Courtade reflects on first half of State Bar leadership year

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

It is a source of comfort for current State Bar of Michigan (SBM) President Bruce Courtade that the goals he is so intensively working toward will continue to be priorities after his year in office.

Several years ago, there was a realization at SBM that having each president set a separate agenda for his or her term was not the best way to achieve important goals, so longer-term strategic planning was undertaken. The State Bar President works on agreed-upon objectives set as part of a process he or she has contributed to but only as a part of the whole, establishing continuity year to year.

“I don’t have any particular pet project that is going to rise or fall based on whether I finish it by the time my term ends,” says Courtade, a partner at Rhoades McKee. “I work toward the goals and we track progress on the plan as we go. And now, we’re working on updated strategic planning as my years in office are coming to an end.”

Courtade stresses that serving the State Bar of Michigan is a multi-year process, and intentionally so. An arc of service begins when someone starts in succession as the treasurer, running up through holding the offices of secretary, vice-president, president-elect, and after the presidency, immediate past president.

He says that each office prior to the presidency is a learning process about some aspect of SBM operations; for example, the secretary is “in charge of” membership services, the president-elect public policy. “The State Bar does a phenomenal job as you’re coming up through the offices of preparing you; people don’t realize how much that takes.”

Courtade’s predecessor was Julie Fershtman of Foster Swift Collins and Smith, who battled cancer while she fulfilled her demanding year as president. Comments Courtade, “Any time I start to feel a little tired or sorry for myself, I think of Julie, doing this when she was so ill, and realize I’ve got no reason to complain at all.” He has often said that Fershtman provided him with a background that virtually assured his success as president.

And regarding his predecessor, Brian Einhorn, an attorney with Collins, Einhorn, Farrell and Ulanoff in Southfield, Courtade says the two of them have already begun the process of transferring the duties of the office, getting to know each other in particular on trips such as a recent one to Dallas for the American Bar Association conference.

There is a lot of travel. Courtade said that he was much better prepared for how much time that would take than for some other expectations. The SBM staff help him set up speaking engagements to minimize time on the road. Although, he says, “The worst day was when I had to speak in Rochester at lunch, be back in Grand Rapids in the afternoon for a memorial service, and then drive to Lansing at night for a meeting I was leading. As I was driving back home, I thought that if I would have just driven the same amount of miles but in a line to the south, I would have been in Nashville.”

What he did not anticipate, he says, was the amount of time he would spend on less high-profile SBM-related tasks, for example, writing his president’s column for the SBM newsletter or responding to constituent calls and emails.

“The single incident that spawned the most contact from our members was the Newtown Connecticut shootings,” Courtade says, “mostly from lawyers wanting to know what they could do to help. Actually, that surprised me.”

There are two differences between being president-elect and serving as president, he notes. One is that he works more closely with the SBM executive director and other key staff members. The annual trip to the Upper Peninsula, which Courtade felt clearly demonstrated how much attorneys all around the state have in common, is also an opportunity to get to know the staff better.

The other? “As president, you have more of a platform to talk about the big issues to different audiences.”

Current issues, dictated by the strategic plan in conjunction with member surveys, are the critical importance of the role of civic education in helping the public understand what attorneys do — Courtade comments, “Two-thirds of the American public can’t name one Supreme Court Justice” — and the increasing need for legal services to the indigent. Access to Justice is a subject near and dear to Courtade’s heart.

He makes sure to mention his membership in the Michigan State Bar Foundation wherever he goes. He says he is always inspired by the quote at the SBM building in Lansing by the first SBM president, Roberts P. Hutson: “No organization of lawyers can long survive that has not for its primary object the protection of the public.”

Courtade interprets that to mean protecting the “fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts.”

Courtade points out that Michigan attorneys have given over $14 million to support the legal aid system. He hopes that legislative creation of a state commission to advise on the issue of representation for those who cannot afford it, which was introduced last session but narrowly failed to be enacted at the end of the year, will come to pass before his term ends in September.

An emerging issue Courtade thinks will receive emphasis in current strategic planning is “the changing legal profession and the way we deliver services to our clients.”
Challenges aside, Courtade is ever positive and upbeat. About his presidency thus far he says, “It’s a whole lot of work, but I haven’t regretted it for an instant. I’ve learned just a ton, and it’s been a great deal of fun.”