Backpack Man of the Year
By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
October 30, 2015
True to his name emblazoned on top of his office building at the corner of Northwestern Highway and Evergreen Road in Southfield, Mike Morse doesn’t do anything on a small scale. “You may have noticed from my advertising and the sign on my building, I work, play and live . . . to win,” he says.
At 48, Mike Morse heads the fastest growing law firm in Michigan history, a company he started on his own in 1995. With 140 employees – almost 50 lawyers – the Mike Morse Law Firm settles $100 million in cases annually. By industry standards, that’s a lot of business.
“We work hard, but I believe in having fun,” Mike says. “Working for a small firm in my first three years out of law school, I learned a lot about the ways not to run a company and treat employees. When I went out on my own 20 years ago, I decided to build a company based on respect and teamwork – which has turned out to be a winning combination.”
The recipient of multiple accolades, the Mike Morse Law Firm has been honored by the Detroit Free Press as a Top Place to Work six years in a row and has been listed twice among Crain’s Cool Places to Work. Mike, himself, has the distinction of being named a Super Lawyer and Best Lawyer many times by DBusiness. Most recently, he received the honor of the Detroit City Council’s Spirit of Detroit Award for his extraordinary gift to the students of the Detroit Public Schools.
In a visit to Mike’s office, we catch a glimpse of his company’s own spirit of Detroit as reflected in its bold, contemporary workspace designed by Israeli architect, and Michigan resident, Arik Green. According to Mike, “Most law offices are stuffy and boring. We like to keep things light and loose.” The staff enjoys flextime, as well as plenty of play time that includes a softball league, bowling nights, sporting events . . . and eating – a lot. To blow off a little steam in the office, there’s friendly competition in a game of ping pong or Asteroids available any time in the break room. Mike’s dog, Jessi – an “adorable 13-pound terrier mutt from the Humane Society” – also has the run of the office as the company mascot most days of the week.
The Mike Morse Backpack Project: Thinking big, then bigger
Mike is currently a member of the Board of Tamarack Camps, as well as North Star Reach Camp, a camp for kids with major medical issues currently being built in Pickney. An active supporter of Federation’s work as well, Mike continues to build momentum in the greater Detroit philanthropic community. Thanks to his initiative and his gift of more than $250,000 at the start of the 2015 school year, every student in grades K through 5 in the Detroit Public Schools – a total of 23,000 children in 65 schools – received backpacks, fully stuffed with brand new school supplies: water bottles, notebooks, pencils, markers, erasers, pencil cases, sticky notes, glue, scissors and new Crayolas – all those things many students would otherwise have either second-hand or not at all.
Mike credits his mother, Susan Morse – a retired teacher and school librarian – for inspiring him to start the Backpack Project as a trial run in May 2015 at Wayne Elementary School on Courville Street in East Detroit.
“When I learned that many of the kids in Detroit used garbage bags for their limited supplies and didn’t have all of the proper supplies of their own, that broke my heart. So I said, ‘Okay let’s do something about this.’ We then brought 400 backpacks to the one school and it was just amazing to see all that positive energy in the kids and teachers.”
“I literally drove away thinking – what’s the next step? Let’s do this in a bigger way. How many kids are in Detroit Public Schools? My staff said 23,000, and I said, okay that’s a lot of kids, but leaving anyone out didn’t feel good or right to me. It was a huge undertaking, but we took on the project working in partnership with the Kids In Need Foundation – a nonprofit that provides students with free school supplies. They sourced and organized the supplies and filled the backpacks for distribution in early September.”
A fair playing field
In a video produced by the law firm, Marcus Davenport, Principal of Edison Elementary School, described the backpack giveaway as a life-changing event for some of the students. “When you give to a child in an educational setting, you are planting a seed to grow. We may not reach every child, but I encourage my students to take every opportunity to succeed, so that one day they, too, can give back and make the world a better place.”
“I believe in fairness,” says Mike. “I don’t know if it’s the influence of my background in law, but I don’t believe it’s fair for my three kids to have new backpacks and all the supplies they need at the start of every school year and these kids to go without.”
