Two giants in the Grand Rapids legal community share accolades, admiration



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

“Ann is my guiding light here, and I think it’s mutual,” said Kris Vanden Berg, speaking of attorney and friend Ann Cooper.

“Oh yes,” Cooper replied. “When I have to figure something out, I call Kris first.”

Both women are impressive lawyers – towering figures in the Grand Rapids legal community – but due to their particular personalities, there is a warm, down-to-earth quality to their mutual admiration.

About Cooper’s participation as a sort of supervisor of the Grand Rapids Bar Association 3Rs program teaching civics in the schools, for example, Vanden Berg says, “I just come in and do my thing, but Ann’s there all day. She’s really been a trouper.” And that is coming from someone very much involved with the 3Rs.

And Cooper, for her part, insists that it is really Vanden Berg who should be the focus of this article, because “Kris does so much.”

Perhaps that is why each was privileged to introduce the other when a couple of prestigious awards were given out recently.

In late 2018, Cooper received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Justice Foundation of West Michigan, and Vanden Berg shared the introduction with Steven Drew, Cooper’s long-time legal partner.

As Vanden Berg, with characteristic humor, said at the time, “This award is quite possibly the only award remaining that Ann has not already won.”

Cooper has given an incredible amount to the community, both the Grand Rapids community and the legal community, local and statewide. She was a member of the Michigan Supreme Court Task Force on Gender Issues in the Courts, the State Bar's Open Justice Commission, and the Equal Access Initiative of the State Bar. She was also chosen to be on the Sixth Circuit Judicial Merit Selection Panel in 1998.

An employment lawyer who also does police misconduct cases, Cooper attended Michigan State University for her undergraduate work, Bryn Mawr College for an MA., and the University of Michigan Law School. She has also been a Fulbright Scholar in France.

Before she became a lawyer, Cooper had a consulting firm which offered services in addressing issues of racism, sexism, and organizational development. Her first job out of law school was at  Williams, Klukowski, Drew & Fotieo.

She, Stephen Drew, and John Anding then founded the firm that bore all three of their names. Now, after Cooper took Of Counsel status in 2009, the well-known firm has six attorneys. (Both Drew and Anding continue to practice.)

There is not space to list all Cooper has contributed, but key involvements have been the ACLU, the YWCA, the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan (both state and Western Michigan chapter), the Urban League, the NAACP, Fountain Street Church, and of course the Grand Rapids Bar Association (GRBA).

Cooper chaired the State Bar Board of Commissioner’s Jury Curriculum Project, developing the curriculum and took it to high schools. This stood her in good stead for her participation in the 3Rs, a passion she shares with Vanden Berg.

And the awards Vanden Berg mentioned? Cooper is a Michigan State University Distinguished Alumnus, won the WMU-Cooley Law School Marion Hilligan Public Service Award, the prestigious Champion of Justice award from the State Bar of Michigan (SBM), the Grand Rapids Community Relations Commission Helen Claytor Civil Rights Award, the WLAM Outstanding Member Award, and numerous accolades from the GRBA. These include the Young Lawyers Award, the President’s Award, and, in 2007, the Donald R. Worsfold Distinguished Service Award.

It is fitting, then, that when Kris Vanden Berg won the Worsfold Award in May, it was Cooper who sang her praises in front of the GRBA.

Vanden Berg’s nomination states, “Her enormous personal commitment to equal justice for every individual, inspiring her significant contributions to the Grand Rapids Bar Association, the legal profession and the community at large, has engendered high respect from her colleagues.”

This ranges from her job, where she does initial screenings on prisoner civil rights and habeas corpus cases for the U.S. Western District Court, to her broad involvement with diversity and inclusion efforts.

Vanden Berg, who grew up in Portland, Ore., went to the University of Michigan for both her undergraduate and J.D. degrees. She clerked for a judge at the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Maine, moved here in 1992, was an attorney at Rhoades McKee, and then clerked for the well-known Judge Douglas Hillman.

It was when Rhoades McKee’s Bruce Neckers was president of the SBM that Vanden Berg was asked to serve as his representative on the 2002 Task Force on Indigent Defense. She remains passionate about indigent defense and is heartened by the recent work of the MIDC, which is in part an outcome of the 2002 task force.

She has also served on the board of WLAM and the YWCA of West Central Michigan, and on the steering committee of the Grand Rapids Prostitution Roundtable. She has also been a long-time attorney coach for the “We the People” program, and recently wrapped up a term on the  State Bar of Michigan Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and has also been an attorney coach for the “We the People” program.

As far as the GRBA, Vanden Berg has served in any number of capacities, including on the Diversity and Inclusion Committee there as well. She won the President’s Award in 2005, many years before her high-profile work as president herself (2013-2014).

“I feel like I’m being incredibly lazy these days,” she says with a grin about the end of her officer terms. “Even though [Executive Director] Kim Coleman does so much, you still are intensely busy. I feel like I never talk to Kim anymore; it used to be multiple times a day. I’m still involved in things I care about, like the 3Rs, but it’s nothing like before. I feel like I’m kind of getting off easy at this point.”

And as with Ann Cooper, it is clear the community has not heard the last of Kris Vanden Berg.