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I Wish I’d Known: Dennis W. Archer

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Dennis W. Archer
The law changes lives: As you study and when you begin your career, don’t ever forget the true power of the law in shaping the world.

I was a tenured teacher with the Detroit Public Schools teaching learning-disabled students. A teacher I was dating persuaded me to consider law school. I took the LSAT and applied to law school.

I taught school during the day and started evening classes at the Detroit College of Law in the spring of 1966.

I’d never been in a law office and really didn’t know much about what lawyers did.

Shaped by civil rights

Growing up, I heard in church about a lawyer named Thurgood Marshall and his case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court called Brown v. Board of Education. I later watched on the television black people marching and saw how they were beaten, drenched by fire hoses, and bitten by dogs because they wanted to vote.

I heard about a black woman named Rosa Parks who was arrested in Montgomery, Ala., because she wouldn’t give up her seat on a bus to a white man, and I heard about a minister named Martin Luther King Jr.

I fell in love with the law as I progressed through law school. I learned that segregation and racial discrimination wasn’t confined to the South. I discovered talking to black lawyers in Detroit how they were discriminated against in their struggle to start a law practice and how they were treated in some courtrooms.

I clerked for Damon J. Keith’s law firm during the summer of 1967. I learned firsthand how this dynamic, ethical, and outstanding black law firm helped people in need and handled some very large and important cases, along with the pro bono role its lawyers played to help some of the 7,200-plus people arrested during the 1967 summer rebellion in Detroit. The following summer, I was a summer associate in the Office of General Counsel at Ford Motor Co.

What I learned during law school, the clerkship at Damon Keith’s law office, and in the Office of General Counsel at Ford motivated me to graduate, pass the bar, and practice law. I was given an interview at a very large law firm in Detroit. I checked to see the background of the lawyer I was to meet. I appeared for my interview and was nicely told the firm didn’t hire graduates of the Detroit College of Law. I shook my head as I left because the gentleman who interviewed me graduated from the Detroit College of Law. The law firm at the time had no person of color as an associate or partner.

A lifetime of lessons

I love being a lawyer. I’ve learned a lot more by being active in bar associations.

I’ve enjoyed my opportunities to help those in need, whether they were charged with a crime or injured or were corporations facing the many challenges they encounter.

I’ve also enjoyed politics, whether helping outstanding people get elected or testifying before different committees of our state legislature or committees in Congress to advocate for or against an issue.

I’ve learned many things throughout my career, but I wish I’d have known in law school how incredibly important the practice of law is. I knew that generally, but I didn’t have the experience at the time to understand how it could truly change people’s lives and the world and how, if you’re called to the practice of law, you can be a force in propelling that change.

I also wish I’d have understood then that our code of professional conduct and always maintaining ethical behavior doesn’t just benefit lawyers. It’s the foundation of the rule of law, something that, as lawyers, we must always promote.

I ended up marrying the teacher who encouraged me to go to law school, Trudy DunCombe, who later went to law school herself and became a judge. I still love being a lawyer and advise today’s law students to stay focused and always be prepared with this saying in mind: Luck is when preparation meets an opportunity.

Dennis W. Archer Dennis W. Archer is chairman and CEO of Dennis W. Archer PLLC and chairman emeritus of Dickinson Wright PLLC. He was an associate justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and served two four-year year terms as mayor of Detroit. He also served as ABA president from 2003 to 2004 and received its 2016 ABA Medal. He’s the coauthor of Let the Future Begin.