“I didn’t know what to expect when we started the project and personally, I didn’t need the publicity – or the stacks of thank you letters and notes I still receive every day – but if I changed even a handful of kids’ minds, sent them the message that there are business people in the community who really care about their future and, as a result, they were a little more interested in starting school this year and they paid a little more attention, and if they cared to learn a little more, then it’s a big win for everybody.”
. . . Because life is short
If there’s a secret to Mike’s success, perhaps it’s his core belief in giving back, stemming from a deeper sense of gratitude for his family and community.
“Tzedakah and tikkun olam (the Jewish concepts of justice and repairing the world) were the words that my parents used a lot in our household as we were growing up. My dad was an attorney here in Michigan and unfortunately, in 1990, he died at the age of 49. I was in law school at the time. When I think about what I do today, it’s not just about missing him; it’s about appreciating life. Because he died at such a young age, I don’t take a take a single day of my life for granted. I don’t take my kids for granted. I don’t take the money for granted. I don’t want to have any regrets, no matter what, and no matter when.”
It’s family first
As a single dad, Mike is clear that his three daughters always take first priority. “I’m not a workaholic,” he says. “People are surprised because I run such a large and complex business, but nothing means more to me than my three beautiful daughters, Jillian 16, Ella, 13, and Lexie, 7. I am divorced, have my kids 50% of the time, but I’m a full-time parent. I don’t get babysitters for my kids; I am home for them, driving them to school, doing the carpools, making breakfast and dinner every day. We love to travel together, we go on adventures as often as we can. I’m also a big believer that you need to show your kids what you value, rather than tell them. So we volunteer together. I take them to Yad Ezra and to Gleaners Food Bank. I took them to Israel this year, and we spent a day digging beets for Leket, Israel’s national food bank. My oldest daughter came to one of the Detroit elementary schools to hand out the backpacks so she could get a hands-on feeling of what giving back actually means.”
Jillian, a junior at Cranbrook, fell in love with Israel on the family trip last summer, wants to return, possibly with the Teen Mission this coming summer. Speaking of her with deep pride, Mike describes her as a passionate, amazing kid, “crazy active” in the community since taking on her role as a teen mentor in the city with PeerCorps. This year, she is organizing a trip with friends at Cranbrook to work with kids in Nicaragua over Thanksgiving break. Last year, she spent Thanksgiving week in the Dominican Republic teaching children English. “Jillian is crazy busy with her studies at Cranbrook and studying for the ACT. Somehow, she still finds time to volunteer with several charities, not all of them with a Jewish bent. For example, she is on the teen advisory board, for the Orchards Children’s Services.”
On Federation’s work . . . impacting lives
Recognizing Federation’s role in shaping his philanthropic activity, Mike cites the mentorship of Federation’s CEO Scott Kaufman as well as Nancy Grosfeld, the driving force of the Grosfeld Leadership Program which culminates in a mission to Israel. “That changed my life,” he says. “Ten years ago, I was giving bubkes to Federation – before I understood what Federation and Israel were all about. I’ve been giving more and more every year as I see the needs and understand where the money goes and how it impacts our community here and around the world.” Mike participated in his first Fisher meeting a few weeks ago.
On Detroit . . . next steps
Born in Detroit, raised in Oak Park, Southfield and Farmington, and now a resident of Huntington Woods, Mike is still deeply rooted in the life of the city. “I’m never far from Detroit,” he observes. “With 80 to 90 percent of my clients in Detroit, I’m in the city almost on a daily basis. Detroit has been good to me. But the Detroit Public Schools are still in desperate need. While I’m thrilled that so many of our business leaders are bringing jobs and new development downtown, the kids in the neighborhoods and their parents have yet to see the benefits. What I can do alone will never be enough, but I see it as a start – our firm commitment – to be a part of a movement building a brighter future here.”
Ask Mike Morse what’s next: will he and his firm be back in the Detroit schools distributing backpacks next year? “Here’s the hard part,” he says thoughtfully. “We’re getting requests from every school district in Michigan and beyond. Now we’re talking millions of dollars to fill those book bags. I’m in the process of setting up the Mike Morse Family Foundation with the goal of establishing a more sustainable means of raising funds to support more kids statewide. In the meantime, our firm has opened a CrowdRise page for those who wish to join us now. All donations will be used to buy more supplies and backpacks for kids we might have missed in our first round. So stay tuned!”