Judge Yates will lead GRBA, help realize long-time plans


Judge Christopher Yates, who assumed the presidency of the Grand Rapids Bar Association on July 1, stands in his chambers at the 17th Circuit Court.


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

It may seem almost impossibly daunting to be the president of a large, active bar association like the one in Grand Rapids and also fulfill all the duties of a judge, but Christopher P. Yates is up to the challenge.

As he points out, he is not the only one who has tried and succeeded. Judge Yates’s colleague at the 17th Circuit Court, the Hon. Paul J. Sullivan, did so in 2005-2006. “I talked to him at length before I put myself up to be in the leadership,” Judge Yates says, “and he assured me that the staff at the Grand Rapids Bar is extraordinarily talented and engaged. They take a lot of the pressure off the presidency.”

In addition to Sullivan, the famed Judge Douglas Hillman served in the 1960s; in 1989-1990 the GRBA was headed by Judge Janet T. Neff, who was also the first female president. The Hon. Janet A. Haynes took the helm in 1996-1997 and Hon Patrick C. Bowler in 2002-2003.

Regardless of the highly capable staff, it is undoubtedly a significant time and energy commitment. But the down-to-earth, easygoing judge takes it all in stride. He has years of experience juggling a busy schedule of outside service to the profession with his  duties as a judge, which he has been  since 2008.

According to Judge Yates, the worst of it is in the name. “I keep imploring people to call me Chris at Bar board meetings,” he says with his characteristic grin. “They just have a lot of difficulty with that.”

His ability to take himself less than seriously — for example, he claims that people in East Grand Rapids, where his wife has long coached the successful We the People high school constitutional law team, just know him as “Janice Yates’s husband”?— should help him finesse the demands of the bar presidency.

Throughout his career, he has had to call on such strengths to excel at the wide variety of professional service positions he has accepted.

He has been on the Michigan Judges Association executive board since 2012, and currently serves as co-chair of its legislative committee; he has chaired the Michigan Foreign Language Board of Review and vice-chaired the Limited English Proficiency Steering Committee. He is also a faculty member on the National Judicial College, on the executive board of the American College of Business Court Judges, and the Business Court Representative to the American Bar Association Business Law Section.
Judge Yates serves as a council member for the State Bar of Michigan (SBM) Business Law Section, was?President of the American Inns of Court Grand Rapids Chapter, and before his terms on the bench, as a member of the SBM Representative Assembly.

All those were in addition to lecturing for the Institute of Continuing Legal Education and teaching as an Adjunct Professor for Thomas M. Cooley Law School (now WMU-Cooley), Michigan State University Law School, and Davenport University.?He has published in a wide variety of books, reviews and magazines, starting when he was at the University of Illinois Law School in 1986.

It was in part his Masters in Business Administration from University of Illinois (he was the valedictorian of his class), as well as his B.A. from Kalamazoo College and his internship for Judge Ralph B. Guy of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Appeals Court that qualified him to be named the judge for the Specialized Business Docket. When Chief Judge Donald Johnston arranged for the Kent County Circuit Court to be the second in the state to have such a docket in order to expedite complex business cases, he assigned the task to Judge Yates without hesitation.

Before his appointment to the 17th Circuit, Yates was part of the firm of Yates, LaGrand and Denenfeld. He currently serves with Judge Paul Denenfeld, appointed in 2009, and David LaGrand has gone on to be the State Representative for the 75th District.

“Yeah, that’s kind of a funny story. When I was a young lawyer I was seeking clerkships and occasionally I’d run across a judge with a bio that included firms where every partner became a judge. I’d wonder how a firm like that gets started,” Judge Yates says.

One way in which the Grand Rapids firm got started stemmed from the earlier position Yates held as Chief Defender in the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Western District of Michigan. After his appointment, he asked Judge Denenfeld to join him and Denenfeld became the senior litigator in the office. “I spent a lot of time convincing him to move here and be the number two in the defender’s office.
He was the best lawyer for the job,” Judge Yates says.

So the two reunited after Yates left the Defender’s Office and after he spent about two and a half years at Willey, Chamberlain and Yates.

Havimg worked prior to the public defender job as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District and in the Office of Legal Counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington D.C., Yares started out as a clerk for Chief Judge James P. Churchill of the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Michigan.

As far as the GRBA, Judge Yates says that so far he is really enjoying getting to know his fellow bar officers and trustees. He feels well-prepared due to the vice-president to president-elect to president succession.

He adds, grinning again, that he is very grateful his successor, Patrick Geary of Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge, presided over the completion of the GRBA strategic plan.

Working from that plan, Judge Yates says he intends to focus on three priorities in the upcoming year.

“The first is to enhance our outreach to newer members of the bar. The vitality of any bar requires of consistent infusion of new members with new talent. To make sure that happens, I’m going to spend a lot time interacting with the Young Lawyers Section and new members of the bar.”

He adds that he is willing to speak anytime his schedule allows, regardless of the size of the group.

The second priority is to establish an “attorney lounge” at the downtown courthouse, which many have wanted for a while. Judge Yates hopes that his presence as a member of the court will facilitate the logistics of the process.

Finally, Judge Yates says he will put energy toward is a “truly comprehensive” bench bar program. “I envision an entire day with family matters in the morning and criminal/civil in the afternoon, or maybe switched, but devoting real time to strengthen the communications between the bench and the bar,” he says. “I don’t want to be too ambitious, so I’m just thinking of having it here at the courthouse, if that can be arranged.”

But, he adds, “The other area where I think we’d like to make some improvements is in reaching out
to communities outside of the central city area. I recognize that the vast majority of our events seem to happen downtown, but I want people to understand that we’re willing to go to them, too.”