Aiming higher: Jenkins urges legal brethren to increase pro bono commitment


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

In eighth grade, Tony Jenkins thought he had found his musical calling as a cellist.

A very tall cellist, at that.

Jenkins, as a junior high student on the eastside of Detroit, was a standout in more ways than one during his early school career.

He was a gifted student, displaying academic promise with a reputation as a quick study in his formative years.

He also was focused, determined to forge a path that eventually would lead him to such Ivy League pillars as Harvard and Princeton.

Then to a successful career in the law. And now to his responsibilities as the new president of the State Bar of Michigan.

But one day, as he walked the school hallway as a gangly eighth-grader, Jenkins was stopped in his tracks. It was a chance encounter that would change his life forever.

“A teacher approached me and looking at me eye-to-eye asked, ‘Young man, why have I not seen your 6-foot, 4-inch frame in gym class,’” Jenkins recalled. “I explained as respectfully as I could, ‘Sir, I am a cellist, and my orchestra class convenes at the same time as gym class.’

“After a brief conversation, the teacher convinced me to start working out with the basketball team after school hours. I assure you, I was not an instant success.”
To say the least.

Jenkins, as he acknowledged, fancied himself as an up-and-coming musician, someone more at home with Bach and Beethoven than the finer points of basketball.

“I had no skills, no understanding of the game, no appreciation for offensive patterns or defensive maneuvers,” he said. “But, I persevered. I played as hard as I knew how. I listened, watched, and learned as much as I could as quickly as I could.”

Before long, Jenkins found his rhythm — on the basketball court.

“One day, to my delight and surprise, during a basketball game against Knudson Junior High School, enlightenment arrived,” Jenkins said with a smile. “I don’t remember the particulars of my own performance, and that’s not really important.

“What I remember, and what is important, is that I was able to contribute to the success of the team, that game and for the rest of the season, and that someone had given me an opportunity to do so by learning a sport and developing my skills to try to become as good a basketball player as my knowledge of the game and my talents would allow.”

During a star-spangled high school career, at a private prep school in Minnesota, Jenkins led his team to three straight state titles, earning scholarship offers from more than 200 colleges and universities across the country.

As a 6-foot, 7-inch center with a deft shooting touch, Jenkins was being courted by basketball powers from all the major conferences. Big Ten powers Michigan and Michigan State were among his suitors, hoping to entice the talented player to grace their respective roster for four years of college ball.

Two of his Detroit basketball buddies from Kettering High School, point guard Joe Johnson and center Lindsay Hairston, were bound for U-M and MSU, respectively, and each undoubtedly hoped they could count Jenkins among their Big Ten teammates.

U-M assistant coach Fred Snowden, who later would become coach of the University of Arizona, was particularly persuasive in his efforts to lure Jenkins to the Wolverines.

But Jenkins had more than basketball on his mind when he was mulling his college choices.

“I knew that basketball fame was fleeting and that I needed to have a real plan for the rest of my life,” Jenkins said. “That’s what made playing in the Ivy League so appealing – the opportunity to obtain a Harvard education.”

It also would afford him the chance to rub elbows with such Ivy League stars as James Brown, a scoring standout for the Harvard Crimson who now is host of the “NFL Today” on CBS. Their coaches included K.C. Jones and later Satch Sanders, key players during the championship reign of the Boston Celtics during the 1960s.

During his playing days at Harvard, Jenkins was a three-time All-Ivy League performer, earning a tryout with the Boston Celtics following graduation, eventually spending several years in the professional ranks in Europe and South America.

“What matters most in all of this is not the awards and the trophies and the like, rather, it is that I was given an opportunity to step outside of my old neighborhood and to experience a bigger and more diverse slice of life,” Jenkins said. “Someone reached out, on faith, and said, ‘Here, let’s see what you can do.’”

He aims to do as much — and more — as the head of the State Bar, urging his legal brethren to ramp up their commitment to pro bono work in the year ahead and to embrace continuing efforts to promote racial and ethnic diversity in the profession.

“As lawyers, I think we can and should do better to demonstrate to the public at large our own commitment to a level playing field of opportunity,” Jenkins said in his inaugural remarks at the State Bar annual meeting in Grand Rapids Sept. 30. “In doing so, we demonstrate that ours is an open profession, rather than one reserved for
the few or the privileged or any particular group. In striving for that level playing field, we preserve public confidence in the role that our profession plays as part of our justice system and in preserving public confidence in the rule of law.”

