss both provides counsel to and litigates on behalf of manufacturers, health care providers, and public and private employers, among other companies. Her focus in helping clients is to take a preventive approach with protective policies and assuring compliance. Wage and hour law, employment discrimination, disabilities and accommodation, discipline and termination, hiring, and harassment are some of the areas of law she covers for her clients.

“As far as employment disputes, we are management-side only. I do that in litigation as well as in day-to-day counseling, for example, if their HR folks have a question about leave policy, or I help with a separation agreement,” Strauss says.

She also litigates non-employment cases such as probate and real estate matters.

Strauss says she knew she was going to be a lawyer for as long as she can remember, and cannot really pinpoint a specific cause. “There were no lawyers in my family, but people would always say I should be a lawyer, even people who barely knew me,” she says. “I was always comfortable speaking in public, always respectful but never intimidated as far as letting people know my opinion and why it was correct, give my reasons supporting what I thought. And why theirs was incorrect,” she adds laughing.

She studied international relations at Michigan State University, attending James Madison College and graduating with high honors. But she recognized international studies were not for her, and, after a brief stint as legislative aide to State Rep. Eileen DeHart, attended University of Michigan Law School for her J.D., also graduating magna cum laude.

Following her studies, she clerked for Hon. Nancy G. Edmunds of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, and Judge Ralph B. Guy of the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. “He’s fantastic – they both were. I felt very lucky to get a federal clerkship because it’s so competitive,” Strauss comments.

A native of Westland, west of Detroit, Strauss moved to the west side of the state when her attorney husband, whom she met at Michigan State, got an in-house job at Stryker. He continues as counsel for the large medical device company, named one of the national Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For 2018.

Strauss went directly to work for Miller Johnson in 2008, and always worked in the Kalamazoo office, which has been around since 1979. She says she loves the advantages of their current office, housed in a  building attached to the Radisson Hotel, and is clearly very proud of the space.

Though Strauss has done the job alone for the past couple of years, since January she has been co-officer for Diversity and Inclusion with Mary Bauman, also a former solo holder of the position. Strauss notes, “It’s new, but so far it’s been a great partnership. We’re both very passionate, and sharing the position helps us cover more geographically.”

In addition to a wide variety of individual projects driven by the interest of involved attorneys, Miller Johnson has given a lot of thought to diversifying its personnel and its leadership. The firm started releasing a diversity and inclusion report in 2017, participates in the Floyd Skinner Bar internship program, and gives out a Law School Diversity Scholarship.

Miller Johnson has a strong commitment to sending people through the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity (LCLD), including Strauss. She has just recently nominated one of Miller Johnson’s associates to a new program the LCLD has started, Pathfinder, which focuses on attorneys earlier in their career.

Miller Johnson also is strongly committed to pro bono and community activity, a culture flowing in a continuous line  from the efforts of one of the founders, John Cummiskey. Indeed, Cummiskey is virtually synonymous with pro bono work, since he is the namesake of the State Bar of Michigan award given to outstanding attorneys who give of their time.

“It’s just one of our core pillars,” Strauss says. “We also have an internal award for community service which is open to attorneys and staff, and when I look at what the winner has done, it’s just remarkable. It just makes me proud to be associated with Miller Johnson.”

Strauss is looking forward to her participation on the board of Legal Aid. The organization, which helps those of lower income get help and representation in non-criminal cases, has “basically seven bucks of types of services,” Strauss notes, to include everything from landlord-tenant disputes to educational expulsion hearings to criminal record expungements.

The board has every-other-month meetings that alternate between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, along with one, this year, in St. Joseph.

Though LAWM has always had hard-working staff attorneys, it depends on the contributions of the private bar. Since 1990, attorneys have donated 105,000 hours of time valued at $17.7 million, and an additional $4.8 million in cash – 3,737 hours valued at $1,059,000 in 2017 alone.

“I’m very excited about being on this board,” Strauss says.