New leader takes helm of longtime plaintiffs' bar group

By Lee Dryden
The Daily Record Newswire

DETROIT - Stephen V. Pontoni realizes he has big shoes to fill.

The new executive director of the Michigan Association for Justice has taken over for Jane R. Bailey, who recently retired after leading the organization since 1990.

"Taking over for Jane is an immense challenge," Pontoni said. "She is a legend in the trial attorney world and political world here in Lansing."

Pontoni joined the group in 2013, serving as director of communications. He revitalized the association's social media accounts, website and Journal while establishing new member email communications. Nathan S. Pilon is the new communications director.

In his new role, Pontoni will manage overall operations including budget, staffing and membership, along with coordinating and implementing legislative and public policy strategic initiatives.

Pontoni strives to build on Bailey's efforts to serve the membership of more than 1,600 plaintiffs' lawyers and staff in the Lansing-based organization formerly known as the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association.

The role of MAJ

The Michigan Association for Justice's roots extend back to 1945 and a small group of Detroit attorneys focused mainly on workers' compensation, assisting people who returned from World War II. The group's first president Sam Charfoos decided that he could "wait no longer for a plaintiff's lawyer organization to just happen."

The Michigan lawyers' group was the first in what became a nationwide effort.

The organization's mission statement calls for promoting "a fair and effective justice system. We aim to support the work of attorneys in their efforts to ensure that any person who is injured by the misconduct or negligence of others can obtain justice in Michigan's courtrooms, even when taking on the most powerful interests."

Members can participate in 10 to 12 continuing legal education sessions throughout the year. A No-Fault Institute is offered along with a variety of topics such as medical malpractice, workers' compensation and technology in the courtroom.

Keeping members informed of changes in the law is another priority, along with lobbying and educating lawmakers in an effort to preserve the Seventh Amendment, Pontoni said.

Since 1978, the association's People's Law School has helped thousands learn about their legal rights and responsibilities at sessions throughout the state.

Living up to a legacy

Pontoni said he is still getting started in his new role and working to identify public campaigns.

He wants to continue to serve the plaintiffs' bar - and "especially their clients."

"At the end of the day, we're trying to ensure injured plaintiffs have their day in court," he said.

Pontoni said he has experience fighting for working families. He previously served as campaign director for America Votes, which works to "advance progressive policies, win elections, and protect every American's right to vote," according to its website.

The new executive director has enjoyed his three years immersed in the legal world.

"It was a great opportunity to expand my skills and learn some new ones," he said. "Over the three years, I've fallen in love with our members and what our organization stands for. What they do is core to the very foundation of our country."

Pontoni also spoke of the uniqueness of the plaintiffs' bar as lawyers take on some cases knowing they won't get paid unless they win.

"They take a major risk that other lawyers don't have to take and I admire that," he said. "These are some of the smartest men and women in the legal profession that I've come in contact with.

"They care deeply about their clients."

The Michigan Association for Justice has been fortunate to have Bailey's leadership, said Pontoni, who wants to "keep her legacy and keep what she's been doing as we go forward."

Bailey improved a financially struggling organization, expanded its reach and membership, and built its reputation in Lansing while working with members of both parties, Pontoni said.

"She has been a great mentor and friend to me and I admire her dearly," he said.

Bailey, who started with the organization in 1987 as its political action committee coordinator, was named a Champion of Justice by the association in 2011. The award is given to an individual "in appreciation of their commitment to the civil justice system and to preserving the rights of citizens."

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, honored Bailey in an April speech entered into the congressional record.

"Jane's work has helped to ensure that all people - individuals, families, patients and consumers - can seek justice in our third branch of government, the courts," Dingell said. "She has been a voice for those that are injured and have nowhere else to turn. She has helped to ensure that we fight for and preserve a balanced civil justice system and to advocate for tough laws to hold industries and corporations accountable when they withhold information that can harm or kill. Our environment is cleaner, our medicine is better and our cars are safer because of her leadership of fighting for every person in America to have a path to justice. Jane has also been a voice for consistent public education and research to promote informed public dialogue on, and understanding of and appreciation for, the civil justice system."

Published: Tue, Jun 14, 2016

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