GRAND RAPIDS — A niche law firm plans to relocate its Michigan headquarters to downtown, MiBiz has learned.
Rosette LLP signed a five-year lease for a new office at 44 Grandville Ave. SW, where the firm will move five attorneys and their support staff starting in November. The firm, which is majority Native American-owned and focuses exclusively on working with tribal clients, currently has its Michigan office in Mattawan.
Attorney Tanya Gibbs, a Cedar Springs native and Grand Rapids resident, became the managing partner of the Michigan office in July. Since all but one of the office’s attorneys live in Grand Rapids, it made sense to move the firm’s Michigan offices to the city, she said.
“From a recruitment standpoint, Grand Rapids is an easy sell,” Gibbs told MiBiz, noting she just recruited a Native American associate from out of state to join the new office. “There’s a lot of cool things going on here. It’s a huge selling point.”
As well, the move positions the firm closer to several key clients, including Gun Lake Investments LLC, she said. The tribal economic development firm has grown rapidly in recent months as it ratchets up investment activity in creating new tribal business entities or by acquiring non-tribal businesses as part of a buy-and-hold strategy.
A graduate of the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, Gibbs also serves on the board of directors for the Odawa Economic Development Management Inc., the non-gaming business arm of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, from which she is a descendant.
Gibbs focuses her practice on non-gaming tribal business activity, including business mergers and acquisitions, e-commerce and bricks and mortar retailing, contract review, employment law and compliance.
“As an attorney, I find myself in the role of an educator, whether dealing with investors, banks or vendors,” Gibbs said of her work on behalf of tribal business clients in dealing with non-tribal entities.
The reason: Tribes, which are federally recognized sovereign nations, have their own laws and legal codes, and non-tribal companies often require explanations about the differences, how the systems work and the goals for the tribes, she said.
Other partners in Rosette’s Michigan office focus on litigation, tribal governance, gaming and transactional cases.
Rosette LLP’s entry into the Grand Rapids market comes as the legal community focuses on encouraging more diversity and inclusion within the industry both locally and nationally.
A 2015 study on inclusion from the National Native American Bar Association found that Native Americans made up less than 1 percent of law school enrollment, or about 1,273 students. More than 30 percent of Native American attorneys practice law for tribal governments or small law firms, according to the study.
Additionally, the organization reported that Native Americans were “severely underrepresented in the top law firms, corporations, or the federal or state judiciary.”
The report highlighted “the failure of traditional diversity and inclusion efforts” in reaching Native Americans in the legal profession, citing “racial, ethnic, gender, and other professional challenges in workplaces.”
Even those traditional diversity efforts have struggled to gain traction in the legal community. In Grand Rapids, women made up just 24 percent of lawyers, according to a 2017 report from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP).
Meanwhile, NALP’s Diversity Report found that only about 5 percent of all lawyers in Grand Rapids were minorities and just 2 percent were minority women. The findings come from analyzing NALP’s annual directory, which tracked data at five Grand Rapids firms employing a total of 520 lawyers.
On all fronts, Grand Rapids law firms trailed the national statistics for diversity, which showed that, of all lawyers, women made up 34.5 percent, minorities were 15.2 percent and minority women were 7.5 percent, according to NALP.
When asked if Rosette LLP hopes to make a statement with a woman- and Native American-led office that has a majority of women attorneys, Gibbs said: “I hope so. Grand Rapids has made some progress on the diversity front, but it still has a long ways to go.”
Tailored to tribes
Rosette LLP typically keeps a low profile in the broader business community, as it focuses its marketing and outreach efforts in Indian Country, which makes up the entirety of its client base, Gibbs said. The firm is based in Chandler, Ariz. with offices in Folsom, Calif., Washington, D.C., Tulsa, Okla., and soon Grand Rapids.
“Our focus is on the tribes and the tribal businesses,” she said. “From the beginning of the firm, we’ve wanted to help build tribal governments and economic development. That’s where our passion is.”
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs counts 573 federally recognized tribes across the country, including 12 tribes in Michigan.
The diversity of those tribal nations and their own “culture, norms, and other tribal-specific matters” requires an individual approach from a legal services standpoint, Gibbs said.
“While we can apply some best practices and basic principles to legislation drafting or business formation and governance, it’s important that everything is tailored appropriately to the specific tribe,” she said.
Moreover, Rosette LLP’s work often has the firm representing small tribes that lack resources but “are willing to fight for everything they have to provide for their communities.”
“We’re feisty. We take a lot of positions for the benefit of our clients that other firms might not want to take,” Gibbs said. “As a firm, we’re not afraid to represent the underdog and advocate for the best interests of our clients.”
Editor's note: This story had been updated from its previous version.