Grand Rapids Veterans Bar Association takes on task of helping other veterans

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

For some who attended this year’s Law Day on May 1, presentation of the WMU-Cooley Law School’s Marion Hilligan Public Service Award to the Grand Rapids Veterans Bar Association was the first time they had heard of the group.

Edward P. Perdue, who is the acting president, says the organization still operates on the informal side, preferring to devote time to its mission of helping local veterans rather than on structural  issues.

Perdue was one of three founders of the even-more-informal social group that preceded the Veterans Bar. The others are Joseph Rossi, now a 17th Circuit Court judge, and Brian Lennon of Warner Norcross + Judd. All three are former Marine Corps members, but as they got together occasionally to enjoy each other’s company, they started considering the great needs of the veterans in the area.

So Perdue and Lennon, along with several others from all branches of the military, started the Veterans Bar and expanded to include more services.

Their primary focus will be on providing pro bono work to help meet the legal needs of the 36,000-37,000 veterans in Kent County – as estimated by Kent County Director of Veterans Services Martha Burkett (more below). This may involve anything from landlord-tenant issues to helping with appeals if benefits are denied. As Perdue points out, there are veterans advocates whose job is to assist with making the initial applications.

“People don’t realize that the direct war fighters are a limited number of the people in the military, but the burden for those who  actually go out into the field on the front lines is disproportionate,” Perdue says. “They are in many ways abandoned, so we really have taken this on as something that we’re going to try to make a difference on.”

The first big project, undertaken in partnership with the Federal Bar Association, WMU-Cooley Law School, and Warner Norcross + Judd, was providing wills for veterans who need one. Brian Lennon spearheaded the effort, and continues to oversee it as actual writing of wills continues with volunteer attorney help. Grand Rapids Legal News featured an article on this in the Feb. 20, 2019, issue.

Perdue emphasizes that the Veterans Bar is developing the pro bono program very carefully in order to ensure that no one firm or individual has to take on too much of the work. Dan Ophoff, retired from Kent County, is acting as the coordinator.

“I envision a process being completely solidified in the near future,” says Perdue, who adds that the Grand Rapids and Detroit Veterans Bar Associations are two of very few in the country.

He says he would love to hear from other interested attorneys. He welcomes people contacting him at 616-336-1038 or through eperdue@dickinsonwright.com.

Perdue, a commercial civil litigator at Dickinson and Wright, is originally from Long Island. After attending Villanova University on an ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) scholarship and double-majoring in political science and history, he did his military service as an artillery officer. He then received his J.D. from University of Notre Dame Law School and has been at Dickinson and Wright’s Grand Rapids office
ever since graduation.

At the Law Day ceremony sponsored jointly by the Grand Rapids Bar Association and WMU-Cooley, Thomas Dorwin, Clerk of Court for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, joined Perdue in accepting the award.

 “I got involved in probably 2017 –I had just moved here in 2016,” says Dorwin, who was a Navy officer and is also an attorney not currently in practice. “At the time, people were saying, we should open this up to more people and have a mission of trying to help veterans. The organization is still coming along... but it’s already really an honor to be able to help out.”

Dorwin, who serves as the secretary, says that there are probably 55 to 60 members of the bar, and it is not necessary to be a lawyer to join. “You just have to practice in some capacity in the legal community, so that includes paralegals and others.”

In fact, it was an operations specialist at the court who created the group’s logo – an attractive grey and black skyline above the words “Veterans Bar Association” with a full-color flag flying from a rooftop. Dorwin says that Ashley Mankin drew up the artwork shortly before her tragic death at the age of 30 last year.

But there is already an impressive member roster. A March meeting included Perdue, Lennon, Dorwin, Ophoff, the Hon. Phil Green (of the U.S. District Court), the Hon. Christina Elmore (now of the Kent County 17th District Court, Bob Skilton also of Warner Norcross + Judd, Rick Szymanski of McDonald Pierangeli Macfarlane, and Clay West of the U.S. Attorney’s office. They are joined by many other well-known attorneys – Dorwin also mentions David Dodge as having given so much of his time to the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans.

In order to get a better grasp on both what is already going on to help veterans and what attorneys could do to expand on that, Perdue and Dickinson Wright hosted a Grand Rapids Veterans Legal Assistance Summit in mid-May.

“I was excited to meet Ed Perdue  and to be part of that summit,” says the above-mentioned Director of Veterans Services Martha Burkett, who has been in her position only since December.

The Veterans Services Department of Kent County not only provides referrals to the broad array of services available for veterans, but it also employs veterans service officers who assist with applications in such areas as surviving spouse benefits, disability claims, and discharge upgrades.

Formerly the manager of the lawyers and judges assistance program for the State Bar of Michigan, Burkett says, “I’m just pleased that there’s an interest in this. The veteran to veteran thing is very powerful for the veterans, but also valuable for the attorneys who are veterans themselves – to do something honorable for their brothers and sisters. The culture of service members is so strong, their language, their values... when veterans can connect with someone who shares that, it really makes a difference.

“Eventually I’d like to be able to have space here where we can have the attorneys provide the services.”

The Veterans Bar Association also partners with a legal clinic that takes place at the Veterans Administration facility in Wyoming, run by John Koch of the state VA – and hopes to help provide attorneys for that effort as well.

Though the pro bono program, which is a lot of work, will be the main focus of the bar association for the foreseeable future, it is not the only thing they intend to do.

One of the outcomes of the summit, for example, is to develop a comprehensive directory of veteran services in the area. The Veterans Bar Association also plans to continue throwing a holiday party for the residents of the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans.