Going Solo . . .


Shawn Perry turns extensive court experience into successful practice

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

(Editor’s Note: This continues the series of profiles about solo and small firms in the Grand Rapids area. If you have a suggestion for a firm to cover, please email cprice@legalnews.com.)

An interesting background in the courts has served Shawn Perry, and her clients, well.

The former 61st District Court Administrator went into private practice in Grand Rapids as of March 2011, initially with well-known criminal defense attorney Pedro Ferrer.

“Pedro was fun and he was well-liked,” Perry says. “He was so generous in mentoring me; he kind of got me behind the doors. He knew everybody. Building that camaraderie with other attorneys is critical in a solo practice.

“Law school only teaches you how to pass the bar exam, it doesn’t teach you how to practice law,” she adds.

After Ferrer’s death in early 2014, Perry decided to go it alone. About six months later, she moved into an office suite in the Federal Square Building with several other solo attorneys, including Courtney Quist, Elena Hansen, James Sullivan, and others. She says that has been another invaluable advantage, in terms of sharing costs and occasionally covering for each other’s court appearances, as well as providing support in a wide variety of ways.

“Just in this group, there’s a vast knowledge about how things work and about legal matters. We get along with each other very well, and enjoy each other’s company, but we stay out of each other’s business. It’s like being in a partnership, but at the same time you’re responsible for yourself,”?Perry comments.

And she says she pays it forward by helping to mentor Renee Wagenaar, one of the newer attorneys in the beautiful office space, which is said to have been a gym for   Federal iudges in the distant past.

The Grosse Ile native’s early career path was shaped when she was offered a position immediately after graduating from Michigan State University College of Law, then Detroit College of Law. (Perry’s undergraduate degree was from Eastern Michigan University, where she majored in sociology and criminal justice, and minored in psychology/social work.)

“I was offered a job right out of law school — actually while I was still in law school — in the Isabella County Prosecutor’s Office, which is a great way to start,” she says. “You get to work on a lot of lawsuits and get experience in court right from the beginning. That and the public defenders’ office are good places to start out if you want to do criminal law.”

From there she spent nine years in private practice in Clare, which included work as a Guardian Ad Litem and as a member of the Public Defender Consortium in Clare County. That came to an end when she was offered a position as Deputy Director of Eaton County’s Friend of the Court and as a Family Court Referee, where she heard cases on juvenile delinquency, neglect and abuse, and custody cases.

Perry says that experience made an indelible impression, which greatly affects how she practices family law today.

“Having been a family court referee, I’ve seen what happens when people fight over everything. That just continues over the years after their divorces. That’s not in the best interest of anyone, but especially not the kids,” says Perry, who used to teach a course for divorcing parents called Focus on the Children.

“As a result, I think I’m a little bit unique in the way I practice family law. I go in with the mindset that I’m not just an attorney but also a counselor for my clients. I sometimes tell them, if you listen to me we can make things better for you as a parent, but also make things much better for your children.

“If they’re having difficulty with their living situations, I help them get stable housing; if they’re a victim of domestic violence, I get them into counseling. I help them fix the real problems, and I think the judges in Kent County appreciate that I’ve done that in advance of getting to court,” she adds.

Another result of her observations as referee has been a commitment to mediation. “Divorce is so emotional for people — you’re often dealing with the end of your life as you knew it. Think about it,” she says in her rapid-fire way. “It involves your children and your money,  so what could be more emotional? So if they all have an even stake in trying to figure it out, in learning how to resolve the issues, which mediation provides, it’s a great way to settle cases and help everyone do well.”

After her Eaton County position, Perry became the Assistant Friend of the Court for Ingham County. ?Capitalizing on her budgeting, operations, policy and government liaison work there, she followed that up with three years as the 61st District Court Administrator.

Perry loved working there, and is proud of some of the programs she started. She especially enjoyed working with the sobriety court. “Judge Laville — I could never say enough about her and how good she is in that role, or for that matter Judge Bowler. He was so passionate about it, and it’s so successful,” she says. “The recidivism rates are so much lower.”

But after so many years on the administrative side, Perry decided she really wanted to use her law degree.

She advises attorneys thinking about private practice to try and get a really good legal assistant, which helps with everything from technology to client service.
Perry has multiple solutions to one of the other hurdles encountered by solo practitioners: how to find clients. Though working with Pedro Ferrer was critical to a good start in Kent County, she also has a couple of bar-owner friends who are satisfied former clients and “funnel” clients to her. Other happy former clients help give Perry the word-of-mouth advantage, one at a time.

Community involvement, including with the State and Grand Rapids Bar organizations, has also provided Perry with work. She is  on the Restorative Justice Committee and active in the Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan.

So far, her cases are split approximately evenly into family law and criminal law, and those keep her very busy. She is very happy with the way it is going.

“This is so much fun,” she observes, then adds with a grin, “It’s probably obvious how much I like what I do.”