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September 01, 2021 Vol. 47, No. 1

A young lawyer with a big year ahead: Choi Portis, chair of the ABA Young Lawyers Division

Choi Portis

Choi Portis

“I think that bar work is extremely important,” says Choi Portis, 2021-2022 chair of the ABA Young Lawyers Division, “because you can’t do this thing by yourself.”

As others have said—and as some law schools are trying to rectify via clinics and other innovations—law students often graduate with knowledge of the law but not how to actually work as a lawyer, Portis explains.

“I think that the camaraderie of other people who can assist you, or people who help guide you through the practice is super important,” she says, “and you would not learn that and you won’t get that if you don’t participate in bar activities.”

Portis knows this firsthand: In addition to her leadership within the ABA YLD, she is also a member of the executive council of the State Bar of Michigan Young Lawyers Section and a member of the Wolverine Bar Association, an affinity bar for African American lawyers in Michigan.

An “indigenous Detroiter” and a graduate of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Portis is the manager of her city’s Department of Appeals and Hearings, often called “Blight Court” because it addresses “quality of life” property violations and serves as a de facto appeals court for citizens affected by decisions made by other city departments. Portis transferred to her current department in July 2021; she also became a first-time parent during the pandemic and says one up side to the shutdown was being at home with her daughter, Kensley, who is now 16 months old.

Bar Leader recently spoke with Portis as she prepared for her year as YLD chair. Here, edited for length and clarity, is what she had to say about the value of bar membership for young lawyers, about her plans for this bar year—and about how bars can engage new lawyers so they’ll stay even once they’re no longer “young.”  

Bar Leader: I know you’re involved with a few bars. How do your different bar roles play off each other?

Choi Portis: The Young Lawyers Section of the State Bar of Michigan is an affiliate of the ABA Young Lawyers Division. I think that those intersect really, really well, specifically because a lot of the programming that we get from the YLD can be transformed and brought home to Michigan for us to be able to help our constituency here. Likewise, the Wolverine Bar Association is an affiliate of the National Bar Association and again, some of those same programs can be used locally.

BL: What are you looking forward to in your year as chair of the ABA YLD?

CP: There’s been a ton of behind-the-scenes work that my upcoming team and I have been working on with the YLD staff. I’m extremely, extremely excited for the work that we’re about to do with the Women of Color Project. This is an inaugural project that’s brand new to the YLD. [This project was inspired by the Men of Color Project initiated by past YLD Chair Tommy Preston and also by the Women of Color Research Initiative from the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. The project will involve highlighting women of color in all practice areas and settings.]

I’m really excited, also, about this year’s public service project, Operation Second Chance. It’s going to be twofold: The first part is going to be the YLD providing information and resources to our affiliated groups about how to implement expungement fairs in their various jurisdictions. The other piece will involve bringing awareness to voter rights and restoration of voter rights for returning citizens [after incarceration].

Hopefully, we are going to be in Atlanta, Georgia, for our spring conference in May next year and we’re going to partner with the Men of Color Project to do a summit. We’re going to do some really, really dope partnerships with the historically black colleges and universities down in the Atlanta area, specifically Spelman College and Morehouse College. The YLD has a longstanding project called What Do Lawyers Do? We specifically targeted historically black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions, to put on panels and meet those individuals where they are at their school and just show them, “Hey, this is what lawyers do. Lawyers look like you, too,” through our diversity and inclusion initiative. We’re also going to, through Operation Second Chance, put on an expungement fair in the Atlanta area.

The theme for this year for the YLD is Resilience in the Face of a New Renaissance. We’re coming through and we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, but our profession is very resilient, and we’ve learned how to practice despite what is going on in society and what’s going on in the world. Once we come out of it, it’s going to be a renaissance, a new way of thought, a new way of thinking, a brand-new way of doing things.

Another inspiration for that theme was the city of Detroit, where I was born and raised and where I live and work. Obviously, Detroit has had some really big challenges in the past, specifically the bankruptcy [in 2013], but being a part of this brand-new renaissance and this change and this growth that’s going on now has been phenomenal.

BL: Speaking of the pandemic, how has it affected your bar work?

CP: It impacted my bar association work tremendously. A lot of the bar associations, specifically the local bar associations, we’ve been unable to meet in person, network, do some of the hands-on events that we usually do. When it comes to the ABA, the YLD meets four times a year; we haven’t had an in-person conference for the YLD since the Midyear Meeting in Austin in February 2020. That was the last time I actually physically saw some of my YLD peers. While we’ve been physically apart, we’ve been able to pivot and do a lot of things virtually. Sometimes that does impact people being able to stay engaged because Zoom fatigue is very real. We have to find new, innovative and creative ways to continue to keep our membership engaged.

