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Messages From The Chair: Heidi Sharp’s 2023 Notes From The State Bar of Michigan Labor and Employment Section Newsletters

By January 2, 2024Firm News

Named the 2023 Chair of the State Bar of Michigan Labor and Employment Law Section, managing partner Heidi T. Sharp offered her thoughts and updates for each issue of the e-newsletter. Below is a compilation of the messages sent to her colleagues.

Issue #24 | February 2023

This past January’s Mid-Winter meeting is a testament to what this section stands for: collegiality, camaraderie, civility, and the constant need to learn and grow together. More than 150 came together on January 20 for employment and labor updates from trusted practitioners in our field, to bestow the Distinguished Service Award to two deserving colleagues and after a long hiatus to simply enjoy each other’s company.

For me, it is noteworthy that I became Chair at this meeting. I remember as a young attorney how I looked forward to this get-together each year. It gave me an opportunity to rub shoulders with the leaders in our field and get to know those who I would be across the aisle with on a personal level. From this meeting and the other events the section held, I gained friendships and unique networking opportunities which are an important part of my practice to this day. Ultimately those connections led me to service on the council and now to leadership within the Section. When we look to the next generation of lawyers, we often wonder how we can instill in them the value of these connections. Through the events the section hosts this year and our mentor-mentee program I hope to demonstrate to the younger lawyers of our section that we have so much to offer not only to them but each other.

I want to personally welcome our new council members and thank them for joining me on this adventure – Cat Brainerd, Ellen Hoeppner, Luis Avila, Julie Gafkay, Ryan Rosenberg and Christina McDonald. Together, with our returning council members I am looking forward to an exciting year ahead. In the next month, expect to see announcements about our upcoming programming.

Finally, our mentor-mentee program is already underway this year. This has become an integral part of our programming and allows us to provide service to the newer members of our section. If you are interested in being a Mentor or Mentee I encourage you to contact Benjamin King, Ellen Hoeppner or Julie Gafkay who will be accepting names for the program. They will be glad to provide you more information or get you signed up.

I look forward to seeing you at our upcoming programs.

Issue #25 | April 2023

A few weeks ago, I was on a conference call with the Eastern District of Michigan for a 26(f) conference. The opposing counsel and I know each other from past matters and we each have kids around the same age. While waiting for the Judge to come on the line, we started talking about our recent trips to Disney, our kids and giving recommendations for rides. Suddenly we heard a familiar voice and realized that the Judge had joined us. We both begged apologies for not knowing she was on the line and ignoring her. She immediately stopped us and said no, that she hadn’t spoken up sooner because she was rather enjoying this. She mentioned that she doesn’t usually get to hear counsel get along so well when they are across the aisle from each other. Chatter like this while waiting for the court was apparently rare.

It is moments like this that are a tribute to our section. While we can be zealous advocates for our clients, we certainly don’t need to degrade, disrespect, and otherwise pretend to have nothing in common with our colleagues. Our section is comprised of some of the finest practitioners who are also amiable acquaintances and often friends. We are parents, grandparents, partners, brothers, sisters, and persons who have lives outside this practice. When we ask for an extension it’s because we need it, and if we need to move a date, it’s not game play. We take each other at our word and our word should always mean something.

When I wrote this story, I realized that it was the same theme as my previous note from the chair in our prior E-Newsletter. I thought about writing something different and then realized that no, these relationships are truly the foundation of our section and must continue to be highlighted. To highlight these stories, I would love to hear from more of you about your affable relationships in our practice so that they can celebrated and appreciated.

Finally, new stories are being written as I prepare this note through the Mentor-Mentee program. I am excited to announce that we have 21 pairs of Mentor-Mentees who will be participating in the program. This is a new record and shows the importance of developing these associations within our Section. Last year in the Section our goal was to re-ignite camaraderie after so much time apart. I think it’s clear it didn’t need to be reignited but we just needed to have a ‘plan it and they will come’ attitude as our events have been so well attended. Knowing that, we are adding to our schedule and will be sure to meet our goal of having at least one event each month this year which provides either networking opportunities or education – a balanced schedule for sure.

