Pitching in: Law student helping to rejuvenate city's eastside

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Wayne State University Law School student Jonathan Demers set his sights on a law career early on.

“For better or worse, I was usually the argumentative and opinionated kid that relatives saw as a future attorney,” he says with a smile. “But I’ve learned that practicing law isn’t merely about winning arguments. It’s about developing a skill set – a mindset, really – that can solve some of society’s most challenging and divisive issues.  I’ve always wanted to be a problem-solver.”

A rising 2L, Demers is grateful for Wayne Law’s accommodating posture towards students. He was granted a discretionary deferral by Dean Jocelyn Benson when first accepted in 2012; he also was selected to participate in Moot Court before completing all of his 1L classes, and will compete next year on the school’s National Team.

“And I’ve studied under some of the school’s top faculty, including the recently-retired and widely-admired Jan Findlater,” he says.

Demers also was encouraged by now-Assistant Dean of Admissions Kathy Fox to participate in on-campus interviews despite having not completed all his 1L courses. Fox’s advice led to his current summer associate position with Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer, & Weiss in Detroit, a firm he says combines all the benefits and resources of a big, blue-chip firm with the family-friendly feel of smaller practices.

“The firm’s founder, Ira Jaffe, established an egalitarian, first-name-basis culture without compromising on the capacity to produce an outstanding work product and close billion dollar transactions,” Demers says.
From his very first week at Jaffe, Demers has been involved in some of the most substantive legal work he has ever previously encountered.

“I’m currently helping to draft a calendar-case brief in the Michigan Supreme Court on minority oppression claim accrual. I’m also seeking to vacate a mandatory life sentence imposed on a juvenile under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller and Montgomery, and I’ve researched cutting edge securities transactions,” he says. “All along the way, I’ve been gently mentored and guided by the firm’s top practitioners.” 

Demers has used previous summers to gain legal experience as an intern, research clerk, or summer associate in government, public interest, military, and small private practices. Most recently, he interned with the
Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, where he was involved in multiple trials on subjects ranging from sex trafficking to squatting. This fall, he will begin an externship at the Michigan Supreme Court.

“I’m deeply honored by Chief Justice (Robert) Young and his chambers for selecting me,” he says. “Having known several top-flight attorneys and good friends who have learned from and worked with the chief justice, I can hardly wait to jump into the fray of complex appeals and questions of policy.”

Also this fall, Demers will clerk for Wayne Law Professor and Special Assistant Attorney General Noah Hall on the Flint water crisis special investigation.

“I’m very excited and honored to work with Professor Hall,” he says. “This crisis is perhaps the seminal governmental failure of our generation, and the people of Flint deserve justice for the irreparable harm they’ve suffered. I’m confident I can contribute, in whatever way possible, towards a just and fair outcome.” 

A graduate of Cedarville University in Dayton, Demers came to Detroit in 2011 as a Corps Member in the Teach for America program. Placed as a secondary social studies teacher at Central High School, he taught a variety of courses to more than 200 students, and helped launch both the student newspaper and Teen Court program, a Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office program that diverts first time juvenile offenders.

“The Teen Court program provided an opportunity for my students to engage in the justice system,” he says. “They listened to the testimony of young offenders, questioned them, and then deliberated and decided on a legally-binding alternative to a permanent criminal sentence.”

After teaching, Demers was hired in 2013 as the inaugural executive director of MACC Development, a faith-based, place-based community development corporation founded by Mack Avenue Community Church and working on the eastside of Detroit.

“I was hired to build the organization from the ground up, and had the privilege of not only working with some of the brightest and kindest people I know, but investing the best hours of my day into justice for my own neighborhood,” he says.

Much like starting a small business, the group fund-raised, branded, optimized, and networked its way into growth and new community development initiatives.

Today, MACC Development organizes youth sports leagues, coordinates legal services for clients, tutors after-school students, recruits hundreds of volunteers, and assists families to purchase, renovate, and remain in homes across Detroit’s 48214 zip code. 

MACC Development also is renovating a vacant 12,000-square-foot commercial building into a mixed-use community center called The Commons. The center, recently highlighted by Crain’s Detroit and funded by The Kresge Foundation, will house lease-able office space, a literacy center, and a legal clinic, and will be anchored by a cafe-laundromat small business.

“The aim is for The Commons to kickstart a larger economic development strategy along Mack Avenue,” Demers says.

In 2014, Demers became a partner and founding investor in Taproot Investments, created to restore the Pingree Park neighborhood in Detroit where he and his wife Laura are homeowners. Taproot, which partners with MACC Development, leveraged the finances and work of several founding investors to encourage home ownership through the acquisitions and renovation of local residential properties.   

Mentioned by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan at the recent Mackinac Policy Conference, Taproot has expanded into commercial enterprises, purchasing a large storage warehouse and company, and looking to partner with Motor City Match to bring in new businesses to lease space. Taproot also is exploring the launch of a cider mill, investing in other smaller community-based businesses, and renovating mixed-use spaces in the area that could combine housing with other purposes.

“What’s most exciting is that Taproot is a neighborhood initiative,” Demers explains. “While the city is often plagued by outside speculators, Taproot’s investors are almost entirely residents – they have a genuine, vested interest in seeing Taproot’s properties, customers, and tenants cared for.”

In his leisure time, Demers captains the Pingree Park Detroit City Futbol League adult soccer team, one of the newest teams to the DCFL league. He also serves on the board of directors for several Detroit-based non-profits, including MACC Development, Eastside Community Network, Villages CDC, and Wayne Metro Community Action Agency, and serves as an elder with Mack Avenue Community Church.

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