Corporate counsel Mike Callahan given Barnes Award from Legal Aid for pro bono dedication



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Attorney Michael S. Callahan takes a matter-of-fact approach to the numerous pro bono cases he has taken from Legal Aid of Western Michigan.

“With most of these pro bono cases you’re not dealing with cutting edge legal theory, but for me, part of the attraction is it teaches you how to manage clients and their expectations,” he says. “They have to understand what their risk are going forward, and in most cases, nobody laid it our for them, so I put it in language that makes it clear as day.”

That involves letting his clients know from the first what might be the worst case scenario, as well as the best. “As I often say, where’s the quicksand and where’s the firm ground? I’m personally a bit more risk-averse, but in most cases I’m willing to do what they want as long as they know the risks. Most pro bono clients get it, and most want to do the right thing, but in some cases the fact that they’re under economic duress — or they wouldn’t be qualified to use a pro bono attorney — means they may not have acted on what they understand.”

Callahan, who has been in the corporate counsel world since 1986, has now served on over 50 pro bono cases, and was honored this year with Legal Aid’s Michael S. Barnes Award.
Before working in-house for Amway Corporation and, since 1997, for Stiles Machinery, Inc., Callahan was a corporate/business attorney, with a focus on real estate and computer law, at Miller Johnson Snell and Cummiskey. There he benefited from the mentoring of a pro bono master: John Cummiskey.

“He sponsored me into the bar,” Callahan says. “He was a real good guy, and yes, pro bono was a big part of his call to arms,”

In 2006, Callahan was privileged to win the John W. Cummiskey Pro Bono Award from the State Bar of Michigan.

“I’m quite sure Paul Abrahamsen was instrumental in that,” Callahan says, referring to the Director of Legal Aid of Western Michigan’s Pro Bono Program. “He always kind of downplays his role, but I think he’s the one who sang my praises.

“He’s been the one constant at Legal Aid since I got involved back in 1982 or 1983. To his credit, he’s never misled me about what he’s asking me to do, what the scope of the case is. He’s always helped me out with resources, too — not too long ago I needed some jury instructions in an eviction case and he quickly reached out and put together a PDF, which really lowered my anxiety level,” Callahan says with a smile.

Abrahamsen returns the praise. “I’ve worked with Mike (first at Miller Johnson, then at Amway, now at Stiles) for nearly 30 years. He is not only a great attorney, but is truly a wonderful individual. He is a credit to the legal profession,” Abrahamsen says.  “Whenever I send Mike a case, I know he will do everything he can to help that client.”

He adds, “I would hope that other in-house counsel would be encouraged to consider taking some cases for us as well.”

The award plays a dual role in that it is also a tribute to the former Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge attorney for whom it is named. Each of the past several years, Legal Aid of Western Michigan has prepared a video honoring Michael S. Barnes through the eyes of attorneys who worked with him and enjoyed his company.

Referring to Barnes, who died “much too early,” as a child of the sixties and seventies, the video quoted him as saying, “It is the unfairness of life that compels us to help others,”
His sons Max and Tony have followed their father into the legal profession, and most years attend the early-evening event where the award is given.

Smith Haughey is good enough to sponsor the informal get-together at the BOB which draws many previous award-winners, several of whom have gone on to the win the state Cummiskey award. Attorney Paul Jensen, a past honoree who served as emcee for the award presentation, said, “An annual tradition I love is thanking Smith Haughey for the beverage bar.”

The ceremony included a video about Michael Callahan as well — which made clear the role of his employer Stiles Machinery in his capacity to take pro bono cases. In it, former co-owner Dave Rothwell says how proud the company is of Callahan’s service.

“I’ve been here 18 years,” Callahan says, “and it’s been fun. It’s a smaller company than Amway — that’s part of the attraction. When I started they told me, ‘The good news is you’re going to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the owners, the bad news is you’re going to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the owners.’ It gives you a lot more flexibility, but it means I have to work until my job is done here, whatever that takes.

“For the most part my pro bono work never interferes with my day-to-day work; usually I can get it done on my own time. The exception is court, but they allow me to set my own schedule here so it’s never been a problem.”

That is true even though the company is now owned by HOMAG, based in Germany. “I still have quite a bit of autonomy,” Callahan says. “My immediate supervisor here is from Germany, and he knows I do this. He told me to just keep doing my job, but be sure if he or someone else has legal questions, I’m ready to answer them.”

At Stiles, Callahan handles all of the various legal issues the company encounters, although he does occasionally use outside counsel; that is still true under the German owners, about whom he says, “At least in my experience most Europeans have a fairly healthy fear of the American legal system.”

That broad range contrasts with his work at Amway, where his job duties consisted of advising business people on the legal exposures of potential deals and joint ventures in North and South America. “That was a lot of fun too. We were in expansion mode,” he says. “I made sure they knew what to consider from the legal side, and documented everything properly.”

The Hammond, Indiana native moved to Michigan based on the job offer from Miller Johnson after attending Indiana University for both his Bachelors in Science with a major in accounting, and his J.D.

Callahan and his wife raised two daughters in West Michigan, one of whom is now in college, one in law school. He comments, “We both like it here. Neither one of us has any intention of moving.” He is not anxious to retire, but when he does, he says, the couple is considering living on the West Michigan shoreline.

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