Bransdorfer's career-long commitment to helping women lawyers merits award



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Elizabeth K. Bransdorfer says that she joined the Woman Lawyers Association of Michigan Western Region within months after she started at Mika Meyers Beckett and Jones, immediately out of law school.

She will be have been at MMBJ 30 years next month.

Bransdorfer says, “I joined WLAM even before I passed the bar, and about a year and a half later I was elected the regional representative to the state board. Then I went through the secretary-treasurer-vice president-president elect offices at the state level and became the state president from 1994 to 1995.

“As a result, I was invited to join the board of the National Association of Women Lawyers in 1996 and after a couple years on that board I started going up the chain there, so in 2001 to 2002 I was president.”

Throughout, she remained committed to the Western Region group, so it is no surprise that they have chosen her for the Outstanding Member Award this year.
“I can’t play softball, I can’t run, hit, catch or throw, so they don’t want me on the team,” Bransdorfer says with a laugh, referring to the well-known Women Lawyers versus Judges Charity Softball Game WLAM Western Region hosts each year.

“I chaired the local judicial candidate endorsement committee and stayed involved with that for years. And I still try to go to meetings. I think it’s really very important for younger women lawyers to have access to successful older women lawyers who aren’t at their firm, for the kind of mentoring you can only get from someone who doesn’t work with you,” Bransdorfer says.

Kelly Brushaber, Corporate Counsel at Alticor Inc. and current President of the WLAM Western Region, agrees. “We try to gear our events around what’s interesting to all our members,” she says, “and that includes events where both newer and more experienced attorneys attend.

“A few years ago we had an informal mentor-mentee program people signed up for and we paired them up, but we’ve gotten away from that; sometimes when you start having so many goals, you don’t get anything done. But it was a great idea I think we should revisit, because we have some wonderfully experienced, successful, intelligent women as members and it would be great if someone could just call them and tap into their knowledge.”

The Western Region, in addition to the charity softball games, focuses on a series of events that offer networking opportunities and support for women lawyers. Most years there is a theme, set by the executive committee, around which professional development

lunch-and-learn-type opportunities are centered.

One well-attended event is the Bring Your Child to Work Day, held in April. Acknowledging how busy most women attorneys can be, WLAM Western Region emphasizes combining enjoyment with purposeful networking.

It is difficult to get an exact history of the Western Region, but Brushaber points out that the softball game has been played for the last 32 years. “The way I understand it got started was just some women and the judges getting together at a local baseball field, bringing in less than $500, so we’re glad it’s grown,” says Brushaber.

WLAM’s mission, shared by the state and the Western Region, is “to secure the rights of women in society and advance the interested of women members of the legal profession, to promote improvements in the administration of justice, to promote equality and social justice for all people, to improve relations between the legal profession and public, and to encourage the continued legal education of lawyers.”

The state WLAM is a surprisingly old organization. The website says, “We were founded in 1919 by five self-proclaimed ‘ardent Portias of Detroit’” (after the untrained but successful female lawyer in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice). Among its accomplishments, an early one stands out: advocacy for women to be appointed to the bench. With WLAM support, member Lila Neuenfelt, was elected the first female circuit court judge in Michigan, in 1941.

A 1975 reorganization resulted in the current structure of seven regions. Western Region serves Allegan, Barry, Kent, Montcalm, Muskegon, Newaygo, and Ottawa Counties.

Other current officers are Amanda Narvaes, Vice President; Jeannine Bolhouse, Treasurer; Lindsay Canan, Secretary; and Kimberly Large is the Immediate Past President.

At the May annual meeting dinner, new officers will be announced. At the same time, Bransdorfer will receive her award. The dinner  takes place May 11 at 5:30, and will be held at Bistro Bella Vita downtown.

Bransdorfer, who commented, “I was quite honored when I found out” about the Outstanding Member award, has a long history of professional involvement. She is nearing the end of a term representing the 17th Circuit on the State Bar of Michigan (SBM) Representative Assembly, and is on the Council of the SBM Family Law Section. “I also do a lot with the Institute for Continuing Legal Education,” she says, “teach seminars in family law, and I authored a book section on civil procedure.” She serves on ICLE’s Family Law Advisory Board.

Bransdorfer graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota Law School, and received her undergraduate degree from the same university.

Related to her practice specialty, Bransdorfer is also on the board of the Collaborative Practice Institute of Michigan. While she has long been a litigator in the family law area, she is also very interested in collaborative law, and has completed training in that rapidly-expanding approach to resolving domestic disputes. She is also a trained neutral arbitrator and mediator.

She chairs the ADR?Section of the Grand Rapids Bar Association and is currently GRBA?Treasurer. When that term ends, she says she plans to pursue an officer position in the Family Law Section of SBM. “I think that’s my future in terms of bar activities, to increase my participation at the state level,” she says.

As the WLAM Outstanding Member, she joins a number of distinguished attorneys: Susan Keener (2014), Nikole Canute (2013), Ingrid Jensen  (2012), Lisa DeFerrari (2011), Elizabeth Welch Lykins (2010), Judge Sara Smolenski (2009), Jennifer Puplava (2008), Lynn Perry (2007), Judge Janet Neff (2006), Kris VandenBerg (2005), and Ann Cooper (2004).

The award honors contributions to mentoring women and other lawyers, a high level of professional involvement, and legal career success, traits that have resulted in Bransdorfer receiving other recognition as well. She received the Legal Aid of Western Michigan Michael S. Barnes Award in 2009. In 2011, Michigan Lawyers Weekly named Bransdorfer one of its 20 Women in the Law (as reported in the Grand Rapids Legal News  Oct. 28, 2011).

Bransdorfer believes that such mentoring and role modeling have made a difference to women attorneys since she started in 1985, though they still face challenges.
“You never hear anyone say things anymore like ‘Girls shouldn’t be lawyers.’ But the kinds of experiences women face that are different from what I believe are the experiences of men include the whole society expecting women to be nurturing and relationship-building. The skills and characteristics that make you a successful and productive lawyer, when you’re zealous in working for your client, are not the same ones society associates with being a good woman. So I think that leads to women deciding they don’t want to continue to be lawyers unless they get a lot of mentoring and encouragement.”

The Ferrysburg resident spends a lot of her off-work time supporting her children in their pursuits. She says, “My son is an incredibly talented musician who’s in his freshman year at Grand Valley. And I’ve always done what little bit I could to help community kids with musical opportunities when their parents might not have been able to afford it.”