Award-winning attorney seeks a seat in the Michigan Senate



Sarah Riley Howard, who seeks the office of State Senator,

By Cynthia Price

Legal News

When Sarah Riley Howard left her position as a partner at Warner Norcross and Judd to run for the Michigan Senate, it was certainly not because her career had failed to thrive.

Awards and accolades seemed to come easily for Howard as she made her mark on the legal profession. From undergraduate college at Western Michigan University — where, significantly, she majored in Political Science — to her position as chair of the White Collar Criminal Defense and Compliance Practice at Warner, she received significant honors and recognition.

At the University of Michigan Law School, from which she graduated cum laude, Howard won the 2001 Carl Gussin Memorial Prize for student trial advocacy work.

She spent a year at the University of Oxford before graduating summa cum laude from Western Michigan in 1998, where she was also a Medallion Scholar and member of Phi Beta Kappa academic honors society.

While at Warner Norcross, Howard was named a Michigan Super Lawyers Rising Star each year from 2010 to 2013, an Up and Coming Lawyer by Michigan Lawyers Weekly, and included in Best Lawyers 2013-2014. She was invited to participate in leadership academies, including one for women leaders from Inforum.

Howard also was asked to write book chapters on subjects related to her litigation practice, such as one for Understanding DOJ Discovery Practices, as well as on her main area of expertise, white collar crime and compliance.

Acknowledging that the field is often hard for people to understand, Howard says, “At any given time, there’s a hot area of enforcement. So, for example, I spent a lot of time at the end of my career auditing company’s I-9s to make sure they were compliant with Homeland Security.

“Part of what the government wants to do when they announce an enforcement priority is get compliance from companies even when there’s not a threat of the government coming in directly. So in that sense they leverage private sector compliance efforts.”

But what about criminal actions? “Well, take the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act,” Howard says, referring to the 1977 statute that the Department of Justice website says “was enacted for the purpose of making it unlawful for certain classes of persons and entities to make payments to foreign government officials to assist in obtaining or retaining business.” Howard continues, “A certain number of people who violate that act are going to face criminal charges.”

It is clear why her in-depth knowledge of such subjects made her a highly successful attorney.

At the same time, she had always been attracted to politics. “I always dreamed of running for office. I always thought about it. And I felt there was a lot of opportunity here. The longer I live in this community the more I’ve grown to love it.”

Howard had already decided the time was ripe to make a change. “I have two young girls, one five and one fifteen months. It was a long commute and there were long hours,” she explains. “I figure I spent about one third of my career at Warner,” she adds with a smile, “and it was just time to do something else.”

Not that Howard has anything bad to say about Warner Norcross and Judd. “I had a wonderful experience and a great career there. I loved my clients and I loved the people at Warner. It was really sad and very hard to leave,” she says.

Howard is running as a Democrat against incumbent Republican Arlan Meekhof, but she does not focus on her opponent. She does say, “I’ve been really taken aback by the positive response I’ve had to the campaign from people who identify themselves as Republican, people who are centrists. They feel as if their party has left them out. And these people mention a lack of responsiveness on the part of candidates
when the candidates know nobody is going to run against them.”

She is savvy about the disadvantages of being a Democrat in a traditionally Republican county —an obstacle she thinks may be a misperception, or at least exaggerated.

Though the county itself has voted  Republican, often by sizable margins, ever since 1864, Howard points out that Grand Haven proper and many precincts in Holland went for Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Still, the 30th District covers all of Ottawa County. That means that the combined populations of those two cities, at about 44,000, only make up about 18% of the county’s 269,000 residents.

Howard feels that the challenging odds give her a kind of freedom.?“When you run in a county like Ottawa and you know there’s a possibility you’ll lose, then perhaps you go into it with a different attitude. I won’t just do anything or say anything I have to to win. I intend to win, and I’m working to win, but I am who I am and I believe what I believe, and I’m not going to compromise that,” she vows.

“I listen to everyone and treat everyone respectfully,” she continues, “but I’m willing to tell people to their faces, ‘I see where they’re coming from, but this is what I’m going to do if I’m elected.’”

Indeed, another aspect of the campaign that reflects that “different attitude” is her publication of detailed issues papers. They can be found at

Rather than vague and difficult-to-dispute positions like, “I support education,” Howard goes into the specifics of what she will vote for in order to improve education.

For example, while she says, “I’m not opposed to for-profit companies in charter schools; they may be serving a particular niche, so I still want to see them exist,” her position paper states, “We need proper oversight to ensure we’re not wasting taxpayer dollars.” The section comes complete with linked citations to statistics demonstrating her points.

It is not surprising that Howard feels strongly about public education since her husband Kevin is a teacher at Grand Haven High School. She knows from firsthand experience how hard teachers work. “When we were dating, I?noticed that how he felt when he went home every day was similar to how I felt after the days when I had to be in court. Both require a higher degree of attention and are just more exhausting,” she says.

The other three areas on which she takes a position are Economic Growth, Equality and Environment.

Howard continues to be a trustee of the Grand Rapids Bar Association, but she was slated to be the President of the Federal Bar Association this coming year and is hoping to trade that off until the following year.

She has no firm plans for what she will do if she loses. “I might go back to a smaller private practice on the Lakeshore,” she says, and she has toyed with the idea of doing legal advising for election campaigns and referendum initiatives.

For now, she is directing most of her thoughts and all her efforts toward winning in November.