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State legislator says his law student studies help his work in Lansing

December 12, 2013

State Rep. Jim Townsend already is finding his studies as a first-year student in the evening program at Wayne State University Law School to be helpful to his work in Lansing.

“Every day, I’m a better legislator for having come to law school,” Townsend, D-Royal Oak, said. “What I’ve learned in the Contracts course alone about how the law looks at what arrangements it chooses to enforce and what it doesn’t tells you a lot about how the law mediates our interactions. It helps you understand what’s coming down the road if you’re contemplating a policy change, if you understand how it might play out in court.”

He said it can be challenging working as a legislator and going to law school at the same time, plus having some family time with his wife, Jennie, and his two sons, Jack, 15, and Will, 13.

“I have a very understanding wife and kids,” Townsend, 48, said. “I do miss dinner three or four nights a week. Then most of the evening is consumed with the kids doing homework.”

He laughed.

“I get home and I join them,” Townsend said. “The only way to pull this off is to be very disciplined about your time and prioritizing things.”

He decided to add a law degree to his academic credentials — he has a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina, as well as a master of business administration degree and master’s degree in public policy from the University of Michigan — to be better able to work on improving public issues, whether as a legislator or in some other capacity in the future, he said.

“I basically have always been really interested in the public square — this mysterious thing that we do to come together to do things we don’t do individually. I worked in the private sector and started a nonprofit organization, but I’ve always been interested in big public problems — the things we all wonder what we can do about,” Townsend said.

And our system of government right now is facing difficulties, he said.

“Now that I’m in the Legislature, I really see how much we struggle to get things accomplished,” Townsend said. “What ought to bind us together is a belief in the rule of law. What goes hand in hand with that is a belief in concerted public action through the law, the things we empower our public servants to do on our behalf. But for the last several years in Lansing, I see how damaged the system is. That’s a big part of why I’m doing this. If you want to fix the problem, address the issue, you have to understand the building blocks of the public system. The law’s really at the center of that.”

A lot of people don’t really understand how much the societal system created by laws affects them, he said.

“I think people don’t see the relevance to their daily lives.” Townsend said. “I can’t begin to explain that if I don’t have a better understanding of how it works myself. If you go and buy a hamburger, you think you’re engaging in a strictly private activity. But the reality is, you couldn’t have made it to that restaurant safely and you couldn’t be eating that product if we didn’t have those public and legal arrangements. The clear and present danger to our system is people’s alienation from how that system really works.”

He chose to attend Wayne Law because of the flexibility of its program, allowing him to go to classes in the evening and over the summer, he said.

“And I’ve known a lot of graduates — friends, colleagues and employees — who went through Wayne Law,” Townsend said.  “I’m really aware of the quality of the program and the students.”

Townsend is in his second term as a state representative for the 26th House District, which comprises Madison Heights and Royal Oak. His other work experience includes founding a consulting business, serving as executive director of the Tourism Economic Development Council, founding and directing the nonprofit Michigan Suburbs Alliance, leading national marketing and sales for Ford Motor Co.’s minivan division, and serving as a staff member in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Even if he runs for and is elected to a third term, he’ll be forced by term limits to leave the Legislature after he serves those two years. His plans for future work?

“I’m not sure what comes next,” Townsend said, “but I’d like to stay involved with the public square, with public issues, in some capacity.”

And a law degree will be an asset, no matter what his new role might be, he said.