Attorney advocates for mock trial program coming to Michigan

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– Photo by Cynthia Price

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

It is difficult to encounter James Liggins without recognizing his great love of Kalamazoo, the city where he was raised.

Even though both of the major law firms he has joined recently are headquartered elsewhere, Liggins has been working in and dedicated to Kalamazoo for about a decade.

Now he is beginning another phase of his career at Warner Norcross + Judd, and he says, “What excites me about this opportunity is that Warner is very genuine about wanting to truly grow the local presence here in Kalamazoo. This means there is a genuine spirit of growth and resource availability,  and a commitment to helping this office and the people here to really be an integral part of the Kalamazoo community.”

He emphasizes that he loved working for Miller Canfield, his former firm. “I really enjoyed my time at Miller Canfield,” he says. “It’s a wonderful organization with some wonderful people, and they were very supportive of my work in Kalamazoo.”

But, he continues, Warner offers him a chance to have a hand in shaping its Kalamazoo presence. “We’ve only been here in Kalamazoo since 2013, and that allows me to really put an imprint on the growth of this office. That’s really attractive, along with the fact that this firm is very focused on growing practices from within the communities that they serve. And there are a lot of other dynamics that came together, including where I am in my career right now,” he says.

Liggins has another great passion, and it is related to both his love of Kalamazoo and his move to Warner.

His involvement in mock trial began during his years in high school and made a big difference in his life, instilling in him the desire to go into the law.

In a Feb. 2017 Grand Rapids Legal News article, Liggins said, “The way I got into the practice of law was through Kalamazoo Central’s high school mock trial. In my sophomore year I had a teacher who thought I might make a good person for her team... Nobody in my family was in the legal field or in any professional field really, so it was kind of eye-opening for me.”

So as an adult he has done all that he can to support the mock trial program in the state,  serving first as an attorney coach and then on the board of the Michigan Center for Civic Education, which manages the mock trial process. He eventually was asked to coordinate and run the four regional competitions and one state competition that result in the team Michigan sends to national mock trial.
It has long been his dream – mentioned at the time of the Feb. 2017 article – to bring the national mock trial competition to Michigan.

“Team Michigan has won the nationals once and placed second in the nationals five or six times, but we’ve never hosted a national high school mock trial tournament here,” he explains.

That is about to change. Thanks to the efforts of James Liggins and many others – including especially the State Bar of Michigan – the national mock trial tournament will be held in Michigan in 2021.

Moreover, it will take place in Kalamazoo.

Says Liggins of the massive undertaking, “I?feel so privileged now that this is coming to fruition. It’s going to be a lot of fun, but it’s also a whole lot of work to bring together the right people, the right law firms, the right judges, the right corporate organizations and the philanthropic community.

“It isn’t just for the sake of having the tournament here, it’s also to grow the capacity of the Michigan Center for Civic Education to get their programs out to improve the civil discourse” – that organization also  sponsors the We the People competition and does civics education in the schools – “and to give more Michigan kids a chance to participate in mock trial and have the opportunity I had.

“Part of mock trial is that you need a champion at the school, and the goal with the national tournament here would be to raise up more champions. What better way to increase our participation than to have a national profile like this?” Liggins asks.

And he adds that he could not be more delighted that Warner Norcross + Judd gives the project its full support. “This opportunity excites me, but so does the freedom of having the support of a firm that really wants to be innovative and creative and become a part of this wonderful community of mock trial. I’m really excited, but I also feel the weight and responsibility,” he says.

A steering committee has been formed and fund-raising has begun, resulting in some early success. As time grows closer to the May 2021 event, watch the Legal News for continuing information.
Liggins also participated in mock trial when he attended the University of Michigan for his undergraduate degree. He was an American Mock Trial Association Regional Winner as well as a student senator.
At Michigan State University College of Law Liggins was broadly involved with a number of organizations, including the Wolverine Student Bar Association and moot court. Following that, Liggins worked briefly at a labor and employment law firm in Indiana, but then he and his wife Jyllian wanted to move closer to home.

In Jackson, Liggins joined the general counsel office of Consumer Energy, focusing on litigation, though he handled other matters as well. But then when the couple was expecting the first of their three children, Justin, they felt like they just had to be back in  Kalamazoo. The couple lives there now, along with the two additional young family members Jasmine and Juliana, and a variety of relatives.
Liggins is a commercial litigator with an emphasis on contract disputes, construction and real estate. He gained experience on the municipal side during his involvement, at Miller Canfield, in the city of Battle Creek when it was under emergency management. And he still maintains a small criminal defense practice. “I have a unique perspective, because I’ve done the private practice, done in-house and done the governmental side.” Liggins says. “As an intern, I even helped the state treasurer write some administrative rules. Once you pass the bar, you have a lot of freedom and flexibility.”

Named a Michigan Super Lawyer Rising Star in 2013, Liggins has been honored with appointments to a variety of statewide positions, including the State Bar of Michigan Judicial Qualifications Committee and a special committee to review the civil discovery Michigan Court Rules.

He was a founder of the small Douglass Community Association in Kalamazoo, and has served as co-chair of the Kalamazoo Region United Way Campaign, as well as being on the boards of the Bronson Health Care Group and the Harold and Grace Upjohn Foundation.

Liggins also is very proud of having formed the Charles A. Pratt Bar Association, named after the first African-American judge in the county. The affinity bar focuses on supporting and promoting minority attorneys in Kalamazoo. “To succeed, there needs to a sustainable and sustained effort. I’m proud of Kalamazoo that it has done a great job of embracing more minority attorneys, and the goal is for that just to grow.”

Whether it’s the upcoming mock trial tournament or the successes of the Kalamazoo Promise, Liggins is not at all shy about professing his love for the city. “I’m like a self-proclaimed biggest ambassador,” he says, grinning.