As Tracey Brame takes helm of GRBA, she vows to help lawyers help the indigent



By Cynthia Price
Legal News

A few months before Tracey W. Brame assumed the presidency of the Grand Rapids Bar Association July 1, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed her to the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC), the statewide body that works to make the criminal defense of indigent  people the best it can be.
The appointment was, as Brame herself says, a perfect match. “This is right in my wheelhouse,” she comments. “If you’d asked me 20 years ago if I wanted to be on a commission, I would have said I’d like to be on one just like this.”

That is because Brame, who started at Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School in 2006, had a long career in representing people who face challenges affording legal counsel.

She worked as an attorney for the District of Columbia Public Defender Services, obtaining a position she says is very competitive, after taking her J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. She was then a researcher/writer for the Federal Defender’s office, followed by working at the State Appellate Defender Office as an assistant defender. Immediately prior to becoming a faculty member at WMU-Cooley, and later Grand Rapids campus Assistant Dean, she was a staff attorney for Legal Aid of West Michigan.

In addition to interning with the Federal Defender Office (and with Scott Correctional Facility), Brame served as a law clerk to the Hon. Julian Abele Cook, Jr., U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Under her maiden name, Tracey Weaver, she co-wrote Closing Their Eyes to the Constitution: the Declining Role of the Supreme Court in the Protection of Civil Rights, with Judge Cook in 1996.

Now Brame has succeeded Nelson Miller as the Associate Dean of the Grand Rapids campus of WMU-Cooley. She continues to teach family law, Race and the Supreme Court, and a death penalty seminar, along with running the West Michigan Public Defender Clinic.

She also started the campus’s Access to Justice Clinic.

With a son aged 13 and a 10-year-old daughter, Brame says she is very careful about how much she gets involved with. “When my kids were little, I stepped away from all my activities. I was on everybody’s board,” she says with her characteristic humor, “and I just resigned from all of it. Now I’m starting to get back to some of them, and this is going to be an interesting year for me.”

She has only one meeting of the MIDC under her belt, and it was a very long one – 11:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. “But it was very interesting;  I like it, I like it,” Brame says, smiling. “[Executive Director] Loren [Khogali] is really on top of it. But it’s still fairly new, so policies and procedures are still being set.

“There was a robust discussion at that meeting about whether representation at specialty courts should be included, and what that would look like. So it all takes a lot of time.” The specialty courts decision was not finalized, she says, and will be on a future agenda.

Brame says she feels as if she is “settling in” to the challenges of being the Grand Rapids campus dean, and her role as dean of the Kalamazoo “location” is changing as the WMU campus will accept students later in the year. However, she is still very active in her “mother’s group,” the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and has agreed to the MIDC term that lasts until 2023. All of that is in addition to being the president of the Grand Rapids Bar Association (GRBA), a job she says is made easier by the diligent work of Executive Director Kim Coleman.

Fortunately, though it will not be likely to lighten her workload, there is an immediate connection between the MIDC work and that of the GRBA.

“For my year as president, I would like to focus on training and support of the lawyers representing the indigent. This is just a continuation of what we  [at the GRBA] have been doing, working with the MIDC. But now we’re working on setting up a perpetual schedule. I think it’s really important to make sure from the outset that attorneys for whom this is going to be new work, and even the more seasoned, are well-trained. I would love to really focus on that this year, strengthening it, solidifying it, and establishing the Bar as a training ground.

“And I think it will help get lawyers excited about this work. The DC offices of the public defender is one of the best offices in the country and so many people apply, partly because they’re very serious about the training and nurturing of incoming attorneys.”

In addition, Brame will work on the ongoing process to create an attorney space at the Kent County Courthouse. She says she believes they have found the physical space but there are so many policy questions, so much to talk over and decide.

“We’re trying to get a critical mass together to discuss it. For example, what is the purpose of it ­– if it’s to provide additional space where attorneys can meet with clients, of course, we’re going to have to build in more privacy. But we probably want to hold trainings there too, so it really gets complicated. That’s why this year we want to have a good, deep discussion about it – a focus group, or charrette,” Brame says.

All of this is in addition to increasing the GRBA membership, strengthening the sections, and getting more young attorneys involved. Brame says there are no current plans to update the strategic plan, but “]it] provides the kind of umbrella for plugging in how you’re going to get to your goals, and  your mission.”

The GRBA mission is “to promote justice, professional excellence and respect for the law, foster the dignity and integrity of the profession, provide law-related services to the community, and serve the needs of our members.” The organization has been around since 1902, and one of its original missions, the creation of a law library, was accomplished even earlier, in 1896.

Brame’s predecessor as president was Randy Velzen, a family law attorney at Mika Meyers. At the time he took the helm last July, he said that he wanted to change the way in which officers and board members are selected, and that has been accomplished.

Velzen, who had some painful back problems during his term,  also said he would like to focus on rethinking what the GRBA offers to its members. Progress has been made on that, in particular focusing on the space in the courthouse.

“Randy just did a great job and I didn’t feel like his health prevented him from doing much,” commented Brame. “But so far, I’ve also observed that Kim and the staff make it easy.”