Honor roll: Pro bono award befits lawyer who dreams big

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 By Paul Janczewski

Legal News
 
Several months ago, Flint lawyer Rhonda Stowers was named the Pro Bono Attorney of the Year by the Legal Services of Eastern Michigan. But her journey as a successful attorney who has carved out a career at the Flint office of Plunkett Cooney while giving free legal services to those less fortunate began years ago, while she was an eighth-grader in elementary school.
 
Stowers had always dreamed big, even as a child. Some of the professions she wanted to enter at that tender age included becoming an astronaut, or a police detective, or an archeologist.

But then, an eighth grade English teacher asked her students to watch the television show “Beauty and the Beast.” For Stowers, it was life changing.

“A lot of people have this really grandiose reason why they got into law,” Stowers, 38, said. “Either they come from generations of lawyers, or witnessed someone being harassed, or they witnessed some hideous court case.”

With her, it was from watching a television show. 

“I’m looking at the lead character, and I liked her clothes, her hair, her apartment,” she said. 

It turns out the character was a lawyer. Stowers made up her mind then and there to become an attorney. 

“It seemed like a good life,” she said. “And that’s my embarrassing story why I went to law in the first place. And I’ve never regretted it.”

When her mother found out, she also thought it was a good career choice, but really no surprise, telling her daughter she likely be a good lawyer “because she liked to argue.”

After graduating from Bentley High School in 1993, Stowers went to the University of Michigan-Flint, earning a bachelor of science degree in clinical/community psychology in the honors program in 1998.
She wanted to attend the U-M Law School, but applied to a number of prestigious schools as well — Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Minnesota, and Columbia.

“I’ve always aimed the bar pretty high,“ she said. 

But since there was a snafu with the U-M transcript office, which released her transcripts late, and she missed a number of filing deadlines. Figuring she wouldn’t get accepted in time to any law school, Stowers and her fiancé planned their wedding, scheduling a hall and all the other things that have to be done months in advance of the ceremony.

“And then I got a call from the dean at U-M saying can you start in the summer,” Stowers said. 

She agreed, and later found out the final exam for that that semester was scheduled the week of their wedding. 

“So I did my first year of law school at U-M, then got married, had more exams and then had a honeymoon,” she said. “It was kind of a crazy first year.”

After graduating in 2001, Stowers was interested in family law or being a prosecutor. But that was shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which “shook the job market,” Stowers said, and she faced “an uphill battle” looking for a job. She interviewed with a number of places before coming upon a job opening with Plunkett Cooney six months later.

The firm, which is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year, employs 150 attorneys in nine Michigan cities, and also has offices in Ohio and Indianapolis. 

It provides the best of both worlds, she said, by offering a big firm in a small office setting. Stowers practice includes general litigation, governmental law and title insurance law. She has defended numerous premises liability, employment, product liability and general litigation cases on behalf of churches, employers, landlords, manufacturers and retailers, and advised and defended many municipalities on topics such as the
Freedom of Information Act, the Open Meetings Act, federal and state constitutions, civil rights, zoning, charter amendments, ordinance drafting, and employment-related issues.

Stowers also has handled misdemeanor prosecutions, has taught classes on search warrants and civil litigation for law enforcement groups, and also represents homeowners, lenders and mortgagors in real estate litigation. As an associate at the firm, Stowers is a member of Plunkett Cooney’s Governmental Law and Title Insurance Law practice group.

The Flint office employs six attorneys and support personnel.

“It’s a great place to work,” Stowers said. “It’s just very interesting work.”

As for her pro bono work, Stowers said it is important and needs to be done to give back to the community. 

“I don’t see myself as doing anything special or extraordinary compared to what should be done by every attorney,“ she said. “I had a lot of mentors and people guiding me through different processes when I was growing up.”

And Plunkett Cooney encourages pro bono work and community involvement. As part of the firm’s 100th year anniversary, it has launched “100 acts of kindness” to help enrich the community.

The Legal Services of Eastern Michigan, founded in 1951, is a nonprofit organization that offers free civil legal help to low-income people. 

The award was bestowed on Stowers last May at the Genesee County Bar Association’s (GCBA) annual meeting by Jill Nylander, LSEM’s director of litigation and training, who cited Stowers’ dedication to providing volunteer service in its monthly legal advice clinic, counseling clients on their legal situations, options and future “and the power to take control.”

Each month, Stowers worked three to four hours with clients on a number of issues. Nylander said LSEM serves 14 counties in Michigan and has been handing out the award for years. She said Stowers has been “very loyal” in offering her services. 

“In Ms. Stowers case, she has gone above and beyond the typical expectation and actually continued to serve some of the clients beyond that initial advice,” Nylander said.

“We really appreciate individuals like her who take time out of their already busy schedules to volunteer and help our clients,” Nylander said. “There’s obviously more demand for our service than we have the resources to meet, and the folks from the GCBA are very good about trying to help supplement in our efforts to assist the lowest people in the community, and Ms. Stowers was a fine example of that.”

Henry Cooney, Plunkett Cooney’s president and CEO, praised Stowers for taking to heart the pro bono duty of all attorneys “to give back some of their time and talents to their communities” and said she “has truly made a difference for residents” in Flint.

Stowers has won other awards, but said, “this is definitely at the top.”

As for mentors, she has had many and “the hardest part would be narrowing the list down,” she said. 

She mentioned H. William Reising, managing partner of the Flint office, all the partners in her office, and of course, Cynthia Ryan, her eighth grade teacher who made her watch “Beauty and the Beast.”

“Without them, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “They’ve all had a real big role in helping shape my understanding of the practice and what kind of lawyer I want to be.

“I believe in justice. I believe the court system, for all its faults — the OJ case, Casey Anthony, the Zimmerman case — gives people a distorted view,” she said. “But it’s a great system and it’s worth upholding.”

And her pro bono work fills a niche and a void “that gives me a wider variety of experiences than I would get just through my job here,” she said.

Away from work, Stowers and husband Matthew, a stay-at-home dad and her high school sweetheart, raise three boys, ages 9, 7 and 4. She likes to read, especially on her Kindle.

Her job can be intense, “but it’s kinda fun, not like work,” she said. At first, she was a part-time lawyer at the firm, raising her children, but she said Plunkett Cooney is a very family-friendly place to work that encourages a work-life balance while providing numerous resources for employees to do their job, and has an open door policy where she can feel comfortable calling anyone, even the president and CEO, for assistance with legal issues.

“I am very richly blessed,” she said. “A lot of where I’m at is due to hard work, but a lot is also due to divine intervention.” 

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