Push for greater diversity in the bar marks MAJ president's year in office

By Rick Haglund

Legal News

Richard Warsh didn't always possess a burning desire to become an attorney.

He decided to attend law school mostly because his friends at the University of Michigan were planning to do so after earning their bachelor's degrees. And he thought his high school debating experience could help him in a legal career.

"I wish I could tell you that I had a great passion for the law from the time I was 12 years old, but I can't," Warsh said with a grin during an interview in his Southfield office.

But Warsh has since developed plenty of passion for the legal system, both as a practicing workers' compensation lawyer and as president of the Michigan Association for Justice, which represents about 1,700 plaintiffs' trial lawyers in the state.

Warsh's one-year term leading the MAJ ends July 1 when President-elect Barry Gates of Ann Arbor will take over as the association's leader.

As president, Warsh has pushed for more diversity among members of the bar, created a two-day trial institute to improve the skills of trial lawyers, boosted membership, and worked to get members more involved in the state's political system.

"Rick has done a fantastic job as president," said Mike Behm, a Flint attorney who serves as MAJ's vice president. "He's really worked to diversify our organization by reaching out to the specialty bars."

Warsh organized a mixer, inviting the 15 largest law firms in the state and minority legal organizations, including the Wolverine Bar Association and the Association of Black Judges of Michigan.

"The mixer was extremely successful. I think we had a couple of hundred people there," he said. "It's essential we attract more people of color to the profession. The lack of diversity has always been troubling to us."

Warsh also started the two-day trial institute, which he hopes will become an annual MAJ event.

Some of the state's top lawyers and judges, as well as jury consultants, were brought in to help lawyers polish their trial skills in the areas of auto negligence, medical malpractice, and employment law.

"Trial preparation is becoming

a lost art," Warsh said. "We wanted to put together a program to help lawyers become better lawyers."

The 35 lawyers who attended didn't just listen to lectures. They were required to prepare opening and closing statements, which were then critiqued by the instructors.

Warsh also stepped up enforcement of MAJ bylaws requiring executive board members to attend at least two board meetings a year and recruit new members.

MAJ officials said Warsh recruited more than a dozen new members himself and kept total membership from slipping, which often happens in a down economy.

On the political front, MAJ has met with the Democratic candidates for governor this year, but the Republican candidates have so far declined to address the organization, he said.

That's not surprising. The trial lawyers and the Republican Party have long been at odds. But Warsh said there needs to be a dialogue between the two sides.

Neil Miller, a Troy attorney who has known Warsh for 15 years, described him as "a bright, caring, exceedingly hard-working attorney" who is on call for MAJ duties practically around the clock.

Warsh became involved with MAJ about 20 years ago as then-Gov. John Engler and the Republican-controlled Legislature undertook a series of broad tort reforms that drew the ire of plaintiffs' lawyers.

"We were kind of young and brash at the time," he said. "We were trying to curb some of the reforms that were taking place. Those were some interesting days."

About the same time, Warsh was working to raise the profile of workers' compensation attorneys, who he thought weren't getting enough recognition from the MAJ, then known as the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association.

"Workers' compensation one of the most misunderstood areas of the law. We used to get kind of a short shrift when it came to respect," Warsh said.

He and a number of other lawyers started their own organization, called the Committee for the Protection of Workers' Compensation, which was later merged into MAJ.

Warsh said it's rare for a workers' compensation lawyer to lead MAJ because it's a niche area of the law that has its own court system inside of state government.

But he thinks that's been an advantage because it has provided him with a level of independence in assessing issues related to MAJ.

"It gives me a different viewpoint," he said.

After his term as president ends, Warsh said he plans to continue advocating for the rights of plaintiffs through MAJ and his own legal practice.

"Plaintiffs are made to feel by insurance companies as if they are at fault," he said. "The feeling is that it is somehow wrong to access the civil justice system. One of my jobs is to assure them that they haven't done anything wrong."

Miller said it's that kind of passion that has made Warsh an outstanding MAJ president.

"He's a real hard worker who is committed to his clients," Miller said. "And he's committed to making the state of Michigan a better place. That may sound kind of corny, but it's true."

Warsh, a native of Oak Park, graduated from Oak Park High School in 1970 and earned a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Michigan in 1974.

He received his law degree from the Detroit College of Law in 1977.

Published: Thu, Jul 8, 2010

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