20 Questions with Dennis Archer
1. Your career has been highlighted with accomplishments that singularly would be celebrated as lifetime achievements. More specifically, you've served as President of the American Bar Association, President of the National Bar Association, Mayor of Detroit, Associate Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, and Chairman, then Chairman Emeritus of Dickinson Wright, an NLJ 250 law firm. Tell us about the drive, ambition, and guiding principles behind your pursuit of these esteemed career positions.
I received an excellent legal education at the Detroit College of Law (1966-1970), now Michigan State University College of Law, while teaching learning disabled students for the Detroit Public Schools. Growing up I was influenced by the work of Attorney Thurgood Marshall, Brown v Board of Education, 1954, and the modern civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama with the bus boycott and the roles played by Rosa Parks and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I began to appreciate the majesty of the law led by outstanding lawyers.
Following law school as I entered private practice I knew and understood that the practice of law is a privilege and not a right. Moreover, from others I learned that the practice of law, for some, is a calling. For me it was a call to public service after I learned how to be a good follower.
2. Among these positions and offices, which was the most challenging, and why?
The most challenging position I was privileged to serve in was the office of mayor for the City of Detroit. To follow Mayor Coleman A. Young's 20 years set exceedingly high expectations, and he was a living legend. Detroit had a negative image when I became mayor, and the city led the nation with the highest percentage of people living below the poverty line. We needed jobs, hope and a better regional relationship. During my two terms I tried to be everywhere to sell my city, create jobs and improve our national image. Detroit was written about in a positive light in many newspapers – Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, etc. During my time in office, we created thousands of new jobs, benefited from $20.2 billion dollars of investments and improved our national image. It required 16-18 hour days, seven days a week.
I had to make some tough decisions which were not always well received by the media, some in business and a vocal minority of our citizens.
3. I take it that campaigning for a bar presidency, as opposed to a political office, is a more subdued and perhaps dignified experience?
4. In your roughly four decades as a lawyer, what positive changes have you noted? What about negative changes?
Our profession is more diverse (women and lawyers of color) in every aspect of our profession, from our nation's federal and state highest courts, law professors, non-judicial elected positions, from the President of the United States, members of Congress, state houses, etc. The American Bar Association and national bars of color have worked hard to open doors and create opportunities for women and lawyers of color. Yet, lawyers of color are grossly under represented in our profession, in large law firms, plaintiff's law firms, as tenure-track law professors and in corporate America.
5. Most trial and appellate lawyers frequently have issues with the way cases are handled or decided by judges. When you took your seat on the bench, did you take with you personal experiences as a trial lawyer that gave you a different perspective, and maybe more insight when reviewing the actions of trial judges?
Yes. When I was appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1985 by Governor James Blanchard, I joined our state's highest court without prior judicial service. I did, however, bring with me a practicing lawyer's perspective, having practiced law for 15 years and having served as bar president of the Wolverine Bar, National Bar and State Bar of Michigan. I had developed listening skills as a classroom teacher and bar leader. I found my colleagues on the bench to be outstanding justices with a strong desire to render the best possible decision.
6. What was your most memorable achievement as Mayor of Detroit?
My administration was able to win a Federal Empowerment Zone designation which helped to begin $20.2 billion in economic development in Detroit and led to thousands of new jobs. My Executive Order #4 was race-neutral, which I signed to replace the Market Share Program (Affirmative Action Program) that was implemented by Mayor Coleman Young but struck down. It created tremendous opportunities for businesses of color to grow, create new jobs and prosper.
7. Some lawyers have certain habits, if not rituals or superstitions, before or during trials. Some have good luck charms. Are there any unique acts or items you do or have that fall into this category?
I was always over-prepared. Luck is when preparation meets an opportunity.
8. What item of memorabilia in your office recharges you whenever you see it?
Norman Rockwell's print, "The Problem We All Live With," of a young Black girl dressed in a white dress, escorted to school by three U.S. Marshalls.
