by Cynthia Price
“It’s such a great organization, playing such a vital role in the community,” says Varnum attorney Elizabeth Skaggs about the Legal Assistance Center (LAC).
Skaggs is a new member of the LAC board, joining at the request of another current board member, Judge Michael Distel.
“They’re filling that niche for people who can’t afford their own legal representation but still need help in navigating the court system. It’s a great way for people to deal with whatever legal issues they have without incurring legal expenses that can be overwhelming. Also, many of these are the sort of questions that the clerk’s office used to get, so that frees up the clerk’s time while people still get the help they need,” Skaggs continues.
The LAC started under the auspices of the Grand Rapids Bar Association, and the Justice Foundation of West Michigan first funded it in 1999, even though the doors did not open until 2002. Many leading lights in the Grand Rapids legal community contributed to and advocated for its development, including Jon Muth and John W. Cummiskey. At its May 2002 opening, the LAC?was dedicated to Cummiskey.
It was the first legal help center in Michigan, and one of the first in the country.
In 2005, the LAC?became an independent 501(c)(3) organization. Deborah Hughes is the Executive Director; since the LAC does not give legal advice nor offer legal representation, students from such places as WMU-Cooley Law School and Grand Valley State University are trained as volunteers to help there — and in the process augment their studies or even develop a passion that leads them into careers representing the indigent.
The LAC?“helps people help themselves” through providing forms and advising on what information the forms seek, and giving guidance about what to expect from the court system, sometimes referring them to an attorney if such is determined to be advisable. The website, https://legalassistancecenter.
org, says, “We believe that limited financial circumstances and the complexity of the legal system should not stand in the way of people sharing their story and seeking a fair outcome.”
Family law, including termination of parental rights; housing issues such as eviction; money disputes like debt collection and small claims; and estate/guardianship issues are the staples of LAC assistance. They do not advise on criminal matters.
The numbers of people helped by the LAC keep increasing. In 2010, about 15,000 people were helped; that number has grown to a more consistent 18,000 now, or 90 people a day.
Skaggs joins a host of well-known attorneys on the LAC?board. Tom Behm of Gruel Mills Nims and Pylman is the current president, and Tom Sinas, of the Sinas Dramis Law Firm, is president-elect. Grand Valley State Uni-
versity officials, court personnel, and others from the legal community round out the roster.
In the past, Skaggs has offered leadership to several other important organizations. Chief among them is Artists Creating Together. “I’m the immediate past chair for ACT, Artists Creating Together; it’s been a long-time passion of mine, for a decade, maybe more. It’s been around since the 1990s, and does art programming with children and people with disabilities. They cover dance, drama, painting, sculpture, music... and even have a drum group that’s really popular with many of our adults students. It’s a great organization,” Skaggs says.
She was instrumental in hosting a reception during ArtPrize last year at Varnum, to focus on ACT, which was covered in the Oct. 7 Grand Rapids Legal News. “We couldn't be more pleased that our sponsorship of ArtPrize this year is in support of accessibility and inclusion,” Skaggs said at the time.
She also just finished up a year on the American Heart Association Go Red for Women Executive Leadership Committee, concerning heart disease risk for females, and started serving on the Judicial Review committee of the Grand Rapids Bar in time for the November 2016 judicial election. She notes that she lives across the street from current GRBA president, Judge Christopher Yates, who encouraged her to serve.
All of this is in addition to her busy practice in labor and employment, defending employers and advising them on compliance. Though she has been successful in litigation — enough to earn the Best Lawyers in America Lawyer of the Year designation for Litigation in Labor and Employment for 2014, among many other honors — she focuses on helping clients avoid such litigation by instituting polices that will keep them out of court. “A lot of what I do is counsel clients on compliance with the laws, making sure they have appropriate policies and procedures,” she says.
Often, she points out, this means settling, which her clients would sometimes prefer not to do. “For many businesses, that’s the toughest hurdle to get over,” she explains. “They’re adamant that they didn’t do anything wrong, so they want the opportunity to prove it. But everything involved with court is expensive, so it’s just an economic decision to resolve the matter.”
But when needed, Skaggs does go before a judge or agency, often representing clients before the National Labor Relations Board, the Department of Civil Rights, and others. “A big part of my practice is to advise clients on dealing with the governmental agencies if someone does complain. There’s a routine to those cases and over time I’ve started to know many of the investigators and get some idea how it will go. But,” she says, smiling, “the issues are often the same yet always different. I work with clients before it gets to that point, assuring they’re in full compliance or, with some, helping them go even above and beyond what the law requires.”
It was not always a sure thing that the Kalamazoo native (who grew up in Midland County) would practice here in West Michigan. After attending the University of Michigan for both her undergraduate and law degrees, and clerking for Judge David McKeague when he was at the District Court, Skaggs headed to Washington, D.C.
She worked for the large firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld, and comments, “I really wanted to be in DC and really loved it. But in 2000 my husband [Phil] got a job opportunity in Michigan and we thought, maybe we should be closer to our family since we’re starting our own.”
The couple has two daughters, one aged 16 and one who just turned 14.
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