A winding path

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Photos by Cynthia Price

WLAM Foundation guest speaker tells the backstory of her career

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Portia L. Roberson, the guest speaker for the March 23 Women Lawyers Association of Michigan Foundation reception, is the Group Executive of Human Rights and Ethics for the City of Detroit. Her career path to that position was, to say the least, winding.

Originally a private-practice criminal defense lawyer, Roberson served as an assistant Wayne County prosecutor in the community prosecution unit, before taking a position as associate general counsel at Detroit Medical Center.

From there she moved to several United States government positions: Director of the Department of Justice Office of Intergovernmental Affairs in 2009; the White House Office of Domestic Policy Council and Detroit Team Lead of the U.S. Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing appointed her Corporation Counsel for the City of Detroit, and then she moved into her present position.

That sounds fairly straightforward, but Roberson, with humor and humility, told WLAM Foundation members and supporters the backstory.

Her time serving as a criminal defense lawyer and then prosecutor had accustomed her to an exciting workplace, Roberson explained.

“I was at Detroit Medical Center about two years when I started to realize that I was hoping for a drug bust at the hospital,” she said, laughing.

“As much as I wanted it to be a good fit, it just wasn’t what I wanted, so I decided to leave that job.

“At the time I wanted to run for public office... But whenever I tell people that, I’m reminded of the saying that if you want to make God laugh you make plans and tell Him about it.”

She accepted the invitation of a friend to come to Cleveland to find out more about the campaign of Barack Obama in 2008, and wound up being the candidate’s political director for Wayne County. When Obama won, Roberson was invited to come to Washington and help with inauguration arrangements as a Talent Liaison.

After her first event, Roberson found herself staying up all night to change her assigned venue for the following evening.

“I have a law school degree, I went to the University of Michigan, and here I am on my knees cleaning out the bathroom at the DC Armory so that Jay Zee and Beyonce have somewhere to stand as they’re waiting to meet the president,” she said.

“I was in a place that I never expected to be.”

However, Roberson considers that her willingness to pitch in and help where it was needed, as well as the exposure to her skills that came with it, to have played a critical role in the Obama Administration offering her the Intergovernmental Affairs position.

She therefore advised the scholarship recipients, who were the main focus of the WLAM Foundation reception, not to feel pressured to decide on their ultimate careers, and not to get locked into anything.
“You may kind of think you know what you want do, but then you figure this is not at all what you thought it would be. It may take you a minute to figure some of it out.

“Some of you will be blessed and come right out of law school doing what you really love to do, but even so, do something for yourself outside of practice, follow your interests, because you don’t know where life is going to take you,” she told them.

A dedicated team of women lawyers works hard every year to put together the reception as well as to raise funds for the scholarships. This year ten were given.

Over the 20 years they have been awarded, 230 scholarships have gone to deserving female law students, for a total of $560,000.

WLAM Foundation Chair Dawn Van Hoek, who emceed, noted that many of the scholarships recipients later join the foundation and give back themselves; several were present Wednesday.

Winning this year’s General Motors scholarships were Roeiah Epps (University of Detroit Mercy Law), Janieasha Freelove-Sewell (Michigan State University Law School), Katie John (University of Michigan Law School), and April McKie (WMU-Cooley Law School); the Dickinson Wright Women’s Network Scholar was Katherine M. Beres (UDM); the Dawn Van Hoek Scholar was Michelle Lenning (Wayne State University Law School); and WLAM Foundation scholarships went to Katila Howard, (MSU), Megan Baxter (Wayne State), Jennifer Gallardo (WMU-Cooley).

The Kimberly M. Cahill Scholar, named for the former State Bar President who passed away prematurely, was given to Alexis M. Bailey (U of M). Cahill’s mother as well as her sister Dana Warnez, who used to be in practice with Cahill, were present.

A new award this year, the “Do Good Work Grant,” went to the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan (SAC). The organization is dedicated to eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline, and provides help to students facing challenges in continuing their educational path through high school graduation.

The group provides a Student Rights Hotline as well as mentoring and a voice for the students facing “pushout” due to harsh discipline policies. They also help students overcome other social obstacles they face.

Peri Stone-Palmquist, the Executive Director, accepted the award, but she also brought with her one of the students SAC had helped, young Robyn Cook, who is interested in being a lawyer.
 

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