Issue #26 | July 2023

In June, I attended the Great Lakes Legal Conference at the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island. I was graciously able to attend this conference on behalf of the Section along with Tad Roumayah, the Section’s Vice Chair. This was a great opportunity to interact with our State Bar leaders and learn about other Sections and their activities. 

Of particular interest was the Keynote Presentation, “Shaping an Inclusive & Client-Centered Profession” by Joan Howarth of MSU College of Law. Professor Howarth’s presentation centered on how we are not preparing law students to be competent lawyers. We are the only licensed profession that doesn’t require an internship or other training period under experienced practitioners before unleashing us into the world as fully licensed practitioners. Her research demonstrates that the bar exam does not prepare us to practice law and her premise is that it should not be used as is to license attorneys. There is an entire industry built on preparing law students to pass the bar exam, after passing law school. Meaning, law school doesn’t prepare you to take and pass the bar much less practice in a courtroom. One of the most telling statistics she provided was a group of 200 practitioners, who passed the bar exam on their first try originally, with at least 10 years experience, was asked to take the same bar exam they previously passed with no studying – and less than 50% got even a passing score!

She pointed out accurately that we all remember that moment we learned we passed the bar exam. And, I am sure like most of you, as soon as I learned I passed the bar exam, I got rid of all of the materials I used to study for it. Because, when would I ever need to know about Secured Transactions again? And it’s true. Of the 24 subjects tested on the Michigan Bar Exam, most of them will never be a part of our practice and we won’t use that information again. We are all Labor & Employment practitioners and, for most of us, never learned about it in law school, and of course, it was not tested on the bar exam. Meaning, everything we have learned about L&E came after the bar exam through our mentors and experiences.

The question is how to fix this. The Bar Exam is going to undergo numerous changes in the next three years including eliminating a number of topics (no more Secured Transactions!) and will now include testing on practical areas such as client communications. But more importantly, a system of testing competency by experienced practitioners is being developed. When I heard about the goals of this new approach to prepare law students, I was extremely proud of our Section because we already understood this need and have been providing guidance to newer lawyers through our Mentor-Mentee program. The best way to learn and grow is by providing guidance to each other. The experiences we have had are priceless and passing them on to newer lawyers helps all of us, collectively.

On a personal level, having a mentor is the number one reason I was able to achieve the successes I have had, and in turn, learn from my mistakes. As many of you know, my mentor, Rex Burgess, passed away in 2018. While it has been 5 years since I have been able to talk to him, I still hear his voice in my head constantly reminding me to ‘check the court rules’ and would give anything to be able to tell him about everything that has happened in the last 5 years. I am eternally grateful for the 14 years I was able to learn and grow from him. I believe that having him as my mentor was the single most important step in my growth early in my career. I hope you have someone in your life who will fight the good fight, finish the race and keep the faith like he did.

Heidi Sharp & Rex Burgess

Issue #27 | September 2023

In hot topics for lawyer seminars there seems to be a new trend – learning about wellness in the legal profession. The idea that we need to take care of ourselves, limit our schedules and find healthy outlets for the stress that comes with our practices. Going to a seminar on lawyer wellness really doesn’t seem to be a good way to handle the inherent stress that comes with our practices, often it brings on more stress reminding us of what we are not doing. I say let’s take a page out of our advice to our clients: document the file and schedule it. Meaning, write down what you want to accomplish and schedule it into your day like you would any other activity. Whether its exercise, playing a sport or hobby or even spending time with your kids the best way to do it, is do it. Schedule a massage, have a standing appointment to have your nails done, schedule lessons to learn the instrument you have always wanted to learn and never miss your annual physical, mammogram or that follow up appointment. Those should as important as board meetings. Put it in your calendar like you diary your scheduling orders, and don’t let your other activities run over it. You would never miss a deadline to file an answer or witness list timely, so why miss your kids’ play, a visit to your doctor, or your own exercise routine. If we prioritize these activities like we do our billable hours, we won’t have to have seminars anymore on how to improve our wellness. There’s a reason that lawyers who do non-lawyerly things are featured in fun articles about their out-of-work activities, cue the lawyers who are in bands, sail, take exotic trips or run comedy festivals. We are attracted to these stories because we admire them.

