'These Are the Women to Call'
Great Lakes Legal Group was born of, and defined by, a tight relationship
Published in 2020 Michigan Super Lawyers magazine on September 18, 2020
Rusty Bucket, the tavern over on Telegraph Road near 13 Mile, has a special place in the hearts Jehan Crump-Gibson and Ayanna Alcendor. It was there in 2017 that they chose each other as work sisters.
“A lot of our story tends to intertwine with food,” says Crump-Gibson, laughing. “We are eaters.”
It’s a good thing the co-founders of Great Lakes Legal Group have each other to keep themselves in check.
“Recently, I was trying to finish up this complicated probate file, and Ayanna lives 35 minutes from our Detroit office—in no traffic—and she drives down there and stays with me until 10, trying to help me go through the file,” Crump-Gibson says. “Like, ‘Let me just take over. You’ve been looking at it for too long.’ But then our personal relationship augments the professional, because while she’s looking at this file, I also have my work sister to say, ‘OK, but have you eaten?’ That extra push makes a difference.”
The two met when Alcendor clerked for Crump-Gibson. Later, they would pinch hit for each other in court, until the Rusty Bucket lunch that launched the firm.
“We were talking about all of the stuff we kept referring out—for me, criminal and family law, which Ayanna does; and people were reaching out to her about contracts, business-related stuff from the planning standpoint. Ayanna does a lot of probate, but not necessarily the planning portion, as far as estates are concerned. So we were like, ‘Why don’t we try this?’”
Their shared enthusiasm for a relationship-based practice was paramount.
“We’d heard other clients say, ‘Someone referred me to a lawyer, and they were smart, but we didn’t connect,’” Alcendor says. “So we wanted to set up an operation that was efficient and proficient, but in a more relaxed environment.”
Great Lakes Legal Group adopts a broad-ranging, holistic approach “with divorce, custody, probate, estate planning, criminal matters. You need that bedside manner, and you want to know that somebody can identify with you,” Crump-Gibson says. “That’s why one of our leading principles was connections.”
Corktown hosts their law office, which is part of an old elementary school rehabbed into office spaces—an aesthetic choice the duo made with clear purpose.
“We really wanted people to have the same experience walking into our firm that we would want family and friends to have,” Alcendor says. “We were never anti big-firm, but very pro staying true to ourselves.”
The relationship-forward concept is paying dividends both small (weekly rotating-dinner dates with a group of women) and big (landing a solid book of business with South American corporations investing in local real estate).
“We’ve been assisting them with some of their contract pieces, closing some litigation, things of that sort,” says Crump-Gibson. “And how we got to them is because some clients that we’ve had for about two years are from South America. [The new clients] first came through Miami and then to Detroit and started investing, and our clients told them, ‘These are the women to call.’”
What makes the duo most proud is helping young people of color. “We’re very passionate about mentoring, period,” Crump-Gibson says. “Whether this is hiring lawyers, or giving exposure opportunities to go out to schools, speak to youth and be involved in pipeline programming. There’s such a high level of community engagement which sweetens the pot.”
They also insist on having the conversation nobody wants to have: “Diversity needs to go beyond checking the box,” Crump-Gibson says. “Ayanna and I were on a panel last year, with lots of larger firms represented, and we were talking deeply about diversity. We were really having this Kumbaya moment with everyone committed to, ‘We need to see more representation,’ until I look around the room and noticed the people in the decision-making positions weren’t there. So nothing changes.”
“There needs to be some type of resolve or action plan,” Alcendor adds. “We can’t just talk about numbers and inclusion but not about programs, because we’re just going to keep having the same conversation. Diversity is being invited to the dance, but inclusion is being asked to dance.”
The partners hired a third lawyer, Henri Harmon, in early 2020, and say they hit their stride just before the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’ll adjust to this new normal,” Crump-Gibson says, “and then start talking growth again and look for ways to up the game.”
“You cannot get comfortable,” Alcendor adds. “You have to be ready to confront whatever it is that’s coming next. Together, I think we can do that.”