With the Young Lawyers Section for the State Bar of Michigan, we are getting ready for what I think will be our 15th year of doing our young lawyers summit. It’s going to be a hybrid, so people who are not comfortable in person won’t have to do that. It’s basically like a retreat for young lawyers in the state of Michigan, with a lot of resources provided.

I’m also looking forward to attending the ABA Midyear Meeting in Seattle. Every Midyear Meeting, we have our Diversity Dialogue Breakfast, and I’m really excited about planning that with our YLD diversity and inclusion director, Darrell Wilson. He and his team are about to come out with some phenomenal ideas for that breakfast, and it’s always very impactful.

BL: Do you think it might be helpful and inspiring for some law students and young lawyers to know that the ABA YLD chair had a few bumps along the path to becoming a lawyer? [Portis had mentioned that she failed the bar exam twice and then benefited from a tutoring program through the Wolverine bar. She then participated as a tutor for the program.]

CP: I think so, because I feel like it’s so taboo to talk about it, but it happens all the time. People get stressed out, people don’t test well, there are other variables that play into it. I feel like that makes you so much more relatable, sitting in the seat as the chair, to have people relate to you and say, “Hey, the same thing happened to me. I’m so happy that you were open and honest about that.”

That’s one of the things about me: I’m so transparent. You have to be real about it. I’m like, “I didn’t pass the bar exam on the first try. I didn’t go to a top-tier law school. But I went to law school and I was able to get into the seat.” That’s just a testament to hard work and effort.

BL: Speaking of hard work and effort, one thing we always hear about young lawyers is that they’re busy. Why do you think it makes sense to find time to participate in bar activities?

CP: You can get a mentor; you can possibly get your next job from participating in bar work. So, I always say to my mentees that “network” sometimes determines your “net worth.” I believe that just by participating in these bar associations and being involved, that really, really holds true.

Also, a lot of conversations happen organically because you guys are talking about the same thing. I feel like as lawyers, sometimes we speak a different language from our families, unless you’re married to a lawyer or unless your mom or dad was an attorney. Just being in a room full of lawyers who can speak the same language, I think that’s extremely important.

What do you think bars could offer that would make a real difference for young lawyers?

CP: That’s a question that comes up all the time, specifically when you’re talking about how to engage young lawyers and get them involved in different sections, divisions, forums, different bar associations. I think that the best thing that older attorneys can do is listen to young lawyers. Listen to what we’re interested in. Sometimes there's a generational gap about things that are fun or engaging for younger lawyers vs. older attorneys.

Also, talk about how to diversify your practice. I know sometimes in the past, it’s been, you start down one path and you keep down that path until you retire. Young lawyers, we’re a little bit more mobile. We like diversity of thought, diversity of practice, things like that.

So, I think the most important thing is to listen. I appreciate the good, old-fashioned networking events. I really appreciate those because that’s the best way to get to know someone out of their element.

BL: What types of events are popular with young lawyers, that we might not all think of?

CP: This is a really cool thing that we do here in Michigan: The State Bar of Michigan Young Lawyers Section, every year we have a yearly challenge with the Board of Commissioners, so I guess you can say it’s the older lawyers vs. the younger lawyers. One year, we went to laser tag, which was so cool. It was a riot! I think everybody was sweaty and wanted to take a bath at the end. It was a great event. We have done board games with them at the state bar headquarters, and then historically, we’ve done a bowling event with them. And whichever group loses, the loser has to—well, actually, both groups end up donating to the Access to Justice Fund.

BL: Sometimes, bars have difficulty in retaining members once they age out of the young lawyers section or division. What do you think might help with that?

CP: I think the best thing that can happen is reaching young lawyers while they’re still in the young lawyers section and engaging them. It takes the leadership to help bridge those gaps. For instance, in the [State Bar of Michigan] Young Lawyers Section, occasionally we will partner with another section, division, or forum to do a joint conference. I think those are really important.

I think it’s also important to offer scholarships and mentorship programs in the various sections, divisions, and forums that are dedicated to whatever practice area that young lawyer is involved in. I think every single section, division, forum, commission has some sort of scholarship or mentoring program for young lawyers, and I think it’s important to continue to highlight them and make young lawyers aware of them.

I think the biggest way to bridge those gaps is just to reach out to the young lawyers while they’re still young lawyers and say, “Hey, come over here and see what we offer, so when you age out, you have a home in the association.”