Access to justice, attorney wellness top SBM leader's agenda

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As the 87th president of the State Bar of Michigan, Dana Warnez (third from left) posed for a photo with former SBM presidents (left to right) Brian Einhorn, Reginald Turner (current ABA president), Lori Buiteweg, Julie Fershtman, and Jennifer Grieco Burch.
(Photo by Monica Andary, courtesy of MCBA)


By Melanie Deeds

Legal News

Dana Warnez is well aware of the value of a strong support system and grateful for the friends and family members who kept her afloat during dark times. She worries many of her colleagues may not be as fortunate.

In her job as president of the State Bar of Michigan, Warnez is determined provide a safety net to others in the legal community and believes the SBM’s SOLACE Program is just the ticket.

“I hope we can look back on my year and say that we started some great things,” said the Macomb County probate attorney who took over in September as the 87th president of the 47,000-member organization. “If we just save one person’s life, it’s tremendous. Hopefully we help many people along the way.”

Warnez recalled how difficult it was to deal with the 2008 death of her sister, Kim Cahill after a short battle with cancer. Cahill had served as SBM president in 2006-07.

“I’ve lived it,” she said. “I lost my sister and law partner and it was rough trying to figure things out. It’s not an easy task. There are days you want to throw your hands up and give up but you can’t.”

Warnez and her mother, Florence Schoenherr Warnez, persevered, leaning on each other for strength and working their way out from under their grief. They and their law practice — Schoenherr, Cahill, & Warnez — survived and prospered.

At age 91, mom still works parttime at their Center Line office, which specializes in estate planning, probate, and trust administration as well as commercial property management and leasing.

“I was lucky. I still have my mom. I still have the local bar and I have friends and colleagues who are there to support me,” Warnez said. “But what if that happened to somebody who didn’t have those resources. I always think so much about the person you don’t see or don’t hear or don’t know who doesn’t know what to do. To provide them with some resources would be extraordinary.”

That support system was valuable as well in the early years of Warnez’s career as she followed in her sister’s footsteps, starting down her own path that swelled with volunteerism, leadership, and support of projects bolstering not only the legal profession but the public as well.

Prior to her SBM leadership post, Warnez served at the helm of the Macomb County Bar Association, Macomb County Bar Foundation, and chaired the SBM Representative Assembly
“Much of what I did very early on was supported so much by my mom and sister that it was a given they’d make sure I could leave early to attend a meeting,” she said. “It wa a natural support system.

SOLACE  (Support Of Lawyers/Legal Personnel All Concern Encouraged) is a program “that helps deliver meaningful and compassionate support to members of Michigan’s legal community and their immediate families in critical need because of a sudden catastrophic illness, injury or event.”

All Michigan judges, lawyers, court personnel, paralegals, legal assistants, and legal administrators as well as law students and their immediate families are eligible. The help that is provided is voluntary and based entirely on the goodwill of other members of the legal community who are willing and able to lend a hand.

The SBM provided this example: When an attorney was away from home receiving cancer treatment, a SOLACE member volunteered to take care of the attorney’s dog.

The program was the 2002 brainchild of a Louisiana judge who mobilized a team to help a friend with a medical crisis. Since then, SOLACE is operating in 14 states.

“It’s really a great concept,” Warnez said. “For those people who are active in their local bar or their church, they might have various resources or connections to take advantage but there are many others who don’t have that access.

“This is a way for every lawyer in the state to have the same sort of help that other people might have because of their privilege or service.”

The State Bar acts as the facilitator, she said, creating a communications network so that if someone reaches out with a request, that information gets distributed to the community.

Members of the SOLACE team in that community take over from there. Statewide, Warnez noted enthusiastically, some 15,300 have “opted in” to provide help.

“I really do feel this is a program that impacts people in a positive way,” she said. I don’t want anyone to feel bad about having to reach out.”

Many attorneys work alone, put in long hours and might not seek the help them need.

“Of all the professions, we are statistically in the highest category of people who suffer from suicide, mental illness, depression, anxiety, substance abuse,” Warnez said. “It’s a real problem.”

On another front, the State Bar has been presenting a virtual support group series with the intent of providing well-being and a meaningful group atmosphere for attorneys across the state.

The initiative that began in early December and runs through January offers an opportunity for attorneys to connect with a small group of peers who can relate to the unique difficulties they face and to work together toward a solution, according to SBM officials.

Meanwhile, Warnez noted that “those in the highest levels of our profession are noticing and interested and engaging and trying to find ways to help.

The State Bar president has been involved in meetings with Supreme Court Justice Megan K. Cavanaugh and Molly Ranns, director of the SBM’s Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program, to discuss other initiatives that could bolster the well-being of those in the legal community.

“We’re looking to put together a task force to look into wellness issues and hopefully, in the best of circumstances, we could create a longstanding entity or commission that could be the leader in identifying needs and developing programs and services,” she said. “It’s in the works, it’s incubating.

It’s really exciting to have a Supreme Court justice involved in this effort,” she added. “You know how much more traction you can get by having a collaboration with the Supreme Court and other experts.”

With everything she’s got going on, Warnez acknowledged she needs to maintain equilibrium and she takes seriously the importance of balancing “all of that stuff on my shoulders.”

“I try to keep up with my mental health,”Warnez said. “I exercise. I take such joy in getting on my feet and taking a walk.”

Another priority for Warnez is the way in which courts work modify and maintain operations in response to the pandemic.

Major changes have been enacted since COVID-19 emerged and numerous restrictions and adaptations have been implemented. Some, it would appear, might remain in place permanently, such as remote hearings and electronic document filings.

Warnez is on guard and an active participant as discussions take place and decisions are made on how Michigan’s legal system will evolve.

She noted that Michigan Supreme Court, in late summer, came out with a report that focused on “lessons learned” from the pandemic in an attempt to determine what worked, what didn’t and how the system should eventually look. Court officials sought input from the legal community and have been mulling over all of the comments and suggestions.

Soon, proposed changes to Michigan court rules will be presented for comment and eventually enacted.

“What we need to determine is the default position; are we going to go back to virtual most of the time where we only go into court for a specific reason or purpose or do we return back to where it’s all in person?” she said. “Can we return to virtual under certain conditions and in certain areas?”

It’s still “a raging debate,” Warnez said. “I don’t believe there’s a consensus that it should be this way or the other.”

Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, according to Warnez, said “the pandemic was not the disruption we wanted but was the disruption we needed for innovation to be implemented because Michigan really jumped on board with the remote hearings.

“Justice McCormack wants to keep these changes to promote access to justice.”

Whatever changes are presented, it is vital to Warnez that Michigan legal system remain accessible and available to all.

“I don’t think there’s an answer yet for how it’s going to be but I do know we can’t lose the value of remote hearings,” she said. “Remote proceedings are so efficient and open up the court system for many people. You don’t have to miss a whole day of work to attend a traffic ticket hearing of whatever issue people have going on.”

She said the top court is “moving forward in a way to preserve, implement and maintain a more permanent infrastructure” to deal with the changes necessitated by the pandemic.

As it all unfolds, Warnez will be right there with ideas, insight, interest and an abiding loyalty for her colleagues and those who depend most on access to the justice system.

“There’s great momentum for lots of good things to come out of all this,” she said.

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