State Bar government relations program thriving

By Cynthia Price

Legal News

There are restrictive court-mandated constraints on the types of policy issues a state bar may pursue, but that hardly means that State Bar of Michigan (SBM) Director of Governmental Relations Elizabeth Lyon is lacking for things to do.

Between attending Michigan legislative sessions, researching both introduced legislation and potential policy, tracking administration policy, keeping on top of federal legislation, serving as liaison to SBM policy-making boards and sections, following up on relationships with policy-makers, analyzing policy proposals, and creating and maintaining content for the website's Public Policy Resource Center, Lyon's day is jam-packed, which, for her, "makes it exciting."

The final resolution of Keller v. State Bar of California saw the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1990 that state bars with mandatory membership could use their dues only in specific cases--for advocacy on issues that directly regulate the legal profession or pertain to improving legal services.

Michigan further refined the limitations in Administrative Order 2004-1. According to that order, the State Bar of Michigan may work on policy only as it affects:

"(A) the regulation and discipline of attorneys;

"(B) the improvement of the functioning of the courts;

"(C) the availability of legal services to society;

"(D) the regulation of attorney trust accounts; and

"(E) the regulation of the legal profession, including the education, the ethics, the competency, and the integrity of the profession."

Lyon says that still leaves a large body of policy issues to consider, particularly with the inclusion of the access to justice issues in category C.

SBM President-Elect Julie I. Fershtman agrees. "You might think the administrative order limits the scope of her work, but what I see is that there are so many pieces, she really does have her hands full. It is not a small task for her to be our guide on this, and we rely on her."

Lyon, however, does not do all the policy work alone. SBM Executive Director Janet Welch is the liaison to the judicial branch, which is also a considerable task since numerous Supreme Court orders pertain directly to the State Bar.

SBM also contracts with a lobbyist, Nell Kuhnmuench of GCSI or Government Consulting Services Inc. Kuhnmuench has a law degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School and has been voted Michigan's top lobbyist in the past decade. GCSI has also been either first or second in the state for lobbying firms. Lyon praises her for her "tremendous work."

But Lyon adds, "Part of why I love the more in-house role particularly, unlike working for a lobbying firm, is that it often allows you to see issues through from the very beginning to the very end."

Lyon may work with an individual, or a section, or one of the members of the Board of Commissioners to draw out issues that seem particularly important. Or she may draw the attention of the board or the Representative Assembly or the Public Policy Image and Identity Committee, which Fershtman currently chairs, to pending legislation which falls under the designated categories.

She then follows through in a variety of ways, but generally, it will be up to the SBM Board of Commissioners or Representative Assembly to develop recommendations or comments. Then the board must adopt them as official SBM policy.

State Bar sections, in which membership is voluntary, are allowed to engage in advocacy work on specific "ideological" issues, though with several constraints detailed in AO 2004-1. Though Lyon may not give the full range of her services to those sections, she is able to help them with "technical" information, such as when a pertinent committee hearing is scheduled. She says most of the legislatively active committees retain the services of a lobbyist as well.

The State Bar of Michigan also does advocacy work at the Federal level. As of now, that lobbying is focused primarily on asking for continued funding for legal aid services. Lyon accompanies a group of SBM leaders to Washington D.C. every year.

By all accounts, Lyon is doing a great job. Fershtman says, "We rely heavily on her, and we're lucky to have her. Earning the respect of the Board of Commissioners, who are experienced lawyers and judges, is no small feat, and it's commendable that she does it year after year. She's able to organize, analyze, and be articulate on a wide variety of legislation, and she has a tremendous depth of memory and grasp of details."

SBM President Anthony Jenkins echoes that sentiment. "Elizabeth just does an outstanding job of not only monitoring legislation and coordinating the efforts of the State Bar with our lobbyist but in keeping the leadership of the Bar Association informed about developments so we're always at the ready and acquainted with the details for decision-making. She has a tremendous passion for the work that she does."

One issue that Lyon is passionate about, with the blessing of the State Bar leadership, is reform of the public defense system. "We have a great partnership with agencies who have been doing a federal review of that issue, such as the national ACLU and the national Criminal Defense Lawyers, and we have great relationships with the folks who represent Michigan at the federal level, so we do include that as part of our program."

Though Michigan has particular challenges as "one of a handful of states where public defense is completely delegated to the counties," according to Lyon, the issues are broadly based. "How it's going to be funded is an important part of responsible government, but increased funding will not necessarily result in a better system," she states. "We need to review how the current money is being spent, utilize resources better, make sure the system benefits the victims and the right people are being prosecuted. There are important policy decisions on how that system runs and how that system is accountable.

"The State Bar really looks for fair and consistent access to justice."

Fershtman says that when a delegation from SBM met with Gov. Rick Snyder and asked him about indigent criminal defense, "he indicated that it's not a dead issue, it may be something that's up for discussion. It may get less attention in a tough economy, but we have a fractured system and it comes down to protection of the public. That's one issue that's extremely important to us, and to Elizabeth."

Lyon has been with the State Bar for nearly eight years, after graduating from the policy-oriented James Madison College at Michigan State University.

She grew up in Troy, attending Marion High School, an all-girl Catholic school, sister organization to Brother Rice High School, which excels in state sports. Her family was political but "not in an official way, nobody ever ran for office." Her bipartisan family members debated both national and state politics in a reasonable way. "I hope that I bring my family dinner civility to my job," Lyon says, laughing.

"I use to put quotes up in my bedroom when I was younger, both quotes that I agreed with and those I completely disagreed with. I really wanted to think about them.

"It's really important to continue to have an open mind and challenge ourselves," she says. "I'm always encouraging lawyers I meet to get involved with what we're doing."

Jenkins supports that. "The program is a very important one to all Michigan lawyers, because it provides a venue by which we can canvass what's going on in the legislature. And Elizabeth is just super at it. She's first-rate."

Lyon's response to her job is just as glowing. "I love my job because of the thoughtfulness that lawyers give to the issues," she says. "Since they're uniquely qualified to work within the adversarial positions in advocacy work, able to resolve those differences, we've been able to craft great public policy.

"I feel very privileged and honored to be a part of that," she concludes.

Published: Mon, Aug 22, 2011