Fossel is more than prepared to lead the Grand Rapids Bar Association



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Elizabeth “Joy” Fossel, Counsel at Varnum, has taken a significant hand in leadership activities for the Grand Rapids Bar Association over a number of years, which will stand her in good stead as the new GRBA President.

Fossel, whose calm demeanor and understated sense of humor make her a natural for working with people, has a strong sense of how to accomplish some of the GRBA’s goals.

First among those goals is increasing the membership, or perhaps better stated, making sure the membership is continually revitalized with attorneys who are new to practice taking the place of those who retire or move on.

“The challenge for bar associations like ours is staying relevant to the membership, especially with younger people coming in,” Fossel says. “They have a whole different way of doing business than my generation. Keep it relevant to them is a real key.”

It is clear Fossel and other long-term GRBA leaders, along with the staff, have given a lot of thought to determining what that takes.

“We actually went to a conference on developing membership,” she says. “We learned a lot. Here’s a very simple example: we send out notices of our events through our e-blast. Well, studies show that if you’re reaching out to the millennials, they like to see who else is going. So just changing the registration to Eventbrite, where you can see a list of who’s signed up, may cause younger lawyers to go to more bar events.”

There are also plans to invite each new lawyer who goes through the admissions ceremony, provided they are going to practice in Grand Rapids,  to establish a link with one specific senior person and one person close to their own year of graduation — “someone who will know what they’re going through, “ Fossel says.

This develops not only a mentoring system, but also allows the new attorneys to network and experience the collegiality of the local legal community — and helps ensure that that collegiality is not a thing of the past.

The GRBA has a First Year Committee, which has been responsible for the recent 3-in-10 Award to recognize the leadership of new attorneys, as well as a very active Young Lawyers Section, which, Fossel says, “really does a good job.”

For those who participate in the YLS, there have been new opportunities started recently. “Judge Yates and I and a couple of other senior leaders thought of a progressive dinner, which the Young Lawyers Section has instituted. The newer lawyers come to various houses of other new lawyers, meet each other and network. Even if you do a lot of your work at home on a computer, the personal interaction is critical,” Fossel comments. “If we want them to be a part of the bar, one of the ways we can do that is by linking them to each other.

“We know we’re going to lose a lot of millennials initially. The big cities are great places to be single. But so many are returning, because they realized they don’t want to live at their offices. Coming back here gives you a totally different work-life balance ”

Noting that GRBA membership is closely connected to the area’s ability to attract and retain young talent, Fossel says she is impressed with how much progress Grand Rapids has made in making people of diverse backgrounds feel welcome.

“I think we now have intentionality at a much more fundamental level. We have out first-ever female mayor ]Rosalynn Bliss], which I look at as a sea change, and she’s doing a great job at it,” Fossel says. “We have leaders from all ethnicities at very high levels, and it’s just a very different place than it used to be.”

Such concerns are important to Fossel both personally and professionally, since she has now restricted her practice to occasional litigation, pro bono work, and leading Varnum’s Diversity and Inclusion Team.
“This is sort of the wind down for me. Every time I try to retire it doesn’t work. I’ve tried, but I’m still here,”she says, laughing.

There was a large gap between Fossel’s graduation from Stanford University as an English major, and receiving her J.D. from Western Michigan University-Thomas M. Cooley Law School, magna cum laude.

Once she became a lawyer, she did so in earnest, practicing in litigation in complex business affairs, health care, employment claims, product liability and  even probate. Along the way, she has won a great number of awards, of which the most outstanding are the John W. Cummiskey Award from the State Bar (which recognizes pro bono contributions); the Michael S. Barnes Award from Legal Aid of West Michigan; inclusion as one of Grand Rapids Business Journal’s 50 Most influential Women in West Michigan,; the 2013 GRBA President’s Award; and selection by Corp! Magazine as a Diversity Business Leader. She has been listed in Michigan Super Lawyers since 2013, and Michigan Lawyers Weekly named her one of the Top 20 Women’ Lawyers in the state in 2011.

Fossel has also lent her expertise to an astonishing variety of community organizations, including Meijer Garden and Sculpture Park, the Grand Rapids Drug Task Force, the American Red Cross, the Grand Rapids Ballet, and the AIDS?Resource Center. In conjuction with that, she also served on the statewide Risk Reduction and AIDS?Policy Commission in 1994, appointed by Gov. John Engler.

Her leadership with the GRBA started with her role on the Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative. “I was running diversity here, so I joined that, and I was so intrigued with the people I met that I ran for trustee. Actually, it was the second time; I had run more than ten years ago and lost. This time, I was fortunate enough to win and served three years as a trustee. Then they asked me to run for Vice-President [which starts the succession to President], and I did, because I really wanted to stay engaged with the organization. It does such good work.”

What more does Fossel intend to work on? In addition to the “lawyer prep room” at the courthouse as discussed in the last Grand Rapids Legal News article about outgoing President Judge Chris Yates, Fossel says the GRBA wants to reach out to attorneys in offices outside of the downtown area, possibly moving events around to different parts of the county. “We want to find a way to engage those firms, and to provide value for them,” Fossel says.

Coming out of the Punta Cana Destination CLE, the GRBA has seen a need for some training on courtroom technology, in order to help attorneys get the most out of it. “I think will be very valuable for a lot of people,” Fossel says. “It will make lawyers who are less experienced with technology more comfortable with trusting it will work, and for those who are more technology savvy, the hands-on seminars will help them make it work more efficiently for them. We’ll probably run a series of them.”

She adds about the GRBA, “We’re a governance board. I and all board members are active in various committees, and those are the workhorses that put such things together.

“We leave the day-to-day operations in the very capable hands of Kim Coleman, and we will be expanding the staff.”