When the Revolution Didn't Happen

John Willems went from representing unions to management, but he still preaches the same gospel

Published in 2006 Michigan Super Lawyers — September 2006

This much is certain about John Willems: His two passions in life are the arts and the law. From there, he becomes more difficult to dissect.

Take his musical tastes. After learning to play the accordion at age 9 — the instrument of choice, he says, in the Polish-German neighborhood where he lived on Chicago’s South Side — Willems mastered the guitar and the piano. He’s used those skills to write and perform music ranging from folk and jazz to acid rock and punk. “I’ve played every genre of music at one time or another,” says Willems, now 59.

His forays into the visual arts have been similarly eclectic. Although most of his efforts are directed toward photography, other interests include painting and video production.

Then there is his job as a labor and employment lawyer. After graduating from Wayne State University’s law school in 1980, he represented labor unions in Detroit. Now Willems jockeys on behalf of labor management for the firm Miller Canfield Paddock and Stone.

To some, Willems’ life may appear to be a chaotic, sometimes contradictory swirl of activity. But to him, everything fits neatly together.

“One thing I realized,” says Willems, “is the same type of creativity I’ve always applied to the art world I could apply to the concept of law. I could bring to the law the same things I could bring to music and art: conceptualizing issues, telling and dramatizing stories, understanding the theater of it all, and also orchestrating the arguments and themes you have to work with in a case.”

Willems comes from a blue-collar family that emigrated from the Netherlands to the United States when he was a child, a background that helped make him partial to the sensibilities of the working class.

“I came to Detroit in 1976, after I’d been accepted at Wayne State,” Willems says. “In a nutshell, I was pretty much a part of the left movement. I went through the various stages — artist, hippie, communist. At that time, a lot of us on the left were looking toward the working class as the vanguard of the revolution. So the whole idea was to get involved with labor and the working class to help ferment the coming revolution of the masses and all that.”

Willems represented numerous labor unions, such as the United Auto Workers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. His duties included collective bargaining, presenting labor grievances and defending unions in litigation issues.

In 1986, however, Willems’ idealism was replaced by something more pragmatic: the desire to eat.

“Our firm was dumped by a major client,” Willems says, “and we were sort of out of work. I had been going up against the city of Detroit’s lawyers. They knew I was looking for a job, so they said, ‘Why don’t you come over here?’ It was a fascinating turn of events.”

After spending four years as an assistant corporation counsel for the city of Detroit, he joined Miller Canfield Paddock and Stone in 1990 and continued down the management path.

“Things have changed an awful lot, both in terms of my perception of the world and the world as it is,” says Willems, who has been a principal at Miller Canfield since 1998, works pro bono for ArtServe Michigan’s Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts and plays electronic music on the side.

“I’ve changed along with everyone else. A lot of it [in the 1960s and ’70s] was very theoretical, and it turned out to be kind of wrong. I never dreamed I’d become a management lawyer. But I always tell my old labor-side friends, ‘You know, I’m still preaching the same gospel — I’m still saying the same things to management. Only now they’re listening to me because I’m their lawyer.’”

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