By Sheila Pursglove
In almost 13 years of practice in labor and employment law, attorney Michelle Crockett has never once been bored.
“It never ceases to amaze me as to what actually goes on in the workplace,” she says. “I still find my jaw often dropping when I read the alleged facts of certain cases.”
Crockett, a principal with Miller Canfield’s Employment and Labor Group in Detroit and the firm’s new Diversity Director, knew from fourth grade that she wanted to be an attorney; but up until her second year at Wayne Law School, believed her focus would be in the criminal arena. That all changed when, during her second year, she clerked at a local labor boutique firm — and knew unequivocally she had found her calling.
“Labor and employment law, in my opinion, is one of the few areas in the legal profession where you can actually effectuate the most change — both for individuals and in the corporate arena,” she says.
But when Crockett first graduated, she wanted to work with plaintiffs and labor unions, thinking this would be the only way to have any real impact on people’s lives.
“I was wrong,” she says.
After a year of servicing individuals and unions, Crockett took a chance and decided to join Miller Canfield.
“My thought was — if I hated it, I could always go back to being the ‘people’s champion,’” she says.
But she quickly learned she could effectuate more change by representing employers than on the other side of the table.
“By having the opportunity to meet with management and candidly discuss problem areas and suggest improvements on various processes and procedures, I soon discovered I could be a bigger change agent than I ever thought possible,” she says. “For me, it’s all about trying to make the workplace, and people’s lives in general, more equitable and fair.”
Crockett also specializes in School Law, last year serving as president of the Michigan Council of School Attorneys. The area of practice allows her to impact the lives of children and the quality of education they receive.
“I have no illusions about the impact of my work in this area — it’s a drop in a very large bucket,” she says. “But, what’s important to me, is that I’m at least contributing a positive drop, one that’s geared towards making sure our children receive fair due process hearings when they must be disciplined, for example.”
When Crockett negotiates collective bargaining agreements, it’s her hope that the results reached at the bargaining table have a ripple affect, in that, if teachers and/or other school staff receive a fair contract, they ultimately are happier and accordingly more committed to their school district and the children they service.
As the firm’s new Diversity Director, her goal is to establish synergy between recruiting, mentoring and diversity efforts to ensure the firm moves forward in a very clear, decisive direction.
“Our world is more diverse and therefore our clients are more diverse,” she notes. “We must work to exemplify that diversity within our own workforce — not an easy challenge, in that, there’s a lack of diversity within the legal profession overall.”
Despite the challenge, Crockett — the first and only African-American female partner at Miller Canfield, elevated to partnership in January 2008 — says Miller Canfield must look for creative and innovative ways to be more inclusive and appealing to diverse professionals.
“I’d like to see our firm become known as the place where people actually want to work because of its commitment to diversity,” she says.
As chair of “Women of Miller Canfield” — a group focused on internal mentorship, cross-selling each other, and external practice development, Crockett leads more than 100 female lawyers in Miller Canfield’s 17 offices towards empowerment.
“It’s important women not only work at large law firms and in the corporate arena, but also succeed and attain positions of leadership — it’s only through leadership that true change can actually occur,” she says.
Active in the American Bar Association and the Oakland County Bar Association and as co-chair of the DMBA Labor and Employment Law Section, Crockett was named a Michigan Super Lawyers Rising Star in 2008, and this year was named amongst Best Lawyers in America, Litigation-Labor & Employment. In 2010, she was honored with the President’s Award by the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association.
A graduate of North Carolina State University, Crockett calls Wayne Law — where she was Associate Editor of the Journal of Law in Society — a special place, not only because of its geographic location, but also because of its commitment to the community at-large.
When she started at Wayne, Crockett was new to Detroit, but after 2 or 3 months, felt she had become a part of the community.
“I learned the importance of helping with the city’s revitalization,” she says. “I also became absolutely fascinated with Detroit’s history, especially its racial demographics and the surprising segregation of our neighborhoods. It was at Wayne that I not only received a top-notch legal education, but also where I began to develop a passion for giving back and serving this community.”
That service includes being a member of the board of Leadership Oakland, an organization providing skills and support necessary to ensure the region be equipped with the leadership necessary to propel it forward.
“I participated in this program approximately 7 years ago, and was so impacted by all that I learned, I wanted to make sure that others had the opportunity to have the epiphanies and ‘ah-ha’ moments I had about social issues and my own personal responsibility to try and solve them,” she says.
The Southfield resident also serves on the board of Alternatives for Girls, a Detroit-based organization focused on helping at-risk girls lead better lives.
“I can’t think of a better mission to support,” she says. “I’m the mother of a daughter who is a college freshman, and so I fully appreciate the challenges many young women face who don’t have support or the educational foundation necessary to take care of themselves long-term. By serving on the board, I do a small part in trying to make sure that necessary programs remain in place to continue to support AFG’s goals and mission.”
AFG will hold its 25th Anniversary Role Model Dinner on March 21 at the Filmore Detroit. For more information, visit www.alternativesforgirls.org.