9. What was your childhood ambition, or ambitions?
My mother had a high school diploma, and my father had a third-grade education and had lost his left arm just above his elbow. They started my ambition by telling me, for as long as I can remember, that I was going to college. Neither had stepped foot on a college campus and could not tell me where to go or what to major in, but I knew I had to get good grades to earn the right to go. I worked my way through school.
10. Who would you say have been your mentors throughout the years? What relatives, friends, colleagues, or adversaries have shaped you both as a person and as a lawyer, and how?
My mom and dad, my grandmother, my mother's three brothers and sister were my closest mentors. Several classmates in college – Elliott Hall, Bill Pickard, Ron Hall, Ray Snowden. My wife, Trudy. In the profession: Sam Gardner, Larry Charfoos, Judge Damon Keith, Judge George W. Crockett Jr., Mike Franck, John Krsul, and Dick Van Dusen. Each helped me to smooth my rough edges and helped me to become a better person and a better lawyer.
11. What is your fondest memory involving trial work?
Winning my first criminal and my first civil trial.
12. What is your favorite aesthetic of trial – voir dire, opening statement, cross examination, closing argument? Has it changed over the years?
I loved every facet of it! There are fewer trials today because of alternative dispute resolution, arbitration, mediation and facilitations. Contracts are signed today that require arbitration.
13. Who are your favorite writers? What is it about the writers themselves or their work that piques your interest?
Professor Charles Ogletree, Blanche Taylor, Robert Ludlum, John Grisham, Scott Turow. Each is different. Some I learn a lot from and others I am entertained.
14. Where do you go to find solace?
Music of all kinds and the Bible.
15. When you began practice in the 1970s, discovery was a growing trend that many today would argue has become a detriment to trial work. Do you miss the days of reaching trial on a more expedited time frame?
16. How has your firm addressed training litigation associates in the present environment of diminished trial work?
The firm is very intense in providing the best possible training so that without over lawyering a matter, the lawyers can exceed the client's expectation. Associates are sent to seminars and there is extensive in-house training, and not at the client's expense.
17. A recent survey question to LCA Fellows pertained to U.S. Supreme Court justice nominees' scrutiny before the Senate during their respective confirmation processes. Do you think the process has become too political, should allow for even more scrutiny, or is about right as it is currently conducted?
Since becoming a lawyer, I have watched and read with interest the process of the U.S. Senate considering each nominee for the United States Supreme Court. Given the posturing and the media hype, I believe members of the Senate Judiciary Committee do a fine job and ultimately get it right. I do not always agree. The process works when you consider the President of the United States nominates and the U.S. Senate is charged with giving its advice and consent. All of the various interest groups weigh in and let their voices be heard.
I do believe it is very important that the American Bar Association continue to serve the process in its current role, started by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and reestablished under President Barack Obama.
18. Dickinson Wright maintains a strong position on diversity and has received various acknowledgments for the firm's efforts in that direction. Diversity, along with excellence and integrity, is central to the LCA's mission and plays a fundamental role in our selection of Fellows, growth, and goals. We want to quote you on diversity in the next issue of Litigation Commentary & Review. So in a word, sentence, or paragraph, what is the significance or importance of furthering diversity within the profession of law and throughout our system of justice?
What makes America great is our respect for the rule of law. In my view, there is no law without lawyers. Madam Justice Sandra Day O'Connor once wrote in an opinion that the United States Supreme Court does not have an army to enforce its rulings. The court relies upon our citizens to respect the rule of law. On or before 2042, America will have as its majority population people of color. Thus, lawyers of color are needed in larger numbers to help promote, serve and defend the rule of law. When a decision is rendered that citizens disagree with, lawyers fill the role of advising how to overcome the ruling through the appellate process, how to obtain federal or state legislative changes to overcome the ruling, and, if those mechanisms are unsuccessful, why it is important to respect the ruling without resorting to violence. Thus, diversity is a business and societal imperative, not just the "right thing" or "good thing" to do.
19. What trait do you most value in your friends?
Honesty and Integrity.
20. What is your motto?
Always be better prepared than my opponent and exceed my client's expectations.