News & Insights

A culture of giving

by Joanne Geha Swanson, Member
August 10, 2017

[Originally appeared in the December '16/January '17 issue of the Detroit Bar Association's Detroit Lawyer magazine]

If you want to know how a firm can thrive for over 140 years in a city that has faced considerable challenges, walk through the door of Kerr Russell’s suite on the 25th floor of the Detroit Center and get a feel for the people. Highest ethical standards: check. Passionate about the law: check. Excelling in every area of practice: check. Energetic, enthusiastic, competitive, and invested: check times four. Big hearts: check, from the elegant corner offices to the copy room conclave.

To get a glimpse of what this might look like in practice, and how it carries over into the greater Detroit community, peer through the window of the Gleaners Food Bank warehouse the next time Kerr Russell volunteers. Racing to complete the most (and weightiest) food bank orders, you will see teams of lawyers, paralegals, administrative assistants, and firm administrators carefully dashing up and down the aisles to load cases of food products onto pallets for delivery to the inspectors, shrink wrappers and dock workers (also KR lawyers and staff) before their competing colleagues do.

But for the lightheartedness of it all, you would think this was serious business. And in some ways it is. Like the other clearly articulated values the firm embraces, giving back to the community is a “culture thing.” It takes many forms and is firm-wide.

Service to the bar and the community is a long tradition at Kerr Russell. In any given year, you will find the firm’s lawyers serving in leadership positions in local, state and federal bar associations, like Fred Herrmann, who currently serves as the chair of the Representative Assembly of the State Bar of Michigan. Kerr Russell lawyers represent pro bono clients and volunteer at legal clinics. They serve on non-profit boards and committees, including community guidance centers, organizations that build homes for the homeless, Kiwanis clubs, church councils, youth sports organizations, homeowner associations, and family foundations. They read to and tutor children in Head Start, serve dinners at homeless shelters, volunteer at food banks, teach parish education, plant trees in city neighborhoods, and participate in efforts to beautify Belle Isle.  

But the face of service at Kerr Russell goes beyond the lawyers. For decades, Kerr Russell staff members have spear-headed fund-raising events within the firm to benefit charitable organizations around the city, including Wigs for Kids, the Capuchins, the Chad Tough Foundation, the Scleroderma Foundation, Gleaners, and others. This dedicated, hard-working group – led by Angie Hincks, Jan Clarey, Cyndi Villeneuve, Kelly Hinojosa, and Brenda Nelson - have the savvy and persistence to get their colleagues at all levels of the firm to “cough up the dough,” garnering in excess of $40,000 through bake sales, special breakfasts, raffles, wear-your-favorite-team-colors events, and firm matching. Nothing escapes their charitable fund-raising eyes, not even the pop cans casually tossed in a bin in the corner of the firm’s lunchroom. Turning those cans into gold for raffle items has been the special project of Jean Wandzel.

Kerr Russell’s fundraising dream team has come to be counted on for collaborative charitable endeavors as well. They decorate the annual Salvation Army gift-giving “Angel Tree.” They solicit and deliver carloads of donated toys to the Children’s Hospital SNOWPILE, which allows parents of hospitalized patients to “shop” for presents for their children without leaving the bedside of their sick child. And at school year’s end, they sponsor the firm’s participation in a “cereal” drive, collecting boxes of (mostly healthy) cereals for families whose children participate in the Detroit Public Schools free meal program so the kids do not go without breakfast during the summer.

“Supporting our community is a responsibility we all share at Kerr Russell,” said Jim Cambridge, a member of the Firm’s Executive Committee. “Making a difference is important for us all.”

In addition to the firm’s direct charitable giving, for over ten years Kerr Russell has partnered with the Community Fund for Southeastern Michigan, an organization that funds, develops and nurtures programs that create lasting, positive benefits for our region. The firm has established a fund with the Community Foundation to support various charitable initiatives throughout the city and region.  In the past, Kerr Russell has supported charities ranging from the arts, historical preservation, and education, to organizations assisting disabled children and victims of domestic abuse. 

“The Kerr Russell Fund provides us with a platform to support all the Foundation’s various charitable endeavors,” said Mike Carroll, one of the KR members charged with administering the fund. “We also have the unique ability to direct our donations to ensure that we positively impact the charities we care most deeply about.”

As one would expect, this shared value has had a positive impact on firm culture.

“The collaborative efforts of lawyers, assistants, paralegals and administrative staff all working together for the greater good carries benefits beyond the immediate impact to our community and the sense of pride in having done something ‘nice’ for others,” said Miroslava Orduno Rincon, a recently-elected member of the Firm. “It also allows us to socialize with the people we work with, so we can get to know each other at a deeper level. This results in stronger relationships and a stronger team culture.”

It also creates a sense of community within the firm, making Kerr Russell a great place to work, says Angie Hincks, the firm’s receptionist.

“Kerr Russell is our family away from home,” Ms. Hincks explained. “We not only support outside organizations, but we are there for one another. When someone within our work family is in need or is supporting a cause, we rally together to support, raise money and uplift them in any way we can. We care about each other, which makes Kerr Russell a great place to come to every day.”

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