Milestone: Nationally known law firm marks 20th year in Detroit

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In a photo from 2008, Foley & Lardner hosted “A Taste of Foley” open house at its Detroit office for attendees to learn more about the firm’s local, national, and international attorneys and tier practices.  Among those enjoying the event were (front row, l-r) Chris Rossman, Michael Groebe, Jennifer Neumann, Nicole Lamb-Hale, Jenice Mitchell-Ford, Vanessa Miller, and Yvette VanRiper; (middle row) Jason Menges, Steven Hilfinger, and Scott Seabolt; (top row) Thomas Spillane Jr., Philip Phillips, and John Trentacosta.

Photo by John Meiu

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Remember Y2K and the corresponding hysteria that it produced leading up to the year 2000?

With all the uncertainty surrounding the so-called “Millennium bug,” the turn of the 21st century would have seemed a strange time to start a new law firm in Detroit, even if its roots could be traced to a nationally known firm with offices across the U.S.

But back then those in the leadership ranks of Foley & Lardner saw an opportunity to expand its Midwest footprint by opening an office in Detroit, a decision that continues to pay dividends two decades later.

“Opening the Detroit office was a strategic way to build on Foley’s existing presence in both the Midwest and the manufacturing world, specifically automotive,” said Phil Phillips, managing partner of the Detroit office since 2016.

Phillips, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Emory University in Atlanta, joined the firm within months of its opening, as one of five associates in the Detroit office that featured somewhat of a “startup culture,” according to the Saginaw native and Syracuse University College of Law grad.

“There was just a handful of partners at the time in the Detroit office, most of whom previously worked for some of the other major Detroit firms,” said Phillips. “It was our goal to expand our client base and services to companies outside the auto industry, which we have accomplished while growing to more than 70 attorneys and staff here.”

As Foley marked its 20-year milestone in Detroit last month, the firm has taken special pride in hiring and promoting a diverse group of attorneys. Phillips is among those, growing up in the economically hard-hit city of Saginaw (see related story).

His predecessor as managing partner in Detroit was Daljit Doogal, an Indian-American who now chairs Foley’s 500-plus-member national Business Law Department.

In 2006, Nicole Lamb-Hale became the first African-American woman to head a major Detroit law firm, just three years after joining Foley. A product of Southfield High School, Lamb-Hale graduated from Harvard Law School, where she was a classmate and friend of Barack Obama, who in 2009 became the 44th President of the United States. During President Obama’s time in office, Lamb-Hale served as a senior official in the U.S. Commerce Department.

Other African-American women who formerly served as Foley attorneys are Ella Bully-Cummings, who became Detroit’s police chief in 2004, and Jenice Mitchell Ford, currently the general counsel for Detroit Public Schools.

As the head of one of Detroit’s premier law firms, Phil Phillips has been more than willing to share “his experience as a Black man in ‘Big Law’ and how large law firms can work to promote attorneys of color.” In fact, his insight on the subjects is part of a recent “The Path and the Practice” podcast interview conducted by Alexis Robertson, director of Diversity & Inclusion for Foley.

The path to a successful career for Phillips was “anything but typical,” he acknowledged. It began while a student at Emory University, where he bumped up against the exemplary academic reputation of his brother Preston, who earned two bachelor degrees as well as a master’s in the span of four years. Those degrees – in theology, chemistry, and organic chemistry, respectively – set the stage for Harvard Medical School, Yale Medical School, and a return to Harvard for yet another specialty degree in surgery.

“Quite frankly, I’ve never seen a resume like his,” Phillips said of his brother, who now is an orthopedic surgeon in Tulsa, Okla. “When I arrived at Emory, I let them know that ‘I’m just plain old Phil – and I’m here for one degree.’”

That degree was in psychology, which led to his first job as a counselor at a mental health hospital. From there, he became a juvenile probation officer, working with a number of lawyers and judges in an experience that whetted his appetite for law school.

“I was single with no kids, so I decided at the time that if I don't do it now, then I’ll probably never do it,” Phillips said of his decision to pursue a legal career.

This time, perhaps as a nod to the example set by his brother, Phillips earned two degrees from Syracuse University, a master’s in public administration and a juris doctor from the College of Law, where he served as class president.

Then, with three degrees in hand, Phillips landed a job as an assistant prosecutor with the Saginaw County Prosecutor’s Office, where he honed his courtroom skills handling hundreds of felony and misdemeanor cases over the next two years.

“No two days are alike as an assistant prosecutor,” Phillips said of the experience. “Let’s just say that it is never boring.”

Which chiefly explains his desire to specialize in the labor and employment law field as a private practitioner.

“I enjoy the constant interaction with people and the opportunity to be a litigator,” Phillips said of his legal role.

Before joining Foley in January 2001, Phillips was an associate with Miller Canfield in  Detroit, where he crossed paths with Daljit Doogal. The two, coincidentally, would begin their careers at Foley on the same day, unbeknownst to either one.

More than a decade ago, Phillips said he had “one foot out the Foley door” in search of greener pastures when one of firm’s partners in the Milwaukee office unexpectedly intervened. His name was Tom Pence.

“He, in effect, was my ‘champion’ at Foley, someone who believed in me and demonstrated that by putting some business on my plate in representing some major auto suppliers in the Detroit area,” Phillips said. “Given that opportunity, I then set out to prove that his confidence and trust in me was well placed.”

It was, of course, affording Phillips the opportunity to return the favor to other young associates who have joined the firm during his time as an equity partner and as chair of Black Attorneys Affinity Group at Foley.

“Giving others a chance to show their true potential is an important part of my role here,” Phillips said. “I know what it meant to my career to be given the opportunity to shine, and I want to make sure that everyone here has that same chance.”

Likewise, Phillips is proud of the firm’s role in the community, where it has lent a pro bono hand to such organizations as the Detroit Police Athletic League, the Michigan Innocence Clinic, the ACLU of Michigan, and the Legal Aid and Defender Association.

Such work has dovetailed neatly with local efforts to assist the Racial Justice Movement following the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor earlier this year. As the father of twin 13-year-old children (Samuel and Gabrielle), Phillips said that he is ever mindful of the risks that they are likely to encounter as people of color.

“We live in a white neighborhood, and when my son told me that he planned to go out for the cross country team and that he would be running through our neighborhood as a result, my first response was fear – fear for what he could experience in the wake of what happened to Ahmaud Arbery and others who have been profiled and targeted just because they are black. It’s a constant worry.”

Yet, Phillips and his wife Mattie, a physician with an OB-GYN practice based in Grand Blanc, know from their own experiences that succumbing to fear can have a paralyzing effect.

“We tell our children that the road to success is not smooth and it is not easy,” Phillips said. “The thing to remember when it gets rocky is to treat each situation as a speed bump and not a roadblock.”




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