New president of RAM aims to make difference in justice for children


By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

Shelly Spivack was born in Atlanta and grew up in the New York-New Jersey area, but she’s made her mark in Flint by being a successful attorney, a Family Court referee, and now the president of the Referees Association of Michigan (RAM), the first person to hold that title from Genesee County.

But fate brought Spivack to this area. After graduating from law school in New York, she saw a movie about the sit-down strike that led to national recognition of the United Auto Workers (UAW), and coincidentally landed a job with the Legal Services of Eastern Michigan.

“I had never heard about Flint, Michigan before,” she said.

Well, she now has a pretty good idea about Flint. And Flint has definitely heard of her. Spivack, 58, has become a community advocate for her work not only in legal circles, but also in civic and social organizations.

After graduating from Plainfield High School in New Jersey in 1972, Spivack had a slight interest in becoming an attorney.

“My Dad said I should think about it because I argued every point to the utmost, and he always encouraged me to do that,” she said.

But she abandoned those thoughts and entered college at Rutgers University in New Jersey. After graduating in 1976 with a degree in English, she moved to New York with a boyfriend and got a job teaching English as a second language at a Spanish-American Institute in Times Square.

“And that’s when I found out that’s all I could really do with my English degree,” she said.

Paid little more than minimum wage, Spivack loved the work but realized she needed to go back to school. The job did come with a plus for her by working with all the undocumented people – Spivack became socially and politically involved with issues of the day, which carried on throughout her life.

“I always had that feel to work toward social justice,” she said.

Spivack decided to enter the Brooklyn Law School in 1977. She knew right away that corporate or real estate law was not for her, but held an interest in labor law, so she worked for a law collective that specialized in labor and criminal law. Spivack had already done several internships during her first several years of law school – one in Denver with the National Lawyers Guild, working on police crime against the Mexican population.

Later, she was hired by several members of the Guild, which established an office in downtown Brooklyn. This was a paid position, and Spivack spent several years there working part-time for the firm while finishing law school in 1980.

While trying to get a job fresh out of law school at either the National Labor Relations Board or something in an area of legal services, Spivack found the recession blocking those paths. But two interesting things occurred that led to her future in the law.

For one, Spivack had just seen the documentary movie “With Babies and Banners: Story of the Women’s Emergency Brigade.” The 1979 film, produced and directed by women, was nominated for an Academy Award and used archival footage along with interviews of some of those involved in the UAW sit-down strike at General Motors plants in Flint, particularly the women’s brigade, which was comprised of female GM workers and the wives of GM men. The brigade provided services such as running union kitchens and also walking the picket lines.

“I saw that movie in New York and got very inspired by the women’s brigade, the sit-down strike and what had happened in Flint,” Spivack said.

And as luck would have it, representatives from the Legal Services of Eastern Michigan were in town interviewing for jobs. They flew her to Flint for a second interview.“I guess it was a needed change for me,” she said. “I really liked the people at Legal Services, so when they offered me the job I took it.”

Spivack became a public benefits attorney, working on welfare, unemployment, social security and disability cases, from 1980-82, then moved back to New Jersey briefly. But Flint tugged her back.

She opened a private practice, using contacts she had met earlier and friendships she had formed, rather than starting from scratch on the East coast to re-establish herself. Spivack took on all cases, and got on court-appointed lists, and eventually became a specialist in family law, criminal sexual conduct, and homicide cases.

In 1984, RAM was formed and is now viewed as a special purpose organization by the State Bar of Michigan. It consists of both Juvenile Court and Friend of the Court referees, collectively referred to as Family Court referees.

RAM’s primary function is to educate members through communication, and holds annual training conferences and a quarterly publication, called “Referee’s Quarterly.” The association also offers guidance to the State Legislature and Michigan Supreme Court regarding proposed amendments to statutes and court rules.

According to RAM’s website, its members preside over 100,000 family law hearings yearly.

In 2002, Spivack became a Family Court referee, adjudicating cases involving child neglect and abuse, juvenile delinquency, parenting time, child custody, and spousal support. Before that, referees could also practice law, but the system was changed by doing away with part-time referees and going to full time referees performing family court matters.

“Since I did much of that in my practice, I thought I would be very well-suited for it,” Spivack said.

She was also getting burned out from the rigors of a private practice and the numerous court trials that came with it.

“It was the right time for me,” she said. “It was a good opportunity to change that focus.”

Spivack said it was difficult at first to go from being an attorney who advocates for each client to an arbitrator “to just sit back and listen” and see both sides of a case.

“Now, it’s more enjoyable, a new challenge, and a good change as you age and mature that makes you want to see things in a more complete fashion,” she said.

Although referees do many tasks formerly handled by judges, Spivack said she has no plans to run for a judgeship and is satisfied where she is.

Since joining RAM, Spivack has been on its Law and Rules Committee, writer and editor of the Referees Quarterly, on its Board of Directors and was vice president from 2010-12. She was elected president for a two-year term in May. Her goal is to increase RAM’s visibility and keep the association’s stability going through its motto, “Compassionate Justice Helping Children.”

“I’m happy to be its president,” Spivack said.

She is also proud to become the first referee president from Genesee County and hopes to “play a positive role for our county.” As a referee, Spivack handles strictly child support issues. Referees in each Michigan county perform different tasks and are organized differently.

Spivack also has taken an active role in helping the community. She received a master’s degree in social science with a concentration in women and gender studies from the University of Michigan-Flint in 2009, and also is a lecturer there.

She also oversaw the creation of the Buckham/GVRC Shared Art project, which brought weekly visual arts and poetry workshops into the county’s youth detention facility.

“These programs have been really successful,” she said.

Spivack said she got involved with helping incarcerated children because public school are lacking in art education.

“But even more importantly, the kids that we see in these programs are the same kids we see in neglect, abuse and delinquency cases.”

This program provides mentorship and positive reinforcement for the kids, something that their home life lacks.

“When kids are given a chance to be affirmed, and work with people one-on-one, and have the freedom and comfort level to be able to express themselves, they thrive,” she said.

Spivack is also active in numerous civic and social service agencies. She has served as president of the Jewish Community Services, is heavily involved in the Friends of Modern Art, the Buckham Fine Arts Project, and has been involved in the past with the Flint Film

Festival, the art fair, and the Flint Institute of Arts.

She has received many local and state awards, including the Genesee County Bar Association’s Civil Liberties Award, a Public Affairs award from Planned Parenthood of East Central Michigan and the Woman of the Year award from the National Organization for Women Flint Chapter.

When asked why she stays so involved with kids and social issues, Spivack’s answer says it all.

“I never thought about why, it’s like, ‘Why not?’ I’ve always been involved with a lot of organizations and it’s just who I am. The arts are an essential part of any community, the arts make us human, and if we don’t have them, then we lose our humanity.”

In her spare time, Spivack enjoys photography, travel, and bike riding. She plans to stay in Genesee County in her roles as referee and civic and social volunteer. But for now, her role in RAM will take up much of her energy.

“RAM is a wonderful organization,” she said. “It gives support to referees who often times work alone in a county, and it affects the whole legal system.”