Trusted court adviser to leave her state post


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

As a former member of the fourth estate, Marcia McBrien has long held an appreciation for those who deal with deadlines for a living, particularly in her role as Public Information Officer for the Michigan Supreme Court over the past 12 years.

In many respects, she has served as the principal voice for the seven-member court and, at times, its first line of defense when controversy has occasionally swirled around the august judicial body.
In the words of her former boss, Carl Gromek, retired chief of staff for the state Supreme Court, “She is the total package.”

Says Gromek of McBrien: “With her intelligence, legal background, writing ability, and good sense, Marcia was able to simplify and explain legal issues and decisions to any audience. She was a trusted adviser to the judiciary when it came to questions and challenges regarding its actions.”

But starting Friday, Feb. 21, McBrien began charting an as yet undetermined career course, retiring from the communications post that she has so deftly handled since August 2001.

McBrien, a former litigator with Miller Canfield in Detroit, announced her plans to depart February 5 in typical low-key fashion, tacking on a brief paragraph at the end of an e-mail containing a news release she distributed to members of the print and broadcast media. In short, she said, “After a very happy 12 years with the Court, I am moving on. While I’ve loved working with my colleagues here and with all of you, I am confident that my decision is the right one. This was not an easy decision; I’ve gotten to know many of you personally, probably the most rewarding part of this job. Please know how much I’ve valued and enjoyed working with you.”

When asked to elaborate, McBrien said she intends to take some time off to plan her next career move, although she ruled out a return to private law practice. Gromek, among others, believes she will have her choice of plum jobs when she elects to pursue them.

“Marcia is respected and trusted by all who have worked with her and will be missed both personally and professionally,” said Gromek, who also served as State Court Administrator for the more than 240 trial courts in Michigan before retiring several years ago. “I’m just glad that I retired before she left.”

Maura Corrigan, director of the Michigan Department of Human Services, was chief justice of the Supreme Court when McBrien was hired in 2001 and remembers well how she handled an early challenge.

“Just a few weeks after she was hired, 9/11 happened,” recalled Corrigan, who served on the Supreme Court from 1998 to 2011. “It truly was a baptism by fire for Marcia during that horrible episode in our country’s history. She was a trouper from the beginning, and proved herself to be one of the most talented journalists and attorneys I’ve ever known. She is incredibly bright, and can draw on her knowledge of literature and poetry to make a point like few others can. It really was my good fortune to know and work with someone who has that kind of skillset and that kind of temperament.”

A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, McBrien earned her bachelor’s degree in English and planned to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan after two years of graduate school at her alma mater in South Bend.

“My intention was to get into a tenure track program by obtaining a Ph.D. at U-M,” said McBrien, whose parents, Florence and Richard, were both educators. “But then my mother suggested that I consider attending law school instead, so I shifted my sights elsewhere.”

And in a hurry, as the next Law School Admission Test (LSAT) was just four days away, leaving McBrien little time to prepare for the challenging half-day examination. Not surprisingly, McBrien did well on the LSAT, earning admission to U-M Law School, almost coinciding with word that she had been accepted into the doctoral program at U-M.

“In all honesty, I’d almost forgotten that I had applied for the Ph.D. program,” McBrien said with a chuckle. “By that time, I was completely focused on getting into law school at U-M.”

Once enrolled, McBrien found that her law studies “demanded discipline and precision,” forcing her to engage a “part of my brain that I had not used before.” In retrospect, she might have Lee Bollinger to partially thank for that. The former president of the U-M, now head of Columbia University, was her professor for contracts. Bollinger also taught constitutional law and later would become dean of the U-M Law School, and is a prominent authority on First Amendment issues that he has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“He was an amazing professor and obviously has a brilliant legal mind,” McBrien said. “It was a privilege to be in his class.”

McBrien also credits U-M law professor Christina Whitman with playing “an enormous role” in her legal education.  Whitman’s gentle yet intellectually rigorous style “forced me to use brain cells I didn’t know I had” in constitutional law and other courses.

“She made me a better writer. We would be going over a paper I had written, and she would challenge me to be clearer, to focus more acutely, to pare away whatever was unneeded. I am greatly in her debt.”

Upon graduation from law school in 1987, McBrien went to work for Miller Canfield in its litigation department. Her first jury trial was in front of U.S. District Judge Robert DeMascio, a former assistant U.S. Attorney who had a no-nonsense reputation.

“I lost 7 pounds the week before the trial because I was so nervous,” McBrien said of the case that involved a dispute between a major hotel chain and a contractor at Metro Airport. “I was scared out of my mind as I began my opening statement to the jury, but after that my nerves settled and I gained confidence as the trial proceeded.”

Afterward, McBrien received high marks from Judge DeMascio for her handling of the case, which resulted in the jury awarding the plaintiff a fraction of what he was seeking in damages from the hotelier.

In fact, a polling of the jury revealed that the decision to award any damages at all was motivated partially by a desire to end deliberations early so that jurors could avoid opening day traffic from the Tigers game.

McBrien spent much of the next few years working on a slew of asbestos cases involving Miller Canfield client Owens-Illinois.

“Believe me when I say that after you’ve taken one of those depositions, you’ve heard them all,” she said with a smile. “I was ready to do something different and submitted a resume to work for Michigan Lawyers Weekly.”

Some six months later she received a call from the new editor of the legal publication, inviting her to come to work for the weekly publication based in Lansing.

“I absolutely loved working there, enjoying the opportunity to write on a variety of interesting legal topics and people,” McBrien said of her six-year stay with the paper. “There were a lot of late nights, but I really enjoyed the challenge of writing stories under deadline pressure.”

In late 1997, she was encouraged by Thomas Kienbaum, a past president of the State Bar, to consider an opening with Marx Layne & Company, a marketing and public relations firm based in Metro Detroit. She began her duties there in early 1998, working on an assortment of accounts that helped McBrien “broaden my professional horizons.”

Aside from the joy of churning out press releases and creating promotional campaigns for clients, McBrien also was involved in a story that The Detroit News ran about “Take Your Dog to Work Day” at Marx Layne. It was done with the best of intentions, she recalled, although one of the canines decided to make the occasion especially memorable for the agency, using a stack of freshly bundled four-color brochures in the office as a “makeshift fire hydrant,” according to McBrien.

“Things seemed to go downhill from there,” she said with a grin. “Fortunately, the News reporter and photographer had already left, and the agency did get a nice story out of it.”

Her work with the state Supreme Court has tested all of her legal, communication, and diplomatic skills, as she has neatly navigated her way through occasional political minefields, most recently the short sale debacle that forced the ouster and imprisonment of Justice Diane Hathaway. She has worked for four chief justices – Maura Corrigan, Clifford Taylor, Marilyn Kelly, and Robert Young – and holds all of them in high regard for their legal intellect and commitment to the public good.

“I have truly been privileged to work with justices and court officials who are sharp and intellectually gifted,” McBrien said. “Better yet, they have clearly demonstrated their dedication to public service through their years of outstanding work. The past 12 years have been the most exhilarating part of my career, largely because of them. For that, I will always be grateful.”