For my part, I scheduled as much time out of the office as I needed to this summer, to be present with my kids and enjoy our short summer. It’s okay to say no, I am sorry that date doesn’t work for me, but I am available on X instead. Or, sure, I can meet in the afternoon, but I have a hard stop at (insert the time here that you need to leave to be on time to pick up your kids and head to that baseball game you wanted to make it to, or a movie). You don’t need to tell colleagues why you are leaving or that it is a personal reason, but we do need to respect each other’s boundaries. Meaning, when someone says they can’t meet past 4, the meeting needs to end at 3:55. If you decide to tell others, I hope they are happy for you with responses like ‘I love that for you’ when you mention you will be out for two days to (insert activity that you enjoy here). That’s what leads to wellness, allowing us each to set our weeks in a way that is personally satisfying.

For the section’s part, we want to involve lawyers in lots of activities that don’t involve lawyering to meet their wellness needs. Or, just get together and have fun. We have two upcoming events that we hope you will write down and put down in your schedules as firm commitments. First on September 14, starting at 5:30 will be at Wabeek Country Club to ‘Learn to Golf with a Pro”. The first 20 people signed up will get a golf lesson with the Wabeek Pros. And, everyone else gets a beautiful networking event overlooking the sunset on the Wabeek patio.

Heidi & Family

Then on October 26 we will be meeting our out-state colleagues in Grand Rapids at the lovely LaFontsee Galleries, 833 Lake Dr., Grand Rapids, MI 49506 from 5:30 – 7:30.

Issue #28 | November 2023

This is where I leave you. But, unlike the movie that has this title, it is not a depressing time, but an exciting time for our council and what is to come. And, since its that time of year consider this your year in review and the best is yet to come all in one.

This past year saw the continuation and expansion of our Mentor/Mentee program and some new programs which brought familiar faces to new places. In September we “Golfed with a Pro” at Wabeek Country Club. This much-anticipated new event was well-attended. Everyone who participated had a great time and along with a fantastic golf lesson, personalized for everyone who attended, we enjoyed good food and an amazing sunset. This event brought out firm partners wanting to brush up on their skills, new golfers, and seasoned pros. It was a chance to discuss why we like golf and don’t like golf!

We recognize as a section that most of our events are held on the east side of the state and that we have many members from the west side who are not always able to attend our programming. These members are valued and we want to have the same type of opportunities to network with them as well. In October we traveled to Grand Rapids to mingle with our out-state members at the LaFontsee Galleries. We are proud to mention that all of the vendors at this event were female and/or minority owned businesses. This beautiful art gallery lent itself as a lovely backdrop for conversation and networking among members throughout the state.

Our Mentor/Mentee program will soon wrap up for the year with new friendships and sage advice shared. This has been one of our most popular programs and it is growing each year, especially with new mentees seeking mentorship and to learn about the section. If you are looking for ways to be part of the section, give back or just share your own sage advice, please consider becoming part of the program as a Mentor as your experiences and insight would be valued by mentees and a welcome contribution to the section. 

Upcoming we have two of our most well-attended events each year: the Holiday Party and the MidWinter Meeting. The MidWinter meeting will once again be held at the Detroit Athletic Club in January with leading speakers in the field providing our annual employment law updates and a chance to toast the Distinguished Service Award being presented to a deserving colleague(s). But, before the year is out, we will all gather on December 7 for the Holiday Party at the Wabeek Country Club. A new location will hopefully give our colleagues from the west side of our state areas less ground to cover when they join us. I look forward to seeing you all there.

Beyond January, council is already planning exciting programming for next year throughout the state to provide education and camaraderie. If you have an idea of an event you would like to see the section sponsor, we would love to hear it. The council is committed to ensuring that this section continues to thrive in how it serves its membership. 

Before my year as chair ends in January, I would just like to say that being given the opportunity to be the Chair of one of the most vibrant sections of our state by labor and employment colleagues who I look up to and have the utmost respect for has been one of the honors of my career. I hope to have given to this section what it gave me – friendships, guidance and a deep respect and admiration for those who have chosen this path.