Jenkins, who earned his B.A. degree from Harvard in 1974 and his master’s in public administration from Princeton in 1979, is a partner with Dickinson Wright in Detroit, serving as its Chief Diversity Officer.

He is sixth member of the firm to head the State Bar. A 1980 graduate of New York University Law School, Jenkins represented the City of Detroit Downtown Development Authority “in structuring and documenting development and financing” of Comerica Park, Ford Field, and the adjacent PricewaterhouseCoopers office complex.

He has counseled school districts across the state with bond issues for site acquisition and various capital improvement projects.

A past president of the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association, Jenkins has served on the board of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Medical Center, and as a member of the City of Detroit Board of Police Commissioners.

For good measure, he has served on the American Bar Association Board of Governors and the ABA House of Delegates.

In other words, he thrives on community and professional involvement. He credits his mother, Mattie, and his late father, Willie, for instilling that desire in his overall make-up.

His parents met and married in a small town near Birmingham, Ala. in the early ‘50s.

“They were people of modest means, but big believers in making the most of opportunities that life presents,” Jenkins said. “While they had no formal college or university degrees, they did have Ph.D.s in hard work and common sense.”

His father, who died five years ago at age 77, moved to Detroit in search of a better life for his family, eventually landing a job with Ford Motor Co. He weathered the ups and downs of the auto industry before he was offered an opportunity to work for the Capuchin Monastery as a printer, a job he would hold for nearly 30 years.

Jenkins’ mother, a resident of Southfield, was primarily responsible for raising the couple’s four children.

In addition, she worked for the former Michigan Bell Co. as an operator for 10 years and then as a church secretary for two decades. It was there that she met her second husband, who worked as a driver for the Detroit Department of Transportation.

“Even though my parents divorced while I was in high school, they still did their best to keep our family ties strong,” Jenkins said. “We would vacation together, as well as celebrate birthdays and holidays together. We were all still part of the same family.”

That sense of family togetherness continues today, as Jenkins annually enjoys a vacation with his mother, siblings, and nieces and nephews.

“We like to spend a week or more at a place we’ve never been before,” he said, noting that their travels have taken them to Hawaii, Florida, Myrtle Beach, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and on various cruises. “It’s a great way to stay in close touch and to cement our family bonds.”

His wife, Sondra, certainly would echo the sentiments.

A fellow graduate of Harvard, she earned a degree in applied mathematics from the school in Cambridge, Mass. before pursuing graduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She spent the bulk of her career as an industrial hygienist with Borg Warner Chemicals and the former Bendix Corp., later working in the field of human resources.
A native of North Carolina and the oldest of four children, she currently is director of Organization Development and Human Resources for the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Aside from their Harvard schooling, Jenkins and his wife of nearly 28 years share a boarding school background.

She attended prestigious Abbot Academy in Andover, Mass., while her future husband was afforded “A Better Chance” at Shattuck School in a rural community south of Minneapolis.

“When conceived, ‘A Better Chance’ was a bold educational initiative to identify talented, less privileged youngsters — black, white and brown, from urban and rural communities, including Appalachia, the Bible Belt and the Corn Belt communities of our country — to become students in boarding schools in preparation for college
and career work,” Jenkins explained.

His “own chance” came about while he was sitting in a junior high math class.

Just by chance that day, the teacher read a note urging students to inquire about a boarding school opportunity.

He did, leading him to a true “turning point” in his educational upbringing.

It was the summer of 1967 and Jenkins was the “only person of color” in his class at Shattuck and “only one of three people of color in the entire town” of Faribault, Minn.

As such, he was forced to endure “occasional racist graffiti clandestinely written on textbooks or on the walls of school buildings.” It was then that the words of the school’s Harvard-educated headmaster, Burgess Ayres, would ring true.

“While telling him about my ‘woes,” he offered counsel that I will never forget,” Jenkins said. “He said, ‘Tony, you should learn to rise above the ignorance and naivete in your own mind and in the minds of those who would stand in the way of your opportunities as a way to advance their own prejudices or to cover up their own shortcomings.’ Enlightenment arrived again. His words were inspirational and harkened me back to the lessons learned from my parents and my old neighborhood about hard work, playing by the rules, and seizing upon opportunities.”


  1. No comments
Sign in to post a comment »