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A lawyer and a cowboy, Lewis makes the University of Michigan his pasture of plenty


You can take the cowboy out of the West, but you can't take the spirit of the West out of the cowboy.

At least this is what Douglas Lewis, director of student legal services (SLS), says. An accomplished attorney and Civil War buff, Lewis has made his presence known not only in the courtroom, but also on the rodeo circuit.

 
Lewis (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)

On weekdays, at least, Lewis spends most of his time in the Michigan Union with his staff of three attorneys. Providing legal counseling to University students, SLS deals with the day-to-day issues adolescents face, including employment grievances, criminal charges and insurance concerns. The services offered at SLS are funded through a student fee that is paid at the time of enrollment, and beyond that, most charges are dependent on whether the case goes to court or is settled.

The two main issues that SLS deals with, Lewis says, are landlord/tenant disputes and criminal offenses. The former, he says, is most prominent in May, when students try to get out of leases, and in September, when students are moving into new residences and even looking for housing for the following year. Ensuring their apartments are ready for move-in and appliances are running properly, Lewis says, are also on students' minds.

"It's becoming more and more problematic the earlier students want to sign leases for the fall," Lewis says. "We already have people coming in for renewals for next September."

In the 14 years Lewis has worked for SLS, he has noticed a change in the distribution of cases his office receives. Criminal cases, he says, now make up the majority, whereas when he started, most were landlord/tenant disputes. While alarmed at the rising number of criminal cases at the University, Lewis finds this fact consistent with the rest of the world.

"The U is not as much of an oasis as it'd like to beeveryone who comes here brings whatever attitudes or problems they had when they were home," he says. "When you look at underage drinking,
most underage drinkers we see started in junior high. So it's not like it's new when they come herethis is something they've been doing."

Though some crimes, such as underage drinking, are specific to adolescents, Lewis finds that college students and adults have similar legal troubles but different perspectives. A non-student, for example, may be less concerned over a criminal conviction than a student, who would most likely fill out job applications upon graduation. In civil cases where money is involved, Lewis finds that students are more worried about having to pay large fees than full-time employed adults.

"I really don't think students' problems are any different than adults'," Lewis says. "The law isn't different, just a desired outcome."

Before coming to SLS, Lewis worked for Wayne County Neighborhood Legal Services, a purely civil practice that benefited low-income persons in the area. Though he enjoyed his job, Lewis finds that working with students is equally rewarding.

"I wanted to work for people who had a forward view about their lives," he says. "I enjoy seeing the impact that we can have on a student's life. Sometimes you straighten out problems for them that they don't really understand, and sometimes what you do gives them a second chance to carry on with their lives."

In addition to directing SLS, Lewis lectures in schools across the country on the role of African
Americans in the development of the West. His interest in cowboys and Buffalo Soldiers spurred his involvement in the African American West Project, a group that seeks to educate students through reenactments and authentic period costumes. Lewis often takes horses to schools and introduces students to the animals, and currently is involved in the Calico Kids, one of Washtenaw County's4-H clubs.

Lewis says that his interest in the subject happened by accident. One of his clients offered to pay for his services with either money or a horse, and Lewis chose the horse. His life hasn't been the same since.

"I think all my life I had been painting a picture of who I thought I was, and one day I found the frame around which it fit, and that was cowboy boots and buckles," he says. "It was having a horse that got me to learning about everything else."

Though sharing his knowledge of the American West and attending rodeos takes up much of his spare time, Lewis dresses like a cowboy on a regular basis. It's not uncommon to see him use a horse's saddlebags as a briefcase or find his office decorated in authentic Western paraphernalia.

"I dress like a cowboy because that's who I am. I tell people I'm a full-time lawyer and a part-time cowboy that would really love to turn that around